- The Chinese Communist Party marked its 100th anniversary on 1 July; propaganda authorities are using the event to boost the party’s legitimacy.
- The anniversary celebrations feature familiar messages about the party’s achievements but also highlight howthe party is actively searching for new sources of legitimacy as economic growth slows.
- The celebrations also aim to offer a contrast with 4 July Independence Day celebrations in the US, with an emphasis on orderly governance in China compared to chaos in the West.
Political anniversaries in China are important events: how propaganda organs choose to depict historical episodes often reflects present-day political priorities, while the respective roles that various current and former leaders play in highly choreographed ceremonies can offer clues about their respective stature. The propaganda campaign surrounding the latest anniversary is designed to boost the party’s legitimacy by extolling the party’s past achievements while outlining an optimistic vision of China’s future under the party’s leadership.
A three-hour curtain-raiser at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing – also the venue for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – portrayed historical events including the anti-Japanese war and the “reform and opening” campaign of economic liberalization. Another segment celebrated President Xi Jinping’s leadership as the “core” of the party, repeating an honorific title first bestowed in 2016, in what eas an early sign that Xi’s stature had surpassed that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin were absent from the event, but the absences were likely due to both retired leaders’ age and poor health, rather than a sign that they are out of favor.
Honoring common people
Days earlier, at a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi awarded “1 July Medals” to 29 party cadres dubbed “ordinary heroes” for their frontline contributions to key political projects. In an apparent effort to highlight the party’s enduring connection to common people in an age of rising social inequality, the ceremony declined to honor senior party leaders, top military officers, or business leaders. The honorees included a veteran of the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s, a maritime militiaman who defended “Chinese territory” in the South China Sea, a soldier who died in last June’s border clash with India, and several Korean war veterans. Striking a similar theme, People’s Daily , the party’s official mouthpiece, lauded Xi’s affection for common people in a 28 June article.
The view from outside mainland China
In Hong Kong, the atmosphere was different. 1 July will also mark the 24th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty and the first anniversary of the National Security Law. Police banned traditional anti-government demonstrations, ostensibly due to pandemic concerns. They also warned people not to participate in illegal gatherings or violate the National Security Law. Police plan to deploy 10,000 officers across the city and, if necessary, to lock down Victoria Park, where protestors traditionally gather.
Given US-China geopolitical and ideological competition, propaganda officials probably also intend the celebrations to mark an implicit contrast with 4 July Independence Day celebrations. Americans will be celebrating the end of the pandemic, while US President Joe Biden has declared that “America is back.” Where the US celebrations typically emphasize freedom, China will emphasize orderly governance in China compared to chaos in the West.
New sources of legitimacy
The celebrations are certain to feature familiar legitimacy-boosting themes: China’s history as a victim of Western imperialism and the party’s role in restoring national dignity; the economic prosperity that “reform and opening” unleashed; and the government’s effective response to Covid-19. But as China’s economic growth slows and the pandemic fades, the party is actively searching for new sources of legitimacy.
Ideological slogans like “the Chinese Dream” and “the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People” are no longer new but remain somewhat ill-defined. Both slogans certainly include reunification with Taiwan but are far broader, including objectives such as continued economic growth that raises China’s per-capita income to the level of high- income countries; rising international influence in both geopolitics and culture; self-reliance in foundational technologies like semiconductors and aviation; environmental protection; and improvements in social equality.