Chinese Communist Party Overview

Today, the Chinese Communist Party is the world’s second largest political organisation with a membership of over 90 million. As the only political party in China, it has consistently held power since Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. At present, the CCP governs a nation state of well over 1 billion people. In many ways, the party emerged out of populist discontent following the May Fourth Movement and the dashed hopes of the Xinhai Revolution, after which the country descended into political chaos amidst competing warlord factions. Indeed, on May 4th, 1919, masses of people took to the streets, protesting against the German Concession in Shandong being handed over to Japan instead of its anticipated return to Chinese sovereignty following Germany’s defeat in the First World War.

The founding of the CCP hinged upon Chinese intellectuals and their reception of Marxism and Leninism through the emergence of study groups.  These ideologies were promoted by a magazine called New Youth headed by Chen Duxiu who became the first CCP secretary when it was founded in 1921. Chen had been imprisoned by authorities for inciting students to protest on May Fourth. This publication was run out of Shanghai’s French Concession. As Hans Van Der Ven (1991:59) notes:

‘In the Early decades of the twentieth century, the French and International concessions of Shanghai provided a safe haven for Chinese intellectuals who had run into trouble with the authorities. A host of publishing houses in Shanghai could be found making money out of producing translations of western books and publishing progressive and conservative periodicals. At some point in the spring of 1920 - the exact date is impossible to determine - intellectuals in the city began to meet to discuss Marxist theory.’

The First Congress of the CCP began on July 23rd, 1921 and took place within the walls of Shanghai’s French Concession. It was attended by representatives of various Xommunist cells around the country with a Russian Comintern representative present. The party had only 57 members at the time. On the 6th day of the congress, the meeting was raided by French concession police and the rest of the congress was held on a rented tourist boat anchored in Jiaxiang’s south lake (Source 1), a testament to the precarious circumstances in which the early party operated. The meeting ended with Chen elected as leader and the party formally established. Although Mao Zedong attended the first congress, he left without being elected to any position of power.

Source 1 : Boat of the First CCP Congress in 1921

Source 1 : Boat of the First CCP Congress in 1921

Due to its fledgling nature, Russian advisers to the CCP recommended an alliance with the Nationalist party led by Sun Yat-sen and had even approached Sun before the Communist Party was officially formed, hoping to protect Soviet interests in China amidst the chaos of warlordism. On a domestic level, both parties agreed to unite in order to end warlordism. Elleman (1995:450-451) comments: ‘with the Comintern’s backing in 1921, Chen Duxiu published an article in Guangzhou advocating that the GMD establish closer ties with Moscow half a year before the CCP’s founding congress in 1921’. As such, the CCP appeared to defer to Russian advisers on policymaking during its formative years. From 1922, CCP members would join the Nationalist Party as individuals despite rising opposition to this Russian-led venture. Tensions mounted after Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925 when Chiang Kai-shek became the Nationalist Party leader. In 1926, he purged Chinese Communists and Soviets from the Whampoa military academy, an institution the latter helped to fund. Indeed, as Chen (1978: 221) notes ‘The failure of the first united front was to a large measure due to the absence of an independent communist armed force.’ That said, the Communist Party had already begun to harness the power of the masses, particularly via supporting worker’s militias in Shanghai (Source 2). Revolutionary workers were in control of parts of the city by March 1927. Fearing the left-wing of the GMD may oust him, Chiang collaborated with the Shanghai mafia and foreign concessions to brutally massacre Communists in the city with a death toll of circa 10,000. This purge ended the First United Front between the CCP and GMD. Chen Duxiu, having been a steadfast promoter of cooperation with the GMD, lost his leadership role.

Source 2: John Montgomery  (1927) Workers Militia Marching in Shanghai (Photograph)

Source 2: John Montgomery (1927) Workers Militia Marching in Shanghai (Photograph)

The Communists' attempt at a Marxist form of revolution, harnessing the power of the urban proletariat, had failed resoundingly due to the power dynamics of semi-colonial Shanghai.  Moreover, the GMD now controlled the largest city in China meaning the Communists had to dramatically transform their strategy. Out of necessity, the CCP retreated inland to rural areas and it was here that Mao Zedong stepped into the limelight, co-founding the Jiangxi Soviet with Zhu De, an army general who joined the party in Germany. Between 1929 and 1932, Zhu built up the Red Army from 5000 troops to over 200,000 troops. The Jiangxi Soviet was a self-contained state with Mao as its leader, supporting its own banking system, army, currency and constitution (Source 3). The ‘Preface to the Fundamental Laws of the Chinese Soviet Republic’ notes the size of the area occupied by the Communists, stating: ‘The area of France is equal to only 88.6 per cent of the territory of Soviet China.’ Certain fundamental policies which were formally enacted nationally after the founding of the People’s Republic of China were also enforced in Jiangxi, notably, Land Reform. Interestingly, more progressive policies such as a ‘labour code’ fixing the maximum working day for adults at 8 hours was implemented, something that would later be undone by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The document also notes that ‘the bourgeoise must bear the burden of all taxation’ with workers being exempt.  

The Communist army defended the Jiangxi Soviet against repeated encirclement attempts by Nationalist forces. However, in 1934 it was decided that the current situation was untenable, and the party decamped to the north. Earlier that year, Mao had been stripped of his leadership and his guerrilla warfare strategies abandonned in favour of conventional tactics espoused by German comintern agent Otto Braun. This move had caused substantial losses in encirclement campaigns. The ‘Long March’ north began by trekking through Hunan and Guizhou provinces (Source 4) with a continuation of Braun’s strategies in Jiangxi. According to Lai (2019:30), following a strategy meeting convened in December 1934, ‘in the ensuing two months it had lost a further 50,000 men, reducing the size of the Red Army from 86,000 to barely 30,000.’ The army marched on to a town called Zunyi in western Guizhou where a monumental meeting was held. Lai (2019:31) explains: ‘According to Mao, the Red Army was in no position to fight a traditional pitched battle with the much stronger Nationalist Army. The only way forward was to conduct hit-and-run guerrilla warfare until such a time the Red Army could be rebuilt from a safe haven.’  As leader, Mao now had a bounty on his head of $100,000 dead or $80,000 alive. The Communists went on to fight many heroic battles such as the crossing of Luding Bridge where they were ambushed and outnumbered by Nationalist soliders. Many suffered unspeakable conditions such as crossing mountain ranges barefoot in the winter.  Indeed, the Communists arrived in Shaanxi province a severely depleted force. Whilst this did not constitute a military victory by any means, the Communists were not defeated and the isolated towns of Bao’an and Yan’an were spaces in which the party had time to regroup. This was further aided by mounting tensions with Japan. Under this pretext, the party sought a ceasefire with the Nationalists to focus on a common enemy, something that Chiang Kai-shek would be forced to acquiesce to after the Xi’an incident.

Source 4: Map of the Long March

Source 4: Map of the Long March

The first place the Communists settled in Shaanxi was the town of Bao’an which became the Communist party headquarters from July 1936 to January 1937. Mao Zedong lived in a rudimentary cave dwelling (Source 5) and was interviewed here by Edgar Snow, an American journalist inspired by Communist bravery during the Long March. Snow describes Mao’s dwelling as somewhat basic. He notes (1944:75) ‘Mao lived with his wife in a two-roomed yao-fang with bare, poor, map-covered walls (…) After ten years of leadership of the Reds, after hundreds of confiscations of property of landlords, officials and tax-collectors, he owned only his blankets, and a few personal belongings, including two cotton uniforms’. Snow certainly supported the image of Mao as a man of the people.  In 1937, the Communist capital moved from Bao’an to Yan’an. Here, Mao cemented his leadership of the CCP through a ‘rectification campaign.’ Mao still endured competing factions in the party that he felt were a threat to his leadership. Chief amongst these were a group known as the ’28 Bolsheviks.’ These were CCP cadres who had studied abroad at Moscow’s Sun Yat-sen university, founded as a result of the First United Front between the CCP and GMD. These students tended to be highly supportive of a Soviet-style revolution that focussed on the urban proletariat, the polar opposite to Mao’s ideal of a peasant revolution. The other group Mao targeted were those labelled as ‘empiricists’, including Zhou Enlai who later became second in command to Mao and foreign minister after the People’s Republic was founded. Barnouin and Yu (2006:94) note that Zhou was accused by Mao as someone ‘versed in practical work … but who belittled the study of Marxism-Leninism.’  These two groupings were forced into self-criticism sessions. They were also asked to point out what elements of the party as an organisation could be improved. Those who engaged in critique had to attend struggle meetings and public confessions. They also had to undertake an in-depth study of Mao’s own writings. Many of those who did not comply or who were not sufficiently vindicated, died. The rectification movement ensured the primacy of Mao Zedong thought, Marxist-Leninist principles adapted to the rural make-up of China. Due to Zhou Enlai’s adamant and repeated self-criticism, he survived the purge, but it is estimated that around 10,000 people died during the rectification campaign

Source 5: Evelyn Thomas (1936) Mao’s former cave home in Bao’an (Photograph)

Source 5: Evelyn Thomas (1936) Mao’s former cave home in Bao’an (Photograph)

By the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Mao was the undisputed and unchallenged leader of the CCP, which now ruled an area of over 100 million people and boasted an army of 1 million men. Despite initial peace talks with Chiang and the Nationalists, the CCP were preparing for war. The Nationalists enjoyed some early victories but made many strategic errors, such as invading Manchuria where the Communists had many strongholds.  Further to this, Communist troops treated the civilian population with more decorum, paying for their food and board, gradually winning the hearts and minds of the people. Li (2015:102-3) particularly notes the importance of this in rural areas stating: ‘The outbreak of the Civil War between the CCP and the GMD in 1946 facilitated a rapid transition from the previous integrative mobilization that emphasized national identity and social solidarity to an agitative mobilization that highlighted class confrontation. “Class” once again became a main focus of the CCP’s rural mobilization.’ Indeed, land reform was once more pursued, which was a factor in winning over the peasantry, many of whom had suffered under landlords. The decisive battle of the Civil War was the Huaihai campaign of 1948 (Source 6) where the Communists defeated over half a million Nationalist Party troops. Nationalist Party morale was low and had been easily infiltrated as Woo (2014:103) notes: ‘On the 8th of November, three fourths of the Nationalist Army defending the river line held an uprising under the instructions of the Communist Party members who were lurking within the army. Therefore, the Liberation Army cut through the line easily’. In this sense, the Civil War was as much of a psychological battle between the CCP and GMD as it was a military one. The CCP won resoundingly on both accounts. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and on the 1st October 1949 Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Source 6 Anon (1948) Civil War Huaihai campaign  (Photograph)

Source 6 Anon (1948) Civil War Huaihai campaign (Photograph)

The CCP was transformed from an opposition party to a party in power. The basis of this was a document known as the Common Program, published in September 1949. It formed an interim constitution between 1949-1954 that outlined both the theoretical ideals of the nation as well as their practical implementation (Source 7). The document consists of a preamble and 60 articles.

The CCP enforced the principle of ‘democratic centralism.’ This principle forms Article 15 of the common program which states: ‘the minority shall abide by the decisions of the majority; the appointment of the People's Governments of each level shall be ratified by the People's Government of the higher level; the People's Governments of the lower levels shall obey the People's Governments of the higher levels and all local People's Governments throughout the country shall obey the Central People's Government.’ As such a strict hierarchy was enforced. Whilst democratic centralism allowed for the critique of a policy whilst it was in the stages of deliberation, no such critique was allowed after a majority decision had been taken. Notwithstanding, many party cadres would have been loathe to critique Mao’s ideas after the 1942 Yan’an rectification campaign, during which they were forced into self-criticism. Clearly, democratic centralism constituted a highly restricted form of democracy compared to the western notion of a liberal democracy.

Article 27 concerns Land Reform stating:  ‘Agrarian reform is the necessary condition for the development of the nation's productive power and for its industrialization. In all areas where agrarian reform has been carried out, the ownership of the land acquired by the peasants shall be protected.’ Initially, Land Reform gave poor peasants ownership of their own plot to till. Article 27 also shows that the CCP had already planned for peasants to fuel industrialisation by providing food to the cities before the first five-year plan was enforced in 1953. This would become a disastrous policy that would engender famine in 1959. Article 38 also demonstrates that the collectivisation of agriculture had also be planned from the outset of the PRC’s founding as it mentions cooperatives which came to fruition in 1953. It states: ‘The broad masses of working people shall be encouraged and assisted to develop co-operatives according to the principle of willingness.’ Indeed, cooperatives were initially optional ventures but over the decade the masses would be forced into communes where private life was restricted, private ownership abolished and farmers could no longer keep the fruits of their labour, forcibly selling grain to the government.

The CCP’s common programme was practically realised through mass campaigns, some of which were more successful than others. The first wave of mass campaigns were, in effect, purges. First of all, the campaign of the suppression of counterrevolutionaries was intended to root out any elements still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. Spence states that ‘In the port city of Tianjin during the Spring of 1950 there were 492 executions.’ Following this, the focus changed towards capitalists and those in positions of power. The aim of the three anti’s campaign was to curb corruption, waste and bureaucracy. It was initiated in the form of a ‘trial run’ under the party leader there Gao Gang but spread to the rest of China by the end of 1951. Government officials and private enterprises were investigated. According to Spence (1991: 536) the campaign led to ‘the humiliation and expulsion of many senior figures – some of whom had indeed, according to what seems solid evidence, benefitted financially from privileged positions.’ The CCP encouraged workers to turn on their bosses and set up state-led organisations which cemented Communist control of the labour market.

Another mass campaign called the ‘five-antis’ took place at the same time. The ‘five antis’ were ‘bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property, cheating on government contracts and stealing state economic information.’ In effect, the five antis were a class-based assault on the bourgeoise, as only those with a certain status would be in a position to commit these crimes. Employees were encouraged to look into the business affairs of their bosses to find evidence of wrongdoing. Spence notes that in Shanghai there were even (1991:537)’15,000 trained propagandists’ whose goal was to disunite workers whose relationships cut across social class. Instead of violent punishments, many of the indicted individuals and businesses were forced to pay fines that would help fund the ongoing Korean War.

In stark contrast to a string of purges, the other notable focus of mass campaigns concerned the education of the peasantry and the proletariat, a very different method of shoring up the CCP’s loyalty from its citizenry. The aim of the Combat Illiteracy Campaign (1950-56) was twofold, to instill literacy of both the written word and of revolution. The texts peasants were given to read were all prescribed by the party which would of course impact upon an individual’s thinking at a vulnerable stage of their learning journey. Notwithstanding, the policy of universal primary education was gradually implemented and reached all but the remotest of rural areas.

The CCP’s Common Program perhaps foreshadowed the CCP’s disastrous Great Leap Forward (GLF). Li and Yang (2005: 841) note, ‘In China, the world’s most populous country that was barely self-sufficient in food supply, the unthinkable happened: National grain output plunged by 15 percent in 1959 and by another 16 percent in the following two years. The government, which ran a closed economy, neither requested nor accepted international assistance. Famine soon raged across China.’ Mao was under the illusion that the collectivisation of agriculture would propel China into an industrialised economy that could soon surpass that of the United Kingdom and United States. This was something sardonically parodied by US cartoonists (Source 8). Li and Yang (2005: 841) state ‘demographers who extrapolated mortality trends in China estimated the total number of premature deaths during the GLF famine at between 16.5 and 30 million. Even by the most conservative estimate, this famine ranked the worst in the loss of human lives in recorded world history.’  Mao did take a step back and offer his resignation but blamed the famine on rightists who were sent to punitive labour camps. Mao also purged ministers who expressed reservations about the GLF such as Peng Dehuai who had ably commanded the volunteer army during the Korean War. Whilst Mao remained loyal to the Soviet Union during the Korean War, after Stalin’s death a void began to emerge between Mao and Russia’s new leader Khrushchev, who proposed a thawing of relations with the US.

Source 8: Anon (1961) American Cartoon on the Great Leap Forward

Source 8: Anon (1961) American Cartoon on the Great Leap Forward

In order to recover from the devasting GLF and reassert Maoism as the CCP’s guiding ideology, another mass campaign was launched: The Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao himself under the premise that bourgeois elements had infiltrated the party and socialism needed to be invigorated. The Cultural Revolution was named as such since it extended to all elements of everyday life from the clothes people wore, what books people read, to what religion they practiced. Many temples and ancient monuments were destroyed. In order to enact the revolution, Mao particularly appealed to young students, known as Red Guards who would violently suppress any criticism or threat to Mao or his thought. Mao created a cult of personality which was epitomised by the publication of his ‘Little Red Book’ (Source 9) consisting of quotations by the Chairman. Study groups to interpret the book were organised in a similar manner to many religious organisations. It became an unwritten rule for all Chinese to carry a copy to demonstrate their loyalty to the chairman. The Cultural Revolution continued until Mao’s death in 1976, after which China would gradually open up to a free market economy, albeit tempered by strict political controls, under Deng Xiaoping.

Source 9: Anon. Making Little Red Books during the Cultural Revolution

Source 9: Anon. Making Little Red Books during the Cultural Revolution

In short, the Communist Party began as a small group of curious intellectuals, sympathetic to the idea of Marxism who lamented the current political turbulence in their country under warlordism. Ironically, it was the horrific Shanghai massacre, perpetuated by Chiang Kai-shek that prompted the rise of Mao Zedong and the goal of a peasant-orientated revolution which began to take shape in the Jiangxi Soviet. The brutal Long March helped consolidate Mao’s rule due to his successful military strategy of guerrilla warfare. In Yan’an, Mao Zedong Thought became the guiding ideology of the CCP and those who questioned it were purged. The Maoist ideology of class struggle and policies of land reform helped gain the support of a predominantly rural population who had suffered under the yoke of the landlords, proving a significant factor in winning the civil war. Once in power though, the CCP went much further than they did in Yan’an, supressing private ownership and forcing peasants into cooperatives to feed the urban population. Such policies combined with overexaggerating yields lead to a devastating famine instead of a Great Leap Forward into industrialisation. In order to revive Maoism, the Cultural Revolution took the rectification movement of Yan’an to another level, purging anyone who disagreed with the direction the party was taking. Whilst the CCP won the hearts and minds of the population during the Second Sino-Japanese and Civil Wars, their relentless pursuit of industrialisation during the Great Leap Forward and ideological dominance during the Cultural Revolution left behind a fractured, untrustworthy party and an impoverished nation, something which could only be repaired by re-engaging with the rest of the world and opening out into a free market economy.


Barnouin, Barbara. Yu, Changgen. (2006) Zhou Enlai : A Political Life Hong Kong: Chinese University Press

Elleman, B. A.  (1995) ‘Soviet Diplomacy and the First United Front in China’ Modern China Vol.21 no.4 p. 450-480.

Lai, Benjamin. Hook, Adam. (2019) The Long March 1934-35 : The Rise of Mao and the Beginning of Modern China. [online] Osprey Publishing

Li, L. (2015) 'Rural Mobilization in the Chinese Communist Revolution: From the Anti-Japanese War to the Chinese Civil War'. Journal of Modern Chinese History 9 (1), 95-116

Li, W. and Yang, D. (2005) 'The Great Leap Forward: Anatomy of a Central Planning Disaster'. Journal of Political Economy 113 (4), 840-877

Snow, E. (1944) Red Star Over China. New York: Modern Library

Jerome Ch’en ‘The Communist Movement: 1927-1937’ in Twitchett, Denis Crispin,Fairbank, John King, Cambridge University Press.  (1978) The Cambridge History of China Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Van de Ven, Hans J. (1991) From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920-1927. Berkley: University of California Press

Woo, X. L., (2014) Two Republics in China: How Imperial China Became the PRC: Algora Publishing


Chinese Communist Party Overview