BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party is throwing itself a party, kicking off a month of celebrations today to memorialize its founding 100 years ago.
Across China, newspapers and buildings alike have been blanketed in red party propaganda. Three Chinese astronauts in space beamed back congratulations to the party. And online censors and police have been working overtime for the past month to ensure no disturbances mar the heavily scripted ceremonies held in Beijing today.
Beijing's celebrations began with a patriotic show in Tiananmen Square. As helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, hundreds of school children, party members, and front-line health care workers sang songs like, "Socialism Is Good" and "Without the Chinese Communist Party, There Would Be No New China."
But the centerpiece of the celebrations was a fiery speech given by Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping.
"The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Anyone who dares will have their heads cracked and their blood will flow before the steel Great Wall built with the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people," said Xi, as he stood in front of Beijing's imperial palace on Thursday morning.
Wearing a grey Mao suit and flanked by party leaders past and present, Xi spent more than an hour laying out the Communist Party's achievements over the past century while making the case that it remains the only political force capable of governing China.
"The Communist Party of China and the Chinese people, with their bravery and tenacity, solemnly proclaim to the world that the Chinese people are not only good at taking down the old world, but also good at building a new one," Xi proclaimed. "Only socialism can save China, and only socialism with Chinese characteristics can develop China."
From a secret meeting on a boat to a world superpower
China's Communist Party was actually founded on July 23, 1921 by a mixture of Chinese and foreign revolutionaries in Shanghai.
Fearful of spies, a group of Chinese-only members reached their final agreements on a boat in nearby Zhejiang province. However, nearly two decades later, party leaders sheltering in the dusty caves of China's northern city of Yan'an decided July 1 would be the official date of commemoration.
For Xi and other leaders at the helm of the party, this year's birthday is an important chance to recast an organization originally designed to foment revolution among rural peasants into one that can be seen as a powerful government overseeing an increasingly sophisticated global economy.
Party leaders must do so in a world that is now largely hostile to its global ambitions. The latest Pew Research polling shows negative views on China remain at historic highs around the world, spurred on by China's increasingly aggressive diplomats and nationalistic citizens.
In his speech, Xi sought to reassure other countries that China's rise was peaceful — yet vowed to conquer Taiwan, a democratic island China claims at its own. "A strong country must have a strong army. Only a strong army means a safe country," Xi said.
He also said Beijing would maintain its iron grip over Hong Kong. By no coincidence, July 1 is also the anniversary for the resumption of Chinese control over Hong Kong. The same date was then chosen to implement a sweeping National Security Law, which already has quieted nearly all dissent in the territory.
Key among the achievements Xi listed in the party's centennial celebrations was the elimination of extreme poverty and a series of economic reform that unleashed a commercial boom while also widening social inequality.
But the primary raison d'être for the Communist Party always has been pursuing what the party calls the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" — a nation that, in 1921, remained ravaged by civil war, imperial mismanagement, and foreign colonialism. On this count, China now boasts an economic might that can cripple smaller economics, and a geopolitical heft that has earned it spots in nearly every major multilateral institution.
"Back then we lagged so far behind. We could only look up at Western countries. We were standing at the bottom of the stairs when the West was at the top," said Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times, a nationalist government paper. "Nowadays China has caught up with the rest of the world. China's economy has expanded and with it, its general power."
Consolidation of power
Xi's message of strength masks any internal divisions that may have emerged in the decades since the party came to power. He has overseen the most thorough purge of Communist party officials since the 1970s on anti-corruption grounds, jailed his high-level political rivals, and brought powerful business tycoons to heel.
"There is no other party in the world like ours, one that has encountered so many challenges and difficulties, experienced so many life-or-death ordeals, or suffered such tragic sacrifices," wrote an editorial in China's preeminent Communist Party-run newspaper, People's Daily.
This consolidation of his control over the party as well as the party's control over all levels of state governance has sparked pushback.
"The party feels that it can govern forever. But it cannot," says Cai Xia, a former Communist Party professor who was expelled from its ranks last year. She now lives in the U.S., where she has become a prominent critic of Xi.
But resistance is now quickly stifled by a powerful surveillance and security apparatus. During numerous crises in the past seven decades of its rule, the party decided to retain top-down control of the country's political levers each time. That includes the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, in which an untold number of civilians and students were killed as troops put a fatal end to pro-democracy protests in the very square where Xi delivered his speech today.
"The party is like the patriarch of a big, traditional Chinese family. Everything he says goes," said Deng Yuwen, a former senior editor at a party-run newspaper who now lives in the U.S. "If you respect him, he might show you some favors. But if you cross him, then he will banish you from the family."
Few current party leaders can boast socialist credentials that exceed those of Xi. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a senior party leader, and the younger Xi spent his early childhood living in a compound with the families of the other Communist elite.
Political turmoil during the 1960s forced Xi, then a teenager, to spend seven years living in a cave home in a remote village, toiling among farmers to better learn the mechanics of socialism.
"[The party's] history is a history in which the party and the people are linked by shared destiny, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul," Xi said at a February speech.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Today China's Communist Party starts celebrations for its 100th birthday. The country has been hosting party history lessons. And in the capital of Beijing this morning, the party threw itself a birthday parade.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).
KING: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Just - even that little bit of sound is extraordinary. What did you see today in Beijing?
FENG: China kicked off a big performance in Tiananmen Square, in the center of the city. There were hundreds of singing children, some of whom you heard in the midst of those baritones. They had artillery fire. They had flying pigeons. But the real centerpiece was Chinese leader Xi Jinping's speech. He delivered it in front of the Imperial Forbidden City, flanked by other leaders wearing Western suits. But Xi was the only one wearing a gray Mao suit. And he made an hour-long speech about why this 100-year-old party is still needed today in China.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He said, "The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Anyone who dares will have their heads cracked, and their blood will flow before the steel Great Wall built with the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people."
These are really strong words.
FENG: And that's because the party's central animus over the last century has always been what it calls the great rejuvenation, making China strong again so it cannot be controlled by foreign powers.
KING: Now, Emily, this is not the same Communist Party that China had in 1921 for so very many reasons. What are the big changes over the last hundred years?
FENG: Well, when you think about it, the party is a very anachronistic thing. It began as a revolutionary party. And it was founded at a time when China was clawing its way out of an imperial dynastic system, and it was overwhelmingly rural farmers. But since then, the party has had to transform itself into a governing force. It's built its own schools to train members. It's put party cells in businesses and organizations abroad to extend its influence. So it's not just a political party, it's the actual fabric through which all political power's threaded in China.
KING: And then how does that work? - because China has a president and a premier who run the country. China also has a party chairman and millions of party cadres. How do they interact?
FENG: Right. You have the party, and then you have the government. In some ways, they're parallel. But in most ways, the party is above the actual government.
FENG: So Xi Jinping is president, but his far more important title is party chairman. And under him, we've seen this incredible resurgence of the Communist Party in all facets of life. It is the guiding force that is behind and in many ways above the government that channels resources towards ends it decides on that are supposed to help most citizens, for example, like containing a coronavirus pandemic. But because it sits behind everything, that's also created this ongoing tension between wanting absolute control and being pressured to liberalize. Here's Deng Yuwen, who was once a senior editor at a big party-run paper.
DENG YUWEN: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He describes the party like the patriarch of a traditional Chinese family. Everything this man says goes. If you respect him, he gives you some favors. But if you cross him, he banishes you from the party. And today, one of the biggest challenges that remains is making sure this party-run autocracy is efficient and responsive because modern China has always had this problem where local and top-level officials cover up their mistakes. And today, as Xi Jinping consolidates power, that risk is bigger than ever.
KING: Emily, thanks for your reporting.
FENG: Thanks, Noel.
KING: NPR's Emily Feng there. And we'll be hearing more about the evolution of China's Communist Party over the next month from our China correspondents.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.