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Looking Back On 100 Years Of China's Communist Party


On July 1, Chinese leader Xi Jinping marked the one 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. He spoke before tens of thousands of people in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. This line got the biggest ovation.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).

PFEIFFER: Anybody that tries to bully, oppress or subjugate China will find themselves, quote, "on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people."


XI: (Non-English language spoken).


PFEIFFER: Strong words and a strong reaction. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch takes a look at what's behind them.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: To understand where Xi Jinping is coming from, you have to understand where China was a century ago. It was in disarray and weak. Foreign powers controlled chunks of the country. Shanghai had been divvied up, Hong Kong was in British hands, and the Shandong Peninsula was largely under German control. During World War I, China's leaders saw an opportunity to try to wrest that territory back.

YEH WEN-HSIN: China declared war on Germany and sent laborists - workers - over 100,000 of them and shipped them to the European battlefront, the French trenches.

RUWITCH: Yeh Wen-Hsin is a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Berkeley.

YEH: All for the purpose of - what? - getting the allies help.

RUWITCH: But it didn't work. Germany lost the war, but Western powers decided to let an ascendant Japan take control of Shandong. That sparked outrage in China.

YEH: They were disappointed in Woodrow Wilson. They pinned so much hope on America stepping in and holding up China's requests in Paris Peace Conference.

RUWITCH: Out of the political ferment that followed, Marxism gained a toehold. And in July 1921, with backing from the newly formed Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China was born. And given the state that China was in, one of the party's founding principles was fighting imperialism.

LIU: Anticolonialism, anti-imperialism is in the DNA of the communists.

RUWITCH: That's Professor Liu. He teaches modern Chinese history at a university in China. He asked me not to use his full name or identify where he works because he's concerned that he might face trouble for speaking frankly about the party.

LIU: It's very important for the party to legitimize its ruling. And why the CCP have the power, have the right to rule the country, to lead the people - one of the reasons, one of the major sources of its legitimacy is anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

RUWITCH: It's been one of the strongest through lines for the party since its founding. Official histories recount how Mao Zedong and his rebels ended a century of humiliation when they took power in 1949. A year later, when China entered the Korean War, Mao turned the anti-imperialist flame on America, like in this patriotic song from the time, "March Of The People's Volunteer Army."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

RUWITCH: "The sons and daughters of China," the original lyrics go, "will defeat the wild wolves of American imperialism."

Professor Liu again.

LIU: So after 1949, the Chinese people would not say (non-English language spoken), the United States. They would say - always say (non-English language spoken), the American imperialists.

RUWITCH: And it stayed that way for the next three decades. In communist eyes, capitalism and imperialism went hand in hand, and America was enemy No. 1. Things eased after the two countries normalized relations in the late 1970s, but shifted again after the party crushed pro-democracy protests in 1989. Fearing China was at risk of disintegrating, the party began to rethink what Anne Reinhardt, a history professor at Williams College, calls its ideological glue.

ANNE REINHARDT: Then they're kind of looking for something to fill in the gap where the Communist Party is no longer espousing communism. And what they come up with is a sense of nationalism.

RUWITCH: Nationalism underpinned, again, by the idea that China's weakness comes from others holding it down. And it remains a strong message today. It's taught in schools and reinforced in propaganda films and in state-run news programs. Never mind that China has the world's No. 2 economy - soon to be No. 1 - or one of the most advanced militaries on Earth and a space station and even a rover on Mars right now. None of that changes the party's calculus, says Liu, the professor.

LIU: As George Orwell said in his famous book "1984," any dictator need to have enemies. They need enemies. They say, OK, we have enemies abroad, so you needed the party to defend you. We can protect you. We can defend you.

RUWITCH: The rhetoric has become more shrill as U.S. policy towards China has taken on a harder edge in recent years. Today, as the party seeks to defend China, it's drawn lessons from the past. It's now the world's largest trading nation and is investing in infrastructure around the world under its Belt and Road initiative.

ISABELLA JACKSON: One way of making sure you are not humiliated on the world stage is to project power and to trade with countries all over the world. And their infrastructure is a route to influence.

RUWITCH: Isabella Jackson is a professor at Trinity College Dublin. She says, as China builds influence and projects power abroad, though, its anti-imperialist rhetoric may start to ring hollow.

JACKSON: China actively promotes itself as an anti-imperialist power, but, at the same time, do act in a fairly colonial manner.

RUWITCH: Judging by the applause for Xi, the idea of standing up to the West and Western powers, some of the very ones that subjugated China a century ago, is still popular. And nobody expects that to change anytime soon.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.