Founding the Party, 1921

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

by Brijeshwar Dahiya




On July 1, 2021, the Communist Party of China had its centenary celebrations. A hundred years in Chinese culture epitomizes longevity, which aptly describes CPC's journey from its establishment on a small houseboat by a few eager communists in Zhejiang province's South Lake to its position as the second-largest and longest-ruling party in the world. Despite its nature of being a hardcore authoritarian party and its sense of 'historical inevitability' as Xi Jinping and the party narrative repeatedly likes to claim, the party has been successful in maintaining its rule over the second-largest economy and the largest country by population in the world. Today, the party through its 'instruments' rules over a fifth of humanity and boasts 92 million members. With most of the communist parties of the world either rendered powerless or overthrown in the dustbin of history, one might argue that the secret to CPC's longevity lies in its ability to adapt itself to the ever-changing world and in turn to the ever-changing needs of the people that it rules.


As the party celebrates its 100th birthday, its leaders, known for their rhetoric, boast slogans like "Long live our great, glorious, and correct Party", we look at how the party came into being and what became of the few young radical revolutionaries who formed the party on that small houseboat on the South Lake.


1 July 1921 in Communist China is established as the official date of the founding of the CPC, the day as it is perceived, is celebrated on a massive scale throughout the People's Republic of China, but what exactly happened on that day? As it turns out, nothing much. The accurate date in fact, according to the party's official records is 23 July 1921. Mao Zedong and other party officials could not recall the accurate date when they thought of commemorating the party's founding. The story of the inconsistencies with the date gives a brief glimpse towards the untiring efforts of reconstructing party history by the officials.


At the time of the party's formation, China was in a state of turmoil. After the revolution of 1911, the Manchu Qing dynasty was overthrown and a powerful warlord Yuan Shikai became the first President of the new republic. The hopes for a stable democratic China were soon crushed when Yuan Shikai declared himself as the emperor of China in 1915. What began afterward changed China completely. Frustrated with repeated humiliation from "unequal treaties" with foreign powers and continued instability emerging from warlordism and a weak government, a New Culture Movement began on University campuses among the students and intellectuals. The movement demanded political and social change in China. Chen Duxiu, the editor of New Youth magazine, who would become Communist Party's first elected secretary-general in absentia, also participated in this movement.


Chinese intellectuals like Chen Duxiu at first were influenced by Western ideas and Enlightenment. However, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, they got attracted to Marxism. Influenced by the Communist ideology, Chen Duxiu established several organizations like Marxist Study Groups in Beijing's student circles. Chen, known for his radical ideas, was almost always fell in trouble with the authorities for his writings. After being arrested in Beijing, Chen fled to the French Concession area in Shanghai - a semi-colonial area, where Chinese law didn't apply. Because of his trouble with the authorities, he was not able to attend the founding of the Communist Party of China in July 1921, but in his stead, he sent a student to attend the meeting.


The meeting started on 23 July in a house on Xingye road in French Concession. It was attended by no more than fifty delegates, including the two delegates from Soviet Union's Comintern. On the first day, Comintern delegates Henk Sneevliet, the dutch communist, and Vladimir Abramovich Nieman Nikolsky, gave speeches and on the following day, the Chinese delegates reported about their work and their plans. In the next few days, the party's aims and plans were drafted. The meeting was suddenly abrupted on 30 July, when tipped off by a spy, the French concession authorities raided the meeting venue. To avoid further trouble, the delegates hired a houseboat on Zhejiang province's South Lake and continued with their meeting. The houseboat later became a major destination of "red tourism" and is revered with the slogan "Red Boat Spirit".


The first meeting or the first party congress founded the Communist Party as a "party of the Proletariat". The Comintern delegates persuaded the party leadership to form a temporary alliance with the Kuomintang Party. By the late 1930s, following internal struggle and bloody war with the Kuomintang forces - as they parted in 1927, Mao Zedong, who was one of the founders of the party, rose to power and changed the strategy by placing peasants at the center of the revolution. By 1949, Mao and Dong Biwu, the only two remaining founders of the party would stand at the podium of the Tiananmen Square at the founding of Communist China.


As for the others, most of them were unlucky, Chen Duxiu, the first Chairman of the party, became a Trotskyite and was expelled from the party for criticizing Stalin - Stalin was admired by Mao. He was imprisoned by the Kuomintang for thirteen years and later died in a village in Southwest China. Li Da, who was a "Central Bureau" member left the party in the late 1920s, after having differences with the party members. After the formation of the People's Republic of China, he again joined the party in 1949. During Cultural Revolution, he was attacked by the Red Guards and died during one of their many beatings. Zhang Guotao, also a member of the "Central Bureau", had to leave the party in 1938 after a leadership struggle with Mao. He settled in Canada and died a natural death in 1979.


In 1927, Chiang Kai Shek, the leader of the Kuomintang Party, unleashed a bloody campaign against the Communists. Thousands of communists and their sympathizers were killed, including several founders of the party. Deng Enming was arrested and executed by the Kuomintang in 1929. Hu Shuheng was also killed by the Kuomintang in 1935. Other founders such as Chen Gongbo joined the Japanese established collaborationist government. Liu Renjing, a Trotskyite defected to Kuomintang but later in 1949, did some "self-criticism" and appealed to rejoin the party, which the party accepted. He also survived the Cultural Revolution's beatings by the Red Guards and was again rehabilitated in the 198os.


Bao Huising also joined the Kuomintang Party, he re-joined the CCP after going through some "political education" after 1949, but he could not escape the wrath of the Red Guards during Cultural Revolution, which badly traumatized him and ultimately led to his death in 1979.


The two Comintern delegates who attended the meeting in 1921, also died for their "cause". Henk Sneevliet or Maring as he was known, was executed by the Germans in the occupied Netherlands for taking part in the communist resistance to the occupation. Vladimir Abramovich Nieman Nikolsky was executed during Stalin's purges in 1938.


The fate of most of the founders aptly reflects the true nature of the Communist Party of China. What happened in those early days of the party and later in the early days of the People's Republic of China, still holds true for the present. Rivals ranging from political to industries are targetted in the name of "corruption campaign" or "anti-monopoly campaign" as they were targetted in the times of Cultural Revolution in the name of being "Rightist" or "Counter-revolutionary".


Besides the big parades, display of big weapons, long speeches by its top leadership, the party has laid out a full-year schedule to celebrate its centennial, which comprises cultural and educational campaigns of party history, conferences, and publication of books, all of which aims to shower praises for the party and at the same time, enforcing their carefully constructed narrative of party's history.


The party under Xi Jinping has launched an aggressive narrative-building campaign. Xi inaugurated a museum for the history of the Communist Party of China and has launched slogans termed as a "historical nihilist". The measures taken by the party under Xi Jinping suggest that the party is bent on projecting itself as the rightful ruler of China, one that will rule China for the next hundreds of years.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.


About the Author

Brijeshwar Dahiya has completed his Master's in International Relations and Area Studies from JNU, New Delhi. He is interested in Chinese Studies and is currently learning Chinese.

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