Chinese Communist Party: a party of workers or capitalists?

1 July 2021 — Michael Roberts Blog

by michael roberts

It’s 100 years today since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was first formed by just 50 members, mostly intellectuals, but including railway and mine workers.  100 years later to the day, the official membership figure is 95m and there are 4.8m party branches.  This is surely the largest political party the world has ever seen. A quarter of the membership is under 35 years; 29% are female, up from 12% in 1949 and over half of members have college degrees (that means half don’t!).

In 2021, is the CCP a party of and for capitalists or of and for workers?  The short answer is that it is neither.  But the long answer is more complex.

The CCP was led at first by two intellectuals, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, with the help of the Communist International (Comintern).  These leaders saw the CCP as the party for the Chinese working-class (tiny as that was), modelled on the Bolshevik party in the Soviet Union.  For them, the working-class was the agent of change and revolution in China, not the peasantry that constituted 90% of the population.  Nevertheless, the CCP did lead various peasant movements in 1925-27 period.

But the Comintern ordered the CCP leaders to work with the nationalist bourgeois forces including Chiang Kai-Shek, who defeated various regional warlords.  In 1927, the CCP through workers uprisings seized control of Shanghai, China’s most industrialised city.  Chiang entered the city and massacred the CCP activists. Chiang then ordered the murders of CCP leaders in Beijing including Li. The CCP leaders fled to Wuhan where there was a supposedly ‘left nationalist’ government.  But the Wuhan government declared support for Chiang and massacred more CP members.

The CCP was forced into the countryside and opted to build a peasant-based guerrilla army in the countryside (it really had no choice).  Chen went into opposition for which he was expelled from the CCP by the Comintern and ended his life in obscurity.  Mao’s CCP then fought a long and hard struggle against the Japanese invasion, Chang Kai-Shek’s forces and foreign intervention, before triumphing in 1949 and occupying the cities, ruthlessly brooking no opposition from outside or within the party or from independent workers organisations in the cities.

Even from this short, potted history, it is clear that the CCP lost its base in the working class after the defeats of the 1920s and became bureaucratised in the long guerrilla struggle.  Although its members were mainly peasants, its leadership were intellectuals, on the whole.  But neither was the CCP ever a party of the bourgeois, who on the contrary fled in numbers to Taiwan (Formosa).

But what is the composition of the CCP now? There is an excellent new study of the social composition of the party membership, recently published on the World Inequality Database by Li Yang, Filip Novokmet and Branko Milanovic.  It’s entitled “From workers to capitalists in less than two generations: a study of Chinese urban elite transformation between 1988 and 2013”.

Actually, the empirical evidence offered does not confirm the title of this paper.  The CCP after 100 years may not be mainly composed of workers (or at least industrial workers and farm labourers), but neither it is composed of owners of businesses.

Using household surveys covering the period 1988-2013, the authors study the changes in the characteristics of the richest 5% of China’s urban population.  This top 5% of income earners the authors define as the ‘elite’ in China (“Elites can be defined as individuals and small, relatively cohesive and stable groups with major decisional power.”)

The CPP has lost its majority peasant base that it had before major urbanisation began in the 1980s.  But the study shows that the CCP is still not dominated by business owners, large or small, but increasingly by ‘professionals’ and even this layer is still a minority.  Professionals are defined as “all the professional and technical personnel working in science-related sectors (e.g., science, engineering, agriculture, medical care) and social science-related sector (e.g., economics, finance, law, education, press and publication, religion)”.

Actually, these are workers – at least when related to the means of production.  Indeed, they are better designated as ‘professional workers’. This professional layer constituted 25% of the overall CCP membership in 2013 (little changed since 1988).  The official 2021 figure is now 27%.  But that ratio is much higher among the party ‘elite’ (the top 5% of earners who are CCP members): the professional layer is 38% of the ‘elite’ party members, up from 28% in 1988.

Actually, on the data, the social composition of the overall party membership is little changed in 2013 from 1988.  Workers were 16% of membership in 1988, but constituted 30% in 2013 (the official 2021 figure is now 34%), thanks to urbanisation and industrialisation.  Adding in clerical workers and government officials, then these three groups were 75% of the members in 1988 and were still 70% in 2013. What is also noticeable is that the share of outright capitalists (owners of businesses etc) was tiny in 1988 and was still only 3% of CCP members in 2013.

What is different is the social composition of the ‘elite’ party members.  Workers and government officials were 72% of this layer of members in 1988, little different from their share of the overall membership.  But in 2013, that share had fallen to 57%, as the share of professionals and the bourgeois had risen to 43%.  The ‘elite’ CCP members are generally university educated professionals and executives in companies, both state and private.  In effect, there is an increasing divergence between the social composition of the party rank and file and the better-off members of the party.

The authors sum this up: “while the Party overall has still a majority membership of the “old” social groups, its top is increasingly dominated by the “new” social groups.”  The CCP is over-represented by the professional layer (26%) compared to the Chinese population (18%).  Workers constitute 50% of the Chinese urban population now, but only 30% of CCP members and just 15% of the ‘elite’ party members.

But is this some form of ‘political capitalism’ (whatever that means) as the authors (led by Milanovic) claim?  It is not proven by the data.  First, the bourgeois are still a tiny layer of CCP members (just 3% of the overall membership).  You might argue that is the case in any capitalist party.  The majority of members in the US Republican party or the British Conservative party are not capitalists, small or large.  But I bet the ratio of such bourgeois and petty-bourgeois layers is much higher than in the CCP.  And that would especially be the case among the ‘elite’ members.  In the CCP, only 5% of even the party elite are outright capitalists.  Second, the study is of the social composition of the CCP, not of the economic and social foundations of the Chinese economy, which surely is the place to decide on whether China is capitalist or not.

China’s Communist Party never started as a party composed of workers in its majority (because the working class was so small in 1921).  And it is no democratic party, with all policies decided at the very top and followed without (at least open) dissent by the rank and file.  The top leaders decide all.  That is not definition of a democratic workers party.  But neither is the CCP 100 years later a party of capitalists.  In its social composition, it is a party of workers, technocrats and government officials; and that includes its ‘elite’.

In effect, with 95 million members, the CCP, the state machine and state enterprises are completely integrated and are in control of China. The CCP is not controlled by any capitalist class.  The majority of CCP members are workers (manual, white collar and professional), although its ‘elite’ leaders have a nationalist not an international socialist ideology, and have connections to the capitalist sector.

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