Redefining Power: How the Chinese Communist Party
can adapt to a new reality and survive in the 21st Century

Zachary Ochoa
James Madison University

Keywords: China, Chinese Communist Party, survival, CCP, twenty-first century


The Chinese Community Party has maintained a firm grip on Chinese Society for over half a century. Recently, it has overseen the dramatic rise of China in the realms of economics, military power, and international relations. However, these advances also come with risks, and the CCP may actually find itself in a more vulnerable position as time goes on. The author examines these risks and hypothesizes on how the CCP can adapt to meet these new challenges.


Nothing lasts forever. This phrase has come to define modern history when discussing great powers. It must be one that makes many politicians and leaders in the People's Republic of China very nervous. The new century has seen the collapse of just about all of the world's communist states. Of the ones that survive, all but China make up some of the globe's weakest powers. China alone in the surviving communist world has managed to achieve the status of a rising power and is regarded by several to be an emerging superpower. However, the more power and wealth China accumulates for its leaders and people, the more vulnerable the communist party-state becomes. In a single party state, the only way to stay in power is for the party in power to prove itself an invaluable asset to its people. The Chinese Communist Party has done this by fostering the growth of a massive Chinese middle class and making China a global center for exports and manufacturing, boosting its economy. Under its leadership the people of China have seen years of above-average economic growth and a whole new world of opportunities. Without a doubt the CCP has brought prosperity to its people, but unfortunately this is a double-edged sword.

History has shown that a prosperous people will soon become a people in want of more control over their own destiny. The more educated the populace of China becomes, the more of a say they will want in their own political system. Many predict that this historical trend will result in the collapse of communist rule in China, but the CCP still has hope. With the right mindset, the Chinese Communist Party can create the conditions it needs to not only survive but thrive in the modern world. The wealth and prosperity it has brought to China need not be the party's own downfall. However, it will result in inevitable changes that the CCP will have to accept and adapt to. In order to both survive and increase its own strength, the Chinese Communist Party will need to accept a measure of institutional reform, change its definition of power, and invest more in the current international system. Although none of these actions have guaranteed results, they will certainly foster a situation that increases the possibility of a living and thriving Chinese Communist Party. Inevitably, this will only take place if the CCP accepts a measure of reform.

The Need for Institutional Reform

Many people regard China as a totalitarian nation. What's more, it is a totalitarian nation with a growing economy. This is regarded by several scholars as a formula for the birth of democracy. The thinking is that people that are economically prosperous will eventually demand more of a say in their government. They will cease to accept single-party rule and demand a democratic system. The economic range where this process is supposed to begin is when a nation's purchasing power parity is between $1000 and $6000, China's is $8500 (Pei). However, this potential inevitability need not be the beginning of the end for the CCP.

If the CCP accepts the fact that the population will require more input in the nation's political system, the CCP can balance it in a way to ensure its own continued existence. It can do so with a combination of low level elections and absorbing more of its economically rising citizens into its ranks. By opening up its current 80 million membership to a larger segment of the population, particularly China's 300 million member middle class, the CCP can potentially appease what is historically the most politically active segment of the population while at the same time giving more Chinese citizens a stake in the survival of the party (McDonald, 2012). Doing so would give the prosperous citizens of China more input on who gets put into state office. The people would be able to partake in inner-party democracy and have a platform for their politics. For the lower income segments of the population, China can allow more free elections to satisfy any potential dissent. The CCP has already allowed limited elections at the county and township level (Zhi, 2012). It should continue on this trend with the lower local elements of government. Although this may help ensure the party's continued grasp on power, it will also have to accept that it will never hold as much control over China as it once did.

The Evolution of Chinese Power

The age we live in has changed the way that power is maintained and projected. Just as the concept of statehood has evolved over the centuries, so too has the concept of power. As the world moves deeper into the information age, it will become increasingly more difficult for governments to control the flow of information and opinions. Each year a larger segment of the Chinese population, currently counted at nearly half a billion, has access to the Internet (China Internet Statistics, 2012). Tools such as propaganda will become weaker in regards to influencing the public. China has gone to great lengths to resist this trend. The CCP has instituted tools such as the 'Great Firewall of China' to try to restrict the spread and access to information. However, in the end this may prove fruitless. Time will only give birth to new ways to access information. The Chinese Communist Party should accept that its ability to manage the flow of data within China's borders will erode with time.

Another tool that governments have tried to use to maintain power is force. States throughout history have tried to use police and military power to force their populations into subjugation. Unfortunately for the government that would attempt this, history has proven this method obsolete. The Arab Spring has shown that brute strength and power politics aren't reliable methods for maintaining state power. What good is there in eliminating a dissident when anybody with a cell phone can portray your actions to the entire world? However, this does not mean that the Chinese Communist Party does not have other options. Political parties today stay in power for only one reason, the people they represent believe in them and in their ability to get things accomplished to their benefit. If they increasingly adopt populist politics by increasing social programs, they can establish themselves as a safety net that the people would be unwilling to give up. China has been investing more heavily in education, health, and pensions; this should be the focus of their attention (Kan & Fang, 2012). The party must adopt a concept of power that says that strength isn't in forcing someone to obey but in convincing them that loyalty is the more fruitful option. Convincing its people that investing in the CCP will generate returns for the good of society is the only way the party will be able to maintain and enhance long-term domestic power. By opening up to the people and adopting populist politics at home, the CCP may succeed in overcoming any serious domestic challenge to its reign. However, even after solving these problems at home, the communist party-state will still have many challenges it must face abroad.

The Need for Friends

All is not well for China in the international arena. Its most powerful neighbors, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and India, have all become increasingly nervous about China's rise. The United States has declared a military shift to the Pacific in order to curb China's increased military strength (Agencies, 2012). China's pushes in the South China Sea have forced it to butt heads with Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. China's neighbors have one thing in common; they are very unenthusiastic about the rise of China. This is a situation that does not bode well for the Chinese Communist Party's future. The party is surrounded by enemies, whereas what they need more than anything is friends. Continued use of hard power in the international arena will result in more pressure against its global interests. If China's rivals push back economically, it can even result in domestic instability if it negatively impacts the Chinese economy (Cole, 2012). China needs to completely abandon the notion of using hard power to accomplish its goals and adopt a dual strategy of diplomacy and incentives to foster its international relations. China needs to make every effort to establish and nurture inter-state friendships. The most important goal the CCP should have on the global stage isn't increased global strength but increased global approval. If the Chinese Communist Party is going to stay in power, it will need approval not only on the domestic front, but on the international stage as well.


Time need not prove to be the death of the Chinese communist party-state. If the Chinese Communist Party is going to survive and thrive in modern times it will need to evolve just like everything else. The communist system can survive by opening itself up more to the people and enhance its strength by adopting new concepts of domestic power and international strength. Although nothing can guarantee the desired results, taking these actions increase the chances of the CCP being established as both integral and irreplaceable to Chinese society. No measure of force or suppression can help the party in the long term. The majority of communist states ceased to exist not due to lack of strength but due to a failure to develop returns for their citizens' investment. In the end, the communist-party state will only survive if the people of China want it to. Additionally, it will only thrive if the people of China are convinced that a stronger Chinese Communist Party is in their best interests.

Works Cited

Agencies. "US to shift naval firepower to Asia-Pacific". Aljazeera.com. June 02, 2012. Accessed on October 06, 2012.

Cole, J. Michael. "Op-Ed: The limits of Chinese hard power". Ottawacitizen.com. September 27, 2012. Accessed on October 01, 2012.

Kan, Huo and Fang, Lan. "Quality of China Social Spending draws Attention". Marketwatch.com. March 14, 2012. Accessed on October 06, 2012.

McDonald, Hamish. "China's makeover would challenge even Confucius". Smh.com.au. October 06, 2012. Accessed on October 06, 2012.

Pei, Minxin. "Is China's Communist Party Doomed?". Thediplomat.com. October 01, 2012. Accessed on October 01, 2012.

Unknown Author. "China Internet Statistics Whitepaper". Chinainternetwatch.com. 2012. Accessed October 05, 2012.

Zhi, Chen. "China to complete local lawmaker elections by year-end". Xinhaunet.com. September 23, 2012. Accessed on October 05, 2012.



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