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The debate that racked China’s Communist Party founders 100 years ago still reverberates today

June 29, 2021, 12:48 PM UTC

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This is a week of pomp, pageantry, and propaganda in China as the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled the nation since 1949, celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding congress in July 1921.

The festivities kicked off Monday with President Xi Jinping joining a crowd of 20,000 at the National Stadium (a.k.a. The Bird’s Nest) to watch The Great Journey, an extravaganza of song, dance, and fireworks that lauded the party for guiding China’s rise as a great power over the past century. On Tuesday, Xi, who is also the party chief, appeared at the Great Hall of the People to hand out commemorative medals of honor to 29 “ordinary heroes” for their contributions to the party.

Xi has promised “grand celebrations” across China, and is scheduled to deliver an “important” speech on Thursday, July 1, the official centenary. Apparently there will be no military parades. But as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post observes, even days ahead of the anniversary, “much of what is expected to be the biggest political celebration in China’s modern history remains shrouded in secrecy.”

Perhaps that’s apt. The event that’s the object of all this veneration was also shrouded in secrecy. The “first assembly,” as the party calls it, convened 100 years ago in Shanghai in a brick-walled shikumen villa in the city’s French concession. The gathering included ten Chinese delegates—among them a young activist from Hunan named Mao Zedong—and two foreign agents sent from Comintern, the Soviet-controlled international association of Communist parties. Discussions had gone on several days when a stranger barged into the building, then excused himself claiming he had the wrong address. Fearing they had been discovered by a French spy, the group fled, most of them reconvening later on tourist boat on South Lake in nearby Zhejiang province.

One of the oddities of the July 1 anniversary is that the actual date of the group’s first meeting was July 23, 1921. As Didi Kirsten Tatlow reported for the New York Times on the meeting’s 90th anniversary, the party didn’t think to commemorate the occasion until its 20th anniversary, by which time Mao had emerged as leader and was hiding with Communist fighters in caves of Yan’an. No one could remember the opening date of the congress, so Mao arbitrarily picked July 1. An autobiographical account by one of the founding delegates and news reports of a murder in a Shanghai hotel later helped to establish the true date. Tatlow quotes a party historian as acknowledging that the party kept July 1 as the official date because it was chosen by Mao.

The house where the first congress took place has been carefully restored. It is one of Chinese communism’s most revered shrines and is a popular “red tourism” destination. And yet it sits at the center of one of the world’s glitziest commercial districts. I lived a few blocks away in the early 2000s when I was Shanghai correspondent for the Washington Post. In the months ahead of then-President Jiang Zemin’s visit to the site to commemorate the founding congress’s 80th anniversary, I watched the Shanghai government evict 3,800 mostly poor families crowded into the neighborhood’s remaining shikumen houses to make room for the first phase of Xintiandi, a 130-acre, $3.2 billion real estate development led by a Hong Kong property developer.

As I noted in one dispatch: “The block surrounding the site, where party founders once vowed to rid China of greedy capitalists and foreign oppressors, has recently been colonized by nearly a dozen upscale clubs and eateries. There is a French cabaret, an American ‘bistro bar,’ an English pub and Japanese jazz club. A McDonalds and a German beer hall are on the way. At the newly opened Starbucks outlet, sepia photographs behind hissing espresso machines celebrate Shanghai in its glory days as a Western treaty port.” (For a glimpse of what Xintiandi is like today, check out this video from the SCMP‘s Thomas Yau.)

The little historians know about the discussion at that founding session suggests that one of the key debates was whether China’s fledgling communist movement should remain aloof from “bourgeois democrats” or seek a tactical alliance with merchants and landlords to free China from foreign colonizers.

Harvard’s Anthony Saich sheds light on the argument in a recently published profile of Henricus Sneevliet, (alias Maring), the Dutch Comintern agent. He notes that the Chinese delegates rejected the recommendation of the two Comintern advisers that they forge a “united front” with capitalists and even consider joining the emerging nationalist movement led by Sun Yat-sen to the south. Instead, the delegates insisted on a pure “proletarian” platform that called for surrender of land and machines to the working masses.

As the party begins its second century, that old debate still reverberates.

There will be no Eastworld newsletter on Thursday; we plan to enjoy the holiday! But mark your calendars for July 6, when I’ll be moderating virtual conversation about the startup scene in Southeast Asia. That discussion is entitled “Fostering the Next Generations of Unicorns,” and is sponsored by Huawei Technologies. Register to participate here.

More Eastworld news below.

Clay Chandler

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Yvonne Lau. Reach her at


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