The post is based on Kerry's talk on 8 November 2018 for the Oxford China Centre Seminar Series and Chinese Law Discussion Group.

When we think of China’s ruling party, the Communist Party (CCP) we seldom think of it in any terms which are not strictly political or concerned with power. We think of its dominance, and the ways in which it seems to enjoy a monopoly over all organised political space in the People’s Republic. And yet, moral status and influence is also as valid a source of power as any other, and perhaps the most potent. If power, as Foucault extensively argued in his hugely influential work, is like a kind of energy, and there are many different forms of energy, then the Communist Party as a power entity can be seen in many different guises, and presenting itself as a moral actor bears examination. 

One of the ways of doing this is to look back over the last nearly hundred years of the CCP’s existence, before and after coming to power, and see how it viewed its own history, and the function of that historic narrative. In the earliest comprehensive statement of its own understanding of this, in 1945, in a document written by Mao Zedong and endorsed by leaders around him at the time, the Party hitched itself to a powerful message of delivering justice to a nation which had been victimised and dealt unfairly in modern history. That developed strongly over the coming decades, rising to become almost a state dogma in the 1990s when the patriotic education campaigns reinforced this message of the Party assisting the Chinese nation in finally being restored to a just and fair outcome for its history.  

In the 1981 `Resolution’ on Party history, this sense of a just and necessary historic trajectory had to deal more with the problems and failures that the CCP itself had experienced since being in power from 1949. Explaining away such catastrophes as the Great Leap Forward, with the famines that followed this in the early 1960s, and the Cultural Revolution which had divided and harmed many in the elite and sub-elites from 1966 onwards for a decade, became the priority. From the tone of Maoist omniscience and infallibility, the CCP in 1981 simply presented itself as a learning body, one that had matured and through mistakes and the lessons they learned, was now more uniquely qualified than ever to be the custodian of the great Nation project the country now needed to move towards. Such a forever forward-looking, positively developing vision of history is encapsulated in the 1982 state Constitution within its preamble. It has been a central part of CCP culture and identity ever since, the marriage of the idea of a history perpetually moving towards progress and positive development, and one where the Chinese Nation finally has justice restored to it after the tragedies of the modern era it had undergone. 

It is not hard to unpack the logic of this grand worldview the Party has sustained over so many decades. As the entity which is alone able to unify and guide China, through deliverance of this redemptive mission it itself becomes a moral agent. It is the custodian of a just cause, and because of that what it does is just – even if sometimes it has to use methods and processes which from a limited perspective look brutal and cruel, these are forever justified by the end they are driving towards – resurrection and renaissance of the great Chinese nation, something dreamed about throughout the modern era.  

This inherently moral vision informs much of the Xi era. After all, the aim of achieving this renaissance is within sight, with the first centenary goal only a few years away, in 2021, when the country will, at last, be able to say it has achieved modernity with Chinese characteristics under a unique `socialism for China and China alone’ model.  The urgency of this task justifies the disciplining in particular of elite cadres at national and local level, ongoing through the anti-corruption campaign from 2013. It also informs the heady language of `China Dream’ and a lot of the aspirational language used within domestic Chinese contemporary politics. It casts a shadow across much of what China is telling the world, through the Belt and Road Initiative and over grand notions that at heart are at least partially an invitation for outsiders to validate and affirm China’s rejuvenation and new status and success. These are all necessary parts of the deliverance of justice.

An external critique of China may well have issue with some of the ways in which the moral vision of the CCP is articulated. Many of these are probably valid. The utilitarian ethics of the CCP and its collectivist ethos are hard things for many to accept, and the outcomes they often lead to, with so many groups in the country receiving harsh treatment at the moment, even harder to contemplate. But that should not divert from the simple truth that the CCP evidently does see itself as a moral actor – and not being willing to acknowledge that about it misses a major part of its identity and function in the modern era. 


Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, at King’s College, London. He is an Associate on the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. His `China’s Dreams: The Culture of the Communist Party and its Secret Sources of Power’ was published by Polity Press in September.