Founding and early history (1921–1927)
The CPC has its origins in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, during which radical Western ideologies like Marxism and anarchism gained traction among Chinese intellectuals. Other influences stemming from the Bolshevik revolution and Marxist theory inspired the Communist Party of China. Li Dazhao was the first leading Chinese intellectual who publicly supported Leninism and world revolution. In contrast to Chen Duxiu, Li did not renounce participation in the affairs of the Republic of China. Both of them regarded the October Revolution in Russia as groundbreaking, believing it to herald a new era for oppressed countries everywhere. The CPC was modeled on Vladimir Lenin's theory of a vanguard party. Study circles were, according to Cai Hesen, "the rudiments [of our party]". Several study circles were established during the New Culture Movement, but "by 1920 skepticism about their suitability as vehicles for reform had become widespread."
The founding National Congress of the CPC was held on 23–31 July 1921. With only 50 members in the beginning of 1921, the CPC organization and authorities grew tremendously. While it was originally planned to be held in the Shanghai French Concession, police officers interrupted the meeting on 30 July and the congress was moved to a tourist boat on South Lake in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province. Only 12 delegates attended the congress, with neither Li nor Chen being able to attend, the latter sending a personal representative in his stead. The resolutions of the congress called for the establishment of a communist party (as a branch of the Communist International) and elected Chen as its leader.
The communists dominated the left wing of the KMT, a party organized on Leninist lines, struggling for power with the party's right wing. When KMT leader Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925, he was succeeded by a rightist, Chiang Kai-shek, who initiated moves to marginalize the position of the communists. Fresh from the success of the Northern Expedition to overthrow the warlords, Chiang Kai-shek turned on the communists, who by now numbered in the tens of thousands across China. Ignoring the orders of the Wuhan-based KMT government, he marched on Shanghai, a city controlled by communist militias. Although the communists welcomed Chiang's arrival, he turned on them, massacring 5000 with the aid of the Green Gang. Chiang's army then marched on Wuhan, but was prevented from taking the city by CPC General Ye Ting and his troops. Chiang's allies also attacked communists; in Beijing, 19 leading communists were killed by Zhang Zuolin, while in Changsha, He Jian's forces machine gunned hundreds of peasant militiamen. That May, tens of thousands of communists and their sympathizers were killed by nationalists, with the CPC losing approximately 15,000 of its 25,000 members.
The CPC continued supporting the Wuhan KMT government, but on 15 July 1927 the Wuhan government expelled all communists from the KMT. The CPC reacted by founding the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army of China, better known as the "Red Army", to battle the KMT. A battalion led by General Zhu De was ordered to take the city of Nanchang on 1 August 1927 in what became known as the Nanchang uprising; initially successful, they were forced into retreat after five days, marching south to Shantou, and from there being driven into the wilderness of Fujian. Mao Zedong was appointed commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and led four regiments against Changsha in the Autumn Harvest Uprising, hoping to spark peasant uprisings across Hunan. His plan was to attack the KMT-held city from three directions on 9 September, but the Fourth Regiment deserted to the KMT cause, attacking the Third Regiment. Mao's army made it to Changsha, but could not take it; by 15 September, he accepted defeat, with 1,000 survivors marching east to the Jinggang Mountains of Jiangxi.
Chinese Civil War and World War II (1927–1949)
The near-destruction of the CPC's urban organizational apparatus led to institutional changes within the party. The party adopted democratic centralism, a way to organize revolutionary parties, and established a Politburo (to function as the standing committee of the Central Committee). The result was increased centralization of power within the party . At every level of the party this was duplicated, with standing committees now in effective control. After Chen Duxiu's dismissal, Li Lisan was able to assume de facto control of the party organization by 1929–30. Li Lisan's leadership was a failure, leaving the CPC on the brink of destruction. The Comintern became involved, and by late 1930, his powers had been taken away. By 1935 Mao had become the party's informal leader, with Zhou Enlai and Zhang Wentian, the formal head of the party, serving as his informal deputies. The conflict with the KMT led to the reorganization of the Red Army, with power now centralized in the leadership through the creation of CPC political departments charged with supervising the army.
The Second Sino-Japanese War caused a pause in the conflict between the CPC and the KMT. The Second United Front was established between the CPC and the KMT to tackle the invasion. While the front formally existed until 1945, all collaboration between the two parties had ended by 1940. Despite their formal alliance, the CPC used the opportunity to expand and carve out independent bases of operations to prepare for the coming war with the KMT. In 1939 the KMT began to restrict CPC expansion within China. This led to frequent clashes between CPC and KMT forces but which subsided rapidly on the realisation on both sides that civil war was not an option. Yet, by 1943, the CPC was again actively expanding its territory at the expense of the KMT.
Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949
From 1945 until 1949, the war had been reduced to two parties; the CPC and the KMT. This period lasted through four stages; the first was from August 1945 (when the Japanese surrendered) to June 1946 (when the peace talks between the CPC and the KMT ended). By 1945, the KMT had three-times more soldiers under its command than the CPC and initially appeared to be prevailing. With the cooperation of the Americans and the Japanese, the KMT was able to retake major parts of the country. However, KMT rule over the reconquered territories would prove unpopular because of endemic party corruption. Notwithstanding its huge numerical superiority, the KMT failed to reconquer the rural territories which made up the CPC's stronghold. Around the same time, the CPC launched an invasion of Manchuria, where they were assisted by the Soviet Union. The second stage, lasting from July 1946 to June 1947, saw the KMT extend its control over major cities, such as Yan'an (the CPC headquarters for much of the war). The KMT's successes were hollow; the CPC had tactically withdrawn from the cities, and instead attacked KMT authorities by instigating protests amongst students and intellectuals in the cities (the KMT responded to these events with heavy-handed repression). In the meantime, the KMT was struggling with factional infighting and Chiang Kai-shek's autocratic control over the party, which weakened the KMT's ability to respond to attacks. The third stage, lasting from July 1947 to August 1948, saw a limited counteroffensive by the CPC. The objective was to clear "Central China, strengthening North China, and recovering Northeast China." This policy, coupled with desertions from the KMT military force (by the spring of 1948, the KMT military had lost an estimated 2 of its 3 million troops) and declining popularity of KMT rule. The result was that the CPC was able to cut off KMT garrisons in Manchuria and retake several lost territories. The last stage, lasting from September 1948 to December 1949, saw the communists take the initiative and the collapse of KMT rule in mainland China as a whole. On 1 October 1949, Mao declared the establishment of the PRC, which signified the end of the Chinese Revolution (as it is officially described by the CPC).
Single ruling party (1949–present)
Flag of the Communist Party of China from 17 June 1951 to 21 July 1996.
On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong announced the 21 September 1949 establishment of the PRC before a massive crowd at Beijing Square. By the end of the year, the CPC became the major ruling party in China. During the 1960s and 1970s, the CPC experienced a significant ideological separation from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. By that time, Mao had begun saying that the "continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat" stipulated that class enemies continued to exist even though the socialist revolution seemed to be complete, leading to the Cultural Revolution in which millions were persecuted and killed.
Following Mao's death in 1976, a power struggle between CPC general secretary Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping erupted. Deng won the struggle, and became the "paramount leader". Deng, alongside Chen Yun and Li Xiannian, spearheaded the Reform and opening policy, and introduced the ideological concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics, opening China to the world's markets. In reversing some of Mao's "leftist" policies, Deng argued that a socialist state could use the market economy without itself being capitalist. While asserting the political power of the Party, the change in policy generated significant economic growth. The new ideology, however, was contested on both sides of the spectrum, by Maoists as well as by those supporting political liberalization. With other social factors, the conflicts culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The protests having been crushed, Deng's vision on economics prevailed, and by the early 1990s the concept of a socialist market economy had been introduced. In 1997, Deng's beliefs (Deng Xiaoping Theory), were embedded in the CPC constitution.
CPC general secretary Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng as "paramount leader" in the 1990s, and continued most of his policies. As part of Jiang Zemin's nominal legacy, the CPC ratified the Three Represents for the 2003 revision of the party's constitution, as a "guiding ideology" to encourage the party to represent "advanced productive forces, the progressive course of China's culture, and the fundamental interests of the people." The theory legitimized the entry of private business owners and bourgeois elements into the party. Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin's successor as paramount leader, took office in 2002. Unlike Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin, Hu laid emphasis on collective leadership and opposed one-man dominance of the political system. The insistence on focusing on economic growth led to a wide range of serious social problems. To address these, Hu introduced two main ideological concepts: the Scientific Outlook on Development and Harmonious Socialist Society. Hu resigned from his post as CPC general secretary and Chairman of the CMC at the 18th National Congress held in 2012, and was succeeded in both posts by Xi Jinping.
Since taking power Xi has initiated the most concerted anti-corruption effort in decades, while centralizing powers in the office of CPC General Secretary at the expense of the collective leadership; because of that, foreign commentators have likened him to Mao.