An Overview of the Chinese Communist Party

The Most Powerful Political Party in the World

China, Beijing. Soldier standing in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong on the main entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing

Getty Images / Jeremy Horner

Fewer than 6-percent of the Chinese population are members of China’s Communist Party, yet it is the most powerful political party in the world.

How Was the Communist Party of China Founded?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began as an informal study group that met in Shanghai starting in 1921. The first Party Congress was held in Shanghai in July 1921. Some 57 members, including Mao Zedong, attended the meeting.

Early Influences

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in the early 1920s by intellectuals who were influenced by the Western ideas of anarchism and Marxism. They were inspired by the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and by the May Fourth Movement, which swept across China at the end of World War I.

At the time of the CCP’s founding, China was a divided, backward country ruled by various local warlords and burdened by unequal treaties that gave foreign powers special economic and territorial privileges in China. Looking to the USSR as an example, the intellectuals who founded the CCP believed that the Marxist revolution was the best path to strengthen and modernize China.

The Early CCP Was a Soviet-Style Party

The CCP’s early leaders received funding and guidance from Soviet advisors and many went to the Soviet Union for education and training. The early CCP was a Soviet-style Party led by intellectuals and urban workers who advocated orthodox Marxist-Leninist thought.

In 1922, the CCP joined the larger and more powerful revolutionary party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), to form the First United Front (1922-27). Under the First United Front, the CCP was absorbed into the KMT. Its members worked within the KMT to organize urban workers and farmers to support the KMT army’s Northern Expedition (1926-27).

The Northern Expedition

During the Northern Expedition, which succeeded in defeating the warlords and unifying the country, the KMT split and its leader Chiang Kai-shek led an anti-Communist purge in which thousands of CCP members and supporters were killed. After the KMT established the new Republic of China (ROC) government in Nanjing, it continued its crackdown on the CCP.

After the break-up of the First United Front in 1927, the CCP and its supporters fled from the cities to the countryside, where the Party established semi-autonomous “Soviet base areas,” which they called the Chinese Soviet Republic (1927-1937). In the countryside, the CCP organized its own military force, the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. The CCPs headquarters moved from Shanghai to the rural Jiangxi Soviet base area, which was led by the peasant revolutionary Zhu De and Mao Zedong.

The Long March

The KMT-led central government launched a series of military campaigns against the CCP-controlled base areas, forcing the CCP to undertake the Long March (1934-35), a several-thousand-mile military retreat that ended in the rural village of Yenan in Shaanxi Province. During the Long March, Soviet advisors lost influence over the CCP and Mao Zedong took over control of the Party from Soviet-trained revolutionaries.

Based in Yenan from 1936-1949, the CCP changed from an orthodox Soviet-style party based in the cities and led by intellectuals and urban workers to a rural-based Maoist revolutionary party composed primarily of peasants and soldiers. The CCP gained the support of many rural peasants by carrying out land reform which redistributed land from landlords to peasants.

The Second United Front

Following Japan’s invasion of China, the CCP formed a Second United Front (1937-1945) with the ruling KMT to fight the Japanese. During this period, CCP-controlled areas remained relatively autonomous from the central government. Red Army units waged a guerilla war against Japanese forces in the countryside, and the CCP took advantage of the central government’s preoccupation with fighting Japan to expand the CCP’s power and influence.

During the Second United Front, CCP membership increased from 40,000 to 1.2 million and the size of the Red Army surged from 30,000 to nearly one million. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Soviet forces that accepted the surrender of Japanese troops in Northeast China turned over large quantities of arms and ammunition to the CCP.

Civil war resumed in 1946 between the CCP and KMT. In 1949, the CCP’s Red Army defeated the military forces of the central government in Nanjing, and the KMT-led ROC government fled to Taiwan. On October 10, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.

A One-Party State 

Although there are other political parties in China, including eight small democratic parties, China is a one-party state and the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on power. The other political parties are under the leadership of the Communist Party and serve in advisory roles.

A Party Congress Every Five Years

A Party Congress, in which the Central Committee is elected, is held every five years. Over 2,000 delegates attend the Party Congress. The Central Committee’s 204 members elect the 25-member Politburo of the Communist Party, which in turn elects a nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.

There were 57 Party members when the First Party Congress was held in 1921. There were 73 million Party members at the 17th Party Congress that was held in 2007.

The Party’s Leadership Is Marked by Generations

The Party’s leadership is marked by generations, starting with the first generation who led the Communist Party to power in 1949. The second generation was led by Deng Xiaoping, China’s last revolutionary-era leader.

During the third generation, led by Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, the CCP deemphasized supreme leadership by one individual and transitioned to a more group-based decision-making process among a small handful of leaders on the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

The Current Leadership

The fourth-generation was led by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. The fifth-generation, made up of well-connected Communist Youth League members and the children of high-ranking officials, called ‘Princelings,’ took over in 2012.

Power in China is based on a pyramid scheme with supreme power at the top. The Standing Committee of the Politburo holds supreme power. The Committee is responsible for maintaining the Party’s control of the state and military. Its members achieve this by holding the highest positions in the State Council, which oversees the government, the National People’s Congress- China’s rubber-stamp legislature, and the Central Military Commission, which runs the armed forces.

The base of the Communist Party includes provincial-level, county-level, and township-level People’s Congresses and Party Committees. Fewer than 6-percent of Chinese are members, yet it is the most powerful political party in the world.

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Mack, Lauren. "An Overview of the Chinese Communist Party." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Mack, Lauren. (2023, April 5). An Overview of the Chinese Communist Party. Retrieved from Mack, Lauren. "An Overview of the Chinese Communist Party." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).