With China emerging as a geopolitical and military power as well as an economic one, how can understanding the last 100 years of the ruling party’s history lead to productive engagement in the future?

Featuring Tony Saich
35 minutes and 12 seconds

The Chinese Communist Party rules a country that is already an economic superpower and is poised to become a military and geopolitical one as the 21st Century unfolds. But Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tony Saich says the party’s 100th birthday next month is also a time to remember the party’s struggles and humble beginnings. From its early days as Soviet-supported client and its existential struggles with the Chinese Nationalists, to the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to its transformation of the country into a global economic superpower with a growing middle class, the party has made both disastrous errors and remarkable achievements. But through it all, Saich says, the party has shown a remarkable ability to survive, adapt, and maintain control of a country of more than a billion people. That’s why understanding China’s politics is crucial for the future of everything from the world economy to the climate crisis to international human rights. Saich, the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, has written a new book due out next month called From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party. He talks to host Ralph Ranalli about the party’s past and why understanding it is vital for the future.

Hosted and produced by

Ralph Ranalli

Co-produced by

Susan Hughes

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Tony Saich (intro): Basically, they try to identify the party with the nation. So if you're critical of the party, you must by definition be anti-Chinese—you can't be patriotic and critical of the Chinese Communist Party. But related to that, there's a kind of historical storytelling—which we're seeing of course with this being the 100th anniversary—and this is of the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party. And Xi Jinping has spoken frequently now on the need to get a correct party history understood by the people, and to criticize what he calls Historical Nihilism, which of course is anything that doesn't agree with that official party history.

Ralph Ranalli (intro): Next month, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 100th birthday. From its humble Soviet supported beginnings, and its existential struggles with the Chinese nationalists, to the excesses of the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution to its emergence as a global economic superpower with a growing middle class, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Tony Saich has made a career studying its history and its inner workings. Over the last century, he says the party has shown a remarkable ability to survive, adapt, and maintain control of a country that is now home to more than 1.4 billion people and is poised to become a military and geopolitical superpower, as well as an economic one. Understanding China's politics is crucial for the future of everything from the world economy to the climate crisis, to international human rights. Professor Saich, the Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, has written a new book due out next month called “From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.” He's here with us to talk about how to understand the party's past, and how that understanding can contribute to better relations with China in the future.I'm your host, Ralph Ranalli and welcome to PolicyCast. 

Tony, welcome. I was hoping we could start by going back to the beginning, because these days many people think of the Chinese Communist Party as this all powerful entity, that's built an economic juggernaut, and that can do things like control access to the internet for over a billion people. Yet, you say that back in its early days, the party faced seemingly impossible odds just to survive. What happened in those early years and how did it survive?

Tony Saich: Yeah, whatever anyone thinks of the Chinese Communist Party, it's an extraordinary story. First of all, it probably shouldn't really have existed in the first place. It was only with considerable Soviet support that it got off the ground. It was almost destroyed in 1927, when its erstwhile partners in the nationalist movement decided that rather than them being squeezed like a lemon, as Stalin said, they would squeeze the communists. And then it survived another civil war. It survived the invasion from Japan and then eventually conflict once more with the nationalists between '45 and '49. If we wrap all of that together, there were just certain moments where its survival looks improbable—or at least if it was going to survive, it wouldn't necessarily emerge as the dominant force in the Chinese political system. And yet it did, and it's testament to a number of things. 

One is its ability to be flexible, to adapt to changing circumstances. It didn't cleave closely to a vigorous interpretation of Marxism or Leninism. It was willing to work with bandits with different gangs and groups if necessary. It was willing to make unholy alliances to keep itself going, but it always had the eye on the prize, and the prize, of course, being the ruling party within China. And then there's no doubt that the Japanese invasion helped the Chinese Communist Party. It wasn't the sole reason for its victory, but it was slowly being squeezed by the nationalist forces before the Japanese invaded. And that meant the nationalists had to turn their attention away from distinguishing the communist threat, to working supposedly together with the communists to resist the Japanese. That allowed the Chinese Communist Party to rebuild, it allowed them in many ways to protect their armies while the nationalist armies we're taking the battering from the Japanese, and to begin to put together strategies for what they saw as the inevitable civil war that would follow.

And then luck happens. I mean, basically, the nationalists were incompetent. They made a number of very severe mistakes once the civil war started, which meant that most of their elite troops got cut off in the northeast of China, which then allowed the Chinese communists to begin to infiltrate further down through the country. So it's a remarkable story and it encompasses things like the Long March, which is probably best known to most people, where they went something like 6,000 miles in a certain number of days, and they set out with almost a hundred thousand [soldiers] and finished up with six or seven or 8,000 by the time they reached their destination, not actually knowing where that destination was going to be. So whatever anyone thinks of it, it is a most extraordinary story.

Ralph Ranalli: You mentioned that one of the ways the Chinese Communist Party has survived has been its ability to adapt, and that theme runs throughout your book. But it also seems like a bit of a contradiction. The stereotype of a communist regime is an organization that's very rigid, and China has certainly had those periods during the 20th century. Can you talk a little bit about that concept of adaptation, and how the party evolved and grew over the years?

Tony Saich: Yes. I mean, it's an interesting question because when we think of Leninist organizations, we always tend to think of them as not being flexible, not being very adaptable. And we have sort of in our mind, the vision of a Brezhnev-type Russia slowly melting away because of its institutional rigidity that can't adapt to the changing circumstances around it. Certainly before 1949, China was very adept in doing that. As I mentioned earlier and where it was extremely successful, was not where it let ideology dominate its local policy, it was really where it was good at micro-politics. So it was willing to work with local communities, form alliances with local communities, that enabled it to thrive and survive. That really was a lesson that it took initially with it into the post-1949 period, where it tried to build a broad sort of framework for an alliance with different groups in society to rebuild the war-torn economy.

But then it forgot those lessons. And then what we see happening through the mid '50s, Mao and perhaps others around him are getting impatient: “We're not getting the socialism quick enough … we got to move fast ... we've got to move faster.” And you see this incredible push to try and speed up the transition to socialism, which in part results first in the Great Leap Forward, the communization programs so forth, which amounted in probably some 30 million deaths because of the bad policies that were applied at that time. Some of it was due to famine, but primarily it was because of policy mistakes that were made. You could call that adaptability, if you like. I mean, it was a different kind of communist party that was meant to be mobilizational. And then of course, well that had a huge economic impact. 

You then had the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966. And by that time, Mao had become convinced within his own paranoia that the party was full of capitalists roaders, one of whom is Deng Xiaoping, who of course, we now associate with the reform period, but also Mao's number two, Liu Shaoqi, who died in prison, ignored, during the Cultural Revolution. And Mao felt that the party was being derailed or the revolution was being derailed, and that China was slowly but surely—or perhaps even quickly—heading back down the road towards capitalism. Now he couldn't win in the party and again in extraordinary adaptability, he basically let the party unravel and unleashed the young people in China. Their chance now to join in a revolution, overthrow the power holders, take power from outside, ‘let's get us back on the revolutionary course’. And once it started it was chaos, the party was in tatters and he couldn't turn to that, so he turned to the military to start bringing order back in again. And the military dominance in the system was very strong from really the late '60s through into the 1970s.

I think there's two things one can say from that, that was adaptability, but it was pretty bad adaptability. But I think it also is a caution in the present day because there is now this growing idea that somehow authoritarian regimes can get things done better than democracies. And that I think is a very sort of strong sentiment, which is coming out now. We see it, of course, with China playing up to that with the way it dealt with COVID—it was the force of the system. They let it spread in the first place, but then they claim, of course, it was our system that was able to bring it under control. Well, that's the plus side, but what happened in the Great Leap Forward in the Cultural Revolution is the negative side—same party and the same kind of authoritarian leadership, which led China into two sets of disasters. I think we have to be very careful when we think about what is the authoritarian advantage in decision-making. Yep, they can go extremely well if it's on the right course, but it also can go extremely badly. I think the second lesson coming out of that, is that the reform program I don't think would have happened in the way it did without the Cultural Revolution, because the Cultural Revolution was such a shock to many of the people in China, ordinary people, but most particularly in this case to elite decision-makers in the party, who'd been humiliated being thrown out of their role, thrown out of their positions. And they, I think, saw what one person authoritarian rule could really do. It allowed them to open up in a way that didn't happen in the Soviet Union or in Cuba, around the debate of why did that go wrong. What are the alternatives? And so in the late '70s, early '80s, it was the most extraordinary period in terms of willingness to raise ideas, which had been considered heretical just a couple of years before.

Ralph Ranalli: Can we talk a little bit about the Chinese leadership system and the ruling apparatus? Because one of the things that struck me that you wrote is that you say it's still a work in progress. You say they're still searching for a way to institutionalize the ruling apparatus.

Tony Saich: Yeah, sure. I mean, going back to what I was saying earlier about the late '70s, early '80s, it really looked for a while as if it wasn't only going to be more open debate within the party but perhaps, they were also going to take into account more strongly views from society. Remember, this was a period when something called the Democracy Wall was taking place, where people were publishing quite freely, people putting out big wall posters, most famous of which was Democracy: The Fifth Modernization written by Wei Jingsheng. And at that point, it looked as maybe the leadership was tottering its way forward to thinking about a more open relationship with society. But essentially Deng Xiaoping came to the conclusion that this was going to be damaging for the economic reform program. And he was most concerned, I think, not about what was happening on the streets, but the debates that were taking place in the party. And he set very strict limits around what would be permissible in terms of debate. There were certain core principles that he was to hold on to coming to your question. Those were the core principles of a traditional Leninist party, the Democratic centralism, the majority really ruling over the minority, so on and so forth. And so we saw despite all attempts to the contrary, a reassertion of the kind of pyramid structure within the communist party, which inevitably leads to an overemphasis on authority in the hands of the general secretary of the party, or chairman, as that person is sometimes called. 

What we've seen, I think in the current period under Xi Jinping is a much stronger reassertion of the role of the individual over the political system than I think many of us predicted in the last 20 years, that slowly it would slip into some kind of more collective leadership, sharing between the different groups in the party and that appeared to be happening. So we've seen this sort of reassertion of a pattern, which was prevalent under Mao Zedong, that's why I say I think it's a work in progress at a number of levels—one level being that it hasn't really institutionalized effectively, a method for succession within the leadership. We all know, as it's been reported, Xi Jinping has abolished term limits. It looks as though he wants to stay as the paramount leader to 2035. That I think is potentially problematic because it looks stable, but I think ultimately it makes the system appear unstable, in terms of what will happen when the succession comes about. Those who are moving up the ladder—do they now feel frustrated because this guy is going to stay around for another 14, 15 years? ‘What's going to happen to my career’?

Ralph Ranalli: You mentioned Democratic centralism. One of the three principle ideas in Chinese Democratic centralism, is supposed to be the principle of collective leadership. And yet over the history of the party, we've seen the pendulum swing from collective leadership back towards individual rule, party strong men like Mao, and now Xi Jinping. And in fact, some of Xi's writings on China's future have almost been elevated to being treated as co-equal to Mao's. What is behind, do you think, this repeated slide towards one man authoritarian rule?

Tony Saich: That's certainly the tendency, and not just in China but also if one looks at the Soviet Union and that appellation of the general secretary or secretary general embodies in it considerable power. And even at the times of collective leadership, where that was more apparent, that person still had an authority vested in that position that no one else would have. I mean, they could launch initiatives without really having to refer to the others. I think the way the system works—that sort of compounding of power as you move up—whether one likes it or not it tends to lead towards over-concentration of power, if not in one individual, certainly in a very small group of individuals at the top. While I think we were seeing something that looked a little bit more like collective leadership under the previous leader, Hu Jintao, where you had more of a kind of functional representation. And it looked as if that elite leadership were reflecting different thought streams within the party, different ideas within the party. That is something that Xi Jinping has clearly pushed back from. It really is my way or the highway. And part and parcel of that as you rightly said, is sort of an elevation of Xi Jinping to the kind of heights, perhaps not quite yet the heights of the Mao Zedong, as being the fount of all wisdom and the authority, both for interpreting the present, but also where China will go in the future.
I think it took everybody by surprise if I can divert just for a moment, because I think when Xi Jinping took power in 2012 he looked around and China looked a mess. It had just come out of a power struggle between him, or a group around him, and another elite leader. Society looked to be slipping out of control. Local government seemed to be pursuing its own interests, rather than the interests of Beijing. The party didn't necessarily seem reliable. So I think there was a groundswell of support for Xi to come rebuild this structure for us. But I think they were shocked perhaps by how quickly he moved to centralize power around himself, effectively, and how quickly he moved to remove alternative voices at the apex of decision-making structures. That's why I hear a lot of frustration espoused by people in China about the way he has centralized that kind of power and the way it has squeezed out some of the alternative voices.

Ralph Ranalli: Can we talk a little bit about some of the methods of control that the party uses to maintain power in order? One of the things I found very interesting was this notion of the relationships of different groups of the Chinese citizenry with the government as a series of vertical silos, and that communication that goes down from the party to the citizenry, and back up from the citizenry to the party is fine, but that any horizontal communication or organization at the grassroots level is viewed as a danger to the state and is immediately repressed.

Tony Saich: Yes, the Chinese Communist Party has really organized its system in terms of vertical silos. Information has to pass up and information passes down, and it tries to organize that across all sectors of the economy and society. That means that it's very difficult then to challenge the system because you're stuck in a kind of administrative rut that is very difficult to break out of. And as you rightly said, actions or groups that begin to organize horizontally are seen as a threat or a challenge. So for example, if there's a demonstration in one city, or there's a demonstration in one rural area, as long as that doesn't link up horizontally across other jurisdictions, it can be easily dealt with. But the fear of the Chinese Communist Party has always been that you might get that linkage across the system out of its control. It saw that it was solidarity in Poland. It saw it and its fear, I think, when it decided to crack down harshly in 1999 with the student demonstrations was when an Autonomous Students Federation, the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation set up, which was no longer. If I'm a Peking University student, I'm a member of the Union of Peking University  that goes up to the Beijing City group. Beijing City goes up to the national group and so forth. But now they weren't doing that. They were organizing with brother and sister institutions across Beijing. And then in horror of horrors you then got an Autonomous Workers Federation, which instead of working within one factory, going up the industrial chain, was also starting to talk to workers in different factories. The most horrible thing for them, of course, would have been if the students, perhaps intellectuals, and also workers had come together to form one horizontal set of organizations in the way of Poland, but that didn't happen.

It is presenting a new challenge now, which is of course with the internet and social media, because the Chinese Communist Party has had a very stringent control over what kinds of information people can see, and at what levels they can see that information. I've often talked about it as being an infantilization of the population; you're treating your citizens like children. What can you read, what can't you read. And that of course has become a major challenge with the internet, which moves quickly, which does move horizontally. And so the Chinese Communist Party has put a lot of effort in trying to control that sector. We all know about the Great Firewall, which of course tries to block information coming in, but it does other things in terms of trying to structure the conversation on the internet.

Ralph Ranalli: Yeah. They've basically created an internet army of propagandists and message-deliverers in order to control the conversation. It's almost as if they saw social media as a new battlefront in a war of ideology and put themselves on a wartime footing.

Tony Saich: Yes. I mean, there's what is referred to as the 50 Cent Army. I don't really know if it's true or not, but it is said that, for a positive comment about the party, you get paid 50 cents and as a result there are a whole bunch of trolls out there, sort of pushing out the party line. But they also use it in a creative way, they do monitor it to see what people are thinking about. It is in a sense an early warning system for them. If people are complaining about something to do with the environment, or something, they do monitor that a lot and pick up on it, and often will require local government officials to act in that way.

I do want to make another point though, because it's not only about repression and control. There's two other factors, which I think are important. The first one I think is fragile, which is trying to give Chinese citizens a narrative they can buy into, that they will believe. That's why we see nationalism emerging as a strong sentiment, and often a card which is played by the Chinese Communist Party. And there what they've done is basically they try to identify the party with the nation. So if you're critical of the party, you must by definition be anti-Chinese—you can't be patriotic and critical of the Chinese Communist Party. But related to that, there's a kind of historical storytelling—which we're seeing of course with this being the 100th anniversary—and this is of the glorious history of the Chinese Communist Party. And Xi Jinping has spoken frequently now on the need to get a correct party history understood by the people and to criticize what he calls Historical Nihilism, which of course is anything that doesn't agree with that official party history. But the problem is of course, history changes, nationalism waxes and wanes. 

But I do think we have to be fair to the Chinese Communist Party, that they have produced tremendous economic results. They've created a middle-class, which I think is quite faithful and loyal to the party. They put a lot of investment into providing social policy support, and surveys that we were looking at and doing up until 2016, actually show that those whose satisfaction had increased most—not with the party, but with government—were the poorest members of the Chinese society in urban or rural China, and those living inland rather than the coastal areas. It wasn't to say the satisfaction wasn't rising with the other groups. And I think that's quite telling, it's a kind of a performance legitimacy. So it's not just economic growth. It's also that the Chinese leadership have become aware of those social challenges and have invested in them heavily for the poor communities, and that has paid off in enhanced support. But again, of course, that kind of performance legitimacy by its very nature is fragile, because what happens if performance drops? Do the other things hold the party sufficiently together beyond repression? Marxism-Leninism isn't going to cut it. So the question becomes: What else?

Ralph Ranalli: You talk in the book about how the party tries to, as you put it, develop its problems away, using economic growth as a sort of band-aid to cover up problems like ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, for example. There are over 50 ethnic and ethno-nationalist identifications in China, who occupy about 60% of the country's landmass, and that's been a real problem for China, particularly in terms of its record on human rights and its international standing.

Tony Saich: Yeah, I think it relates to what you're saying about developing away problems. If you look at the way it's written, once the Uyghurs or Tibetans buy into the idea that the Chinese Communist Party can make you wealthy, these problems will go away. So that is underlying the development discourse: “You know, why are they a problem? Well, it's because basically they're not civilized. When do they become civilized? Well, when they become more affluent. And then these problems will melt away.”

But what is clearly shown, of course, is that is not the case. Now you said there is a considerable number of ethnic minorities, and many of those are more integrated into Chinese society. The Chinese state doesn't see them as a problem and hasn't been sort of repressive in terms of actions against them. What singles out Xinjiang and Tibet though, and this in a way relates to horizontal rather than vertical, is that they have their own history. And it's a history which is independent, not only of the Chinese Communist Party, but it's independent of many of the traditional stories about the Chinese empire and the Han majority race within the Chinese empire. It has an external point of reference, the Dalai Lama, of course, with respect to Tibet groups across the border in the old Turkistan areas, in the Northwest of China. That makes them in many ways, a threat to the Chinese state because they don't buy into the narrative, which the Chinese Communist Party is telling, whether that's the old narrative of class struggle, or whether it's the current narrative: We are the inheritors of that glorious tradition. 

And so the communist party has moved to essentially, I think, made the decision that they want to destroy that culture and independence. While we talk about the prison camps or internment camps, China eventually was forced to admit the things that were happening there, but they talked about them as re-training, re-education camps and so on. That clearly shows what they want to do is eradicate, as far as they can, the identity of Uyghur culture and replace it by adherence to a narrative told out of Beijing. And that clearly has not been successful to date. I suspect moving forward, the most historical parallels or experiences we have also showed that it will not be successful over the long-term.

Ralph Ranalli: Another theme the party has used to foster unity and uniformity of thought has been blaming outside agitators and accusing other countries of meddling anytime there's a problem. Well, that still exists, but now China has also embarked on a major military buildup and Xi has said that by mid-century, his goal is for China to be a co-equal military superpower with any other superpower in the world. Now, given this historical use of the outsider as a way to maintain internal stability and this nationalistic military buildup, if you're an international leader, how do you engage with China in a productive way? This is crucial because we're entering a period of time when, because of climate and things like pandemics, it's a time when we need international cooperation more than ever.

Tony Saich: You have to remember that Chinese Communist Party is infallible. It cannot possibly make a mistake. So if something goes wrong, that means either it's people in the party led everybody astray, or it's those damn foreigners. It’s what the leadership has always said, but the current leadership has been pushing particularly strongly. I find what's actually having quite a strong impact amongst younger people is this idea of a hundred years of humiliation at the hands of the foreigners. And that has been, I think, a sort of a galvanizing and mobilizing mechanism to get support for the leadership. And I think it has been effective.

Ralph Ranalli: Yeah, nothing beats a good old victimization narrative.

Tony Saich: No. That's right. We had a period of time up until I would say maybe 15 years ago where China did fail, it was still vulnerable, where it was weak, and where it wanted to learn much more from the outside world. And so that victimization narrative tended to drop somewhat, but particularly since the global financial crisis of '08, '09, I think the Chinese leadership decided, "Well, maybe what we're doing is better." And then you increasingly see the victimization narrative coming to the fore. It has, as you said, consequences, in terms of its external actions and attitude, we see it with a much more aggressive pushback by Chinese diplomats and as you said, the assertion that China will become a major global power by 2050. But then I think there's a number of dimensions to that. If you really want to be a global player, can you rely on a narrative of humiliation? Does that work? Does that bring you respect around the world? I suspect something in that narrative is going to have to change. It's probably going to have to shift more to the other part of the narrative you're talking about that, "We will be a major power by 2050." Again, you get back to measurable issues. Can they actually achieve that? What does it mean? So on and so forth.

Okay. So how do we engage? Well, the basic starting point has to be that China is a reality and it's probably not going away. And that means that, for the sake of global challenges, we do have to find ways to deal with it. How do we do that? Well, China is not opposed to everything in the global order, and parts of the global order have been extremely beneficial to China. In many ways, I wrote this almost 20 years ago, in much of the rest of the world was getting beyond the idea of a Westphalian state, China's is becoming one of the strongest advocates of the idea of a Westphalian state and so on and so forth. That's part of the narrative that is pushing out their defense of state interest, not being interfered with and not interfering in the affairs of others—even though it does, of course. But what it does mean is there are certain parts out there at the global order that China has benefited from, there are parts of that global order where it knows it can only achieve its own objectives by cooperation. You mentioned, of course, climate change is clearly one of them, and even though the COVID pandemic has been disastrous in terms of cooperation, that's another clear area for where, what might want to think about working together. Then there's a whole set of challenges that I think of, in terms of what a new global public goods, that seems to me where one can try to engage China and other nations because the institutional architecture is not fixed yet.

I mean, part of this humiliation, part of the ranting against the foreigners is that, "Well that’s post-Second World War global order. That was all built up by the US and its allies. We weren't part of it. It doesn't favor us. We needed to shift in our favor." Well, the US has made it clear that it's not going to make those shifts. It wasn't going to do it with the IMF. It wasn't going to do it in a number of other organizations. But if you think about major challenges around the global comments, for example, water shortages, climate change, as we said, those are areas which will need collaboration. And it is in the Chinese interests to cooperate. Global regulation, what is going to happen with cross border financial flows? Or for example the rise of digital currency? 

So, I think the US has to think carefully. And I see us emerging more and more from the rhetoric which has been put forward that China is an enemy everywhere. It's an all-out confrontation. You'll begin to see more and more voices saying, "Well, even if that is the case, we have to parse that, in terms of where is it going to be competition? Where is the conflict, where we have to set guard rails? Where are those areas that still we might be able to push forward for the benefit of humanity at large, in terms of cooperation and collaboration?" I'm sorry, the last thing I would just say on that is that we also have to be realistic. Beijing is not going to change US domestic behavior and Washington is not going to change Beijing's domestic behavior, no matter how much we might like that idea.

Ralph Ranalli: Do you see another adaptation in the near term future for the Chinese Communist Party, maybe one that would be forced by world events?

Tony Saich: Yeah. I mean the only thing that is going to force China to change is when it sees that change in its own best interests. So perhaps eventually the pressure around trade, the pushback on Chinese investment may get it to reconsider its practices. I mean, that's still going to take a lot of work. And it's only going to adapt domestically when the sufficient domestic pressures push it to change. Is that potential there? I think the answer is yes, but it's limited. I don't think we should think that we're going to march forward to some liberal democratic nirvana in the near future, but it has considerable domestic problems. Everybody talks about the aging of Chinese society. And there's another big challenge, which is, can China really move out from the upper middle income trap to being a more affluent society? Scott Rozelle has written in a book, “Invisible China,” together with a colleague, quite interestingly on that, where it basically says: "Look getting the last 20 million out of absolute poverty, is easier than getting 900 million people out of low income." And there's a massive set of challenges around that, that we have to think about.

That's where I see potential adaptability and change coming. I see it may be moving from what we see at the moment with this re-centralization of power, and a hard authoritarianism to something that goes back to what we saw 10 years ago, 15 years ago, which is more flexible, more adaptable, allowing more local initiative, and innovation and less repressive society. But I still think it would be in the realms of a soft authoritarianism, but of course, we have to keep open all scenarios. None of us expected the 1989 demonstrations to happen. None of us expected the Soviet Union to collapse when it collapsed. Many people expected the Chinese Communist Party to collapse and it hasn't collapsed. So, social scientists are not great at predictions. We should have to leave it to the historians to tell us why it happened, but of course, by that time, it's going to be too late.

Ralph Ranalli: The book is called “From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party” and it's out next month from Harvard University Press. Thank you, Tony. That was very enlightening and I really appreciate your taking the time.

Tony Saich: Well, thank you, Ralph. And thanks for the questions. It was great. I enjoyed it.

Ralph Ranalli: Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join us for our next episode. And if you'd like more information about other recent episodes, or to learn more about our podcast, please visit us at hks.harvard.edu/policycast.