Assessing Threats to the Legitimacy and Power of the Chinese Communist Party

The demise of Chinese Communist Party rule is unlikely. However, the CCP isn’t without its Achilles heel(s)…

While it can be said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a firm ‘monopoly on power’ in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there are a number of political, ethnic, religious and economically-motivated groups which pose a number of threats to the control that the CCP holds over the politics, people, and territory of the PRC.

Additionally, a multitude of economic issues could present significant threats to the CCP’s monopoly on power, as any significant economic slowdown has the potential to reduce any confidence held by the Chinese people in the CCP.


  • Ensuring sustainable economic growth is key to the Communist Party’s hold on power. Now that Xi Jinping has consolidated power in his second term, China’s debt-laden economy will likely undergo significant reform. 
  • The Tibetans and Uyghur populations’ desire greater autonomy from the Chinese government, and thus are a threat because of their goal to become independent of China, subsequently causing the CCP to lose control over significant amounts of territory.
  • Such a possibility is inconceivable in the minds of China’s strategic planners, who have implemented programs designed to assimilate local populations into a dominate “Chinese” national narrative. 

Sustained economic growth is the new “Mandate of Heaven.”

When it comes to economic threats to the Communist Party, the next several years—or even decades—will be critical in sustaining party control and legitimacy. The government has elevated President Xi Jinping to a level within the party—and the state—not observed since the days of Chairman Mao.

This move indicates that Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption drive will persist, if not escalate, and that Xi’s economic policies, which have resulted in millions losing their jobs, will do the same.

Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, are laden with debt, and the government has determined that some will have to fail. The increasing mass of unemployed could present a threat to the party if discontent persists, however, the government has offered urban unemployed job opportunities in rural infrastructure development, tourism, and education in China’s eastern provinces.

While these programs offer the urban unemployed wages they would otherwise be unable to obtain; they also serve the purpose of dispersing to rural provinces urban populations that were previously heavily concentrated; communities that could become discontented with the status quo and pose a threat to internal security.

In a more strategic sense, should these programs effectuate the migration of a significant number of Han Chinese to China’s eastern provinces (Tibet, Xinjiang), the long-term effect will be a more sustained assimilation of the local populations, notably as Beijing touts its message of the “Chinese dream” to its citizens?

The desire for greater autonomy or even complete independence by ethnic groups and territories within Mainland China continues to present a significant, continuous threat to the CCP. Disputes over regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang may not threaten the CCP’s position as ruling party of China.

Individually, The Tibetans and Uyghur populations—which are the primary ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, respectively—desire greater autonomy from the Chinese government, and thus are a threat because of their goal to become independent of China, subsequently causing the CCP to lose control over significant amounts of territory.

The Tibetan Problem

Tibet, which is representative of both the Tibetan ethnicity and territory in this essay, has historically sought complete independence, rather than autonomy from the PRC. After achieving total independence from China after the demise of the Qing dynasty’s rule in Tibet in 1912, the Tibetan people enjoyed sovereignty for approximately 36 years. After the Chinese Civil War, the CCP emerged as the dominant power in Mainland China and subsequently incorporated the region of Tibet into their territorial holdings.

The CCP granted a significant amount of autonomy to Tibet, which was renounced during the failed Tibetan Rebellion of 1959, during which the Tibetan government, including the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan faith, fled to India. It is important to note that the Tibetans did not perceive the Chinese invasion as a threat to the territorial integrity of Tibet, although Tibet had assumed a distinct geographical entity as a separate country since the seventh century. The attack was seen more as a threat to their faith. Since this so-called offensive against the Tibetan faith occurred, the CCP has treated the citizens of the Tibetan region much differently than citizens of the rest of the country.

In 2008, violent protests and riots, caused by resentment towards the inequalities that Tibetans experience relative to other parts of China, erupted throughout Tibet. Tibetans were angered by inflation, inadequate education and low access to employment. The riots were mainly ethnically driven, as rioters attacked business owners and pedestrians of the Han and Hui ethnicities. These actions by the people of Tibet are indicative of a desire for greater independence from the government of the PRC, reveal the fact that Tibet is a significant threat to the CCP’s authority.

This is because it is an issue of ethnicity and religion, rather than being an issue of government reform or democratization. The desire for equality and with that, independence is something that the CCP cannot reform without weakening itself by sacrificing territory. This issue will continue to plague the Party until Tibet wins full autonomy or is obliterated by the CCP.

As an additional note, this is not only an internal issue. There are a significant number of Tibetan exiles living outside the reach and influence of the CCP, who can not only influence foreign governments to take action against the CCP but to provide valuable information and assistance to activists within Tibet. The fact that there are elements outside of the CCP’s control; variables that it cannot predict or control, concerning the issue of Tibet makes this an even more substantial threat.

Xinjiang: a more significant issue than you’d think.

Another similar, if not more threatening situation within China is the ongoing tensions between the CCP and the Muslim-Chinese Uyghur ethnic group in the Xinjiang province. Beginning in the 1990s, the CCP started to tightening restrictions on religious practices…as part of a crackdown on Xinjiang’s Muslims in response to public demonstrations in the 1980s and a violent mass uprising in 1990. Even today, these restrictions exist.

The repression of Islam in Xinjiang has gone so far that the government has mandated that mosques be closed and that clerics submit to supervision by party officials. As Islam is no doubt a large part of the Uyghur population, as part of their spiritual and cultural expression, this is viewed as a highly oppressive act by the leadership of the CCP.

This oppression exists because the CCP’s leaders view the practice of religion as a potential threat to the integrity of the atheist state and CCP authority. Likewise, they fear that the free practice of Islam encourages radicalism among Uyghur’s and other Muslims in China.

This fear of radicalism has encouraged both the Party and government to go so far as charging individuals who try to practice Islam peacefully of ‘separatism,’ and it persecutes religious leaders and Muslim opposition figures linking them to terrorism.

Party officials realize the validity of the threat that the Xinjiang population holds, and has gone so far as to design education policy in the region around integrating youths of Uyghur and non-Han ethnicities into the society of the PRC through means such as Mandarin language instruction, while discouraging the use of the native languages of these ethnicities.

The paradox of preventive oppression

While it can be said that the CCP’s fear of dissent by the population of Xinjiang has motivated their policies of religious intolerance and discouragement of native languages, these policies are most likely encourage anti-social activities on the part of the Uyghur populace. The statement that the ruling party enacts more oppressive policies when it feels threatened reigns very true in this instance.

As the elite of the CCP reacts to its fears of separatists in Xinjiang, it only encourages more resentment from the people it fears. In 2009, a small percentage of the Uyghur population of Xinjiang reacted to the oppressive policies of the CCP, attacking members of the Han ethnic group in Xinjiang, and encouraging protests in cities as far away as Beijing.

While the CCP realizes the legitimacy of this threat, CCP policymakers will likely find it difficult to address the long-term separatist risks as long as Uyghur’s and other minorities in Xinjiang perceive the PRC policy in Xinjiang as unjust and oppressive.

China perceives its version of “affirmative action” as both a means of population management and as a national security strategy.

The same goes for the population of Tibet; the more the CCP enacts oppressive policies and creates a sense of inequality for the residents of territories with separatist sentiments, the more of a threat it generates.

The separatist danger that exists in both Xinjiang and Tibet will only grow larger, as the CCP attempts to oppress the population through harsher means.

China’s version of “Affirmative action.”

While the government’s repressive tactics are well-documented in both Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing has stepped up its use of “soft-power” in both regions. Alongside the discouragement of the use of local languages in favor of Mandarin in schools, Beijing has encouraged Tibetans and Uyghur students and young people with education opportunities, offering them disproportionate acceptance rates to state universities, similar to Affirmative Action programs in the United States.

Dissimilar to the programs in the United States, China’s were conceived to assimilate a potentially separatist population into a constructed national culture, rather than to correct a historical discrimination and injustice. In short, China perceives its version of “affirmative action” as both a means of population management and as a national security strategy.

Are there any political threats to the Chinese Communist Party?

The CCP has long banned any opposing political parties, maintaining that the Communist party is the only political party in China legally permitted to function. The CCP has taken strong and harsh measures to not only stop the formation of parties but to punish those responsible for organizing them. The Chinese Democracy Party (CDP) has been banned in China since its attempted inception in the late 90s.

In November of 1998, members of the CDP announced the formation of the First CDP National Congress Preparatory Work Group, making the first reference to the existence of a national party-related body. Additionally, some members of the group mentioned above joined with activists in Tianjin to form the CDP Beijing-Tianjin Regional Party Branch.

Crucially, this new group consciously omitted the word “preparatory” from its title, thus implying that the party was already active. The formation of these groups is very significant because they were formed in direct opposition to the CCP, which by law is the only political party permitted in China.

To crack down on the CDP before it became widely known throughout the country, the Communist Party began cracking down on CDP officials in December of 1998, punishing them with long, and in some cases, lifetime prison terms. While the government cracked down on the CDP in China, it still exists abroad.

The government has taken measures to ban Internet communications relative to what it views as anti-social activities by censoring websites and chat-rooms frequented by CDP members. It can be said that the level of threat a group or event holds is indicated by how fast the threatened party(s) react.

The fact that the CCP reacted so quickly and vigorously against the CDP indicates that pro-Democracy political parties (which are also anti-Communist Party, by default) have the potential to be very threatening to the monopoly of power held by the CCP.

If enough supporters are gained, there could be widespread calls for a more democratic China, modeled after western democracies, where the power is in the hands of the citizens, not the ruling party’s members. However, much emphasis must be placed on the term ‘potential threat,’ as pro-Democratic political parties cannot be considered a genuine, active threat until they have become unmanageable by the ruling party.

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