About the Author
Anthony Saich is the director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, teaching courses on comparative political institutions, democratic governance, and transitional economies with a focus on China. In his capacity as Institute Director, Saich also serves as the faculty chair of the China Programs, the Asia Energy Leaders Program, Unseen Legacies of the Vietnam War and the Vietnam War Global Studies Initiative.
Saich first visited China as a student in 1976 and continues to visit each year. Currently, he is a guest professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, China. He also advises a wide range of government, private, and nonprofit organizations on work in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Saich was a trustee member of the National Committee on US-China Relations (2014-20), is a board member of AMC Entertainment Inc. and International Bridges to Justice and was the Chair of the China Medical Board (2015-2019). He is also the US Secretary-General of the China United States Strategic Philanthropy. He sits on the executive committees of the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Council on Asia Studies, the Asia Center and previously on the South Asia Initiative (2012-2015), all at Harvard University. He served as the Harvard representative of the Kennedy Memorial Trust (2010-2020) and previously was the representative for the Ford Foundation’s China Office from 1994 to 1999. Prior to this, he was director of the Sinological Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
His current research focuses on politics and governance in post-Mao China, philanthropy in China. His most recent books include From Rebel to Ruler. One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party (2021); Finding Allies and Making Revolution. The Early years of the Chinese Communist Party (2020); Governance and Politics of China (Fourth Edition, 2015); Chinese Village, Global Market (2012); Providing Public Goods in Transitional China (2008); Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (with David Apter, 1998); The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party (1996); and China’s Science Policy in the 80s (1989); He has edited books on Political Governance in China, 2015, Philanthropy for Health in China (with Jennifer Ryan and Lincoln Chen, 2014), China's urbanization (with Shahid Yusuf, 2008), HIV/AIDS (with Joan Kaufman and Arthur Kleinman, 2006), and the Reform of China’s Financial Sector ( with Yasheng Huang and Edward Steinfeld., 2005).
He holds a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Letters, University of Leiden, the Netherlands. He received his master’s degree in politics with special reference to China from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and his bachelor’s degree in politics and geography from the University of Newcastle, UK. Away from the office, he enjoys time with his two children, movies, and soccer.
On the centennial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the definitive history of how Mao and his successors overcame incredible odds to gain and keep power.
Mao Zedong and the twelve other young men who founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 could hardly have imagined that less than thirty years later they would be rulers. On its hundredth anniversary, the party remains in command, leading a nation primed for global dominance.
Tony Saich tells the authoritative, comprehensive story of the Chinese Communist Party—its rise to power against incredible odds, its struggle to consolidate rule and overcome self-inflicted disasters, and its thriving amid other communist parties’ collapse. Saich argues that the brutal Japanese invasion in the 1930s actually helped the party. As the Communists retreated into the countryside, they established themselves as the populist, grassroots alternative to the Nationalists, gaining the support they would need to triumph in the civil war. Once in power, however, the Communists faced the difficult task of learning how to rule. Saich examines the devastating economic consequences of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the party’s rebound under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
Leninist systems are thought to be rigid, yet the Chinese Communist Party has proved adaptable. From Rebel to Ruler shows that the party owes its endurance to its flexibility. But is it nimble enough to realize Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”? Challenges are multiplying, as the growing middle class makes new demands on the state and the ideological retreat from communism draws the party further from its revolutionary roots. The legacy of the party may be secure, but its future is anything but guaranteed.
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Alessandra Seiter: 2021 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. But in 1921, the success and longevity of Mao Zedong and his 12 CCP co-founders was anything but guaranteed. The rise of the CCP is a story of a small band of young men who navigated a treacherous political landscape to eventually become an economic superpower rivaling the United States. That story has shaped the trajectory of modern China, and the career of Harvard Kennedy School professor Anthony Saich. On this episode of Behind the Book, we speak with Professor Saich about his most recent book, From Rebel to Ruler: 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party.
One hundred years ago, the newly established Republic of China was in a state of intense political and intellectual fragmentation. The 1911 revolution had brought an end to over 2,000 years of Chinese imperial rule. The official government of the Guomindang, the Nationalist Party, was wrestling for power with a network of warlords. The Soviet Union was encouraging anti imperialists in China to establish their own communist regime, and the May 4th movement of 1919 inspired many Chinese students to explore Marxist philosophy. Thirteen of those young activists would go on to found the Chinese Communist Party. Eventually, they’d managed to win over China's majority peasant population despite a civil war and a devastating Japanese invasion. In less than 30 years, they’d take power in a newly inaugurated People's Republic of China.
Anthony Saich: It is an extraordinary story. You know, you start with a bunch of kids gathering in a safe house in Shanghai with this idea that, “We're going to be part of the global proletarian revolution that's going to bring power to the working class.” We've seen a number of kind of one-dimensional explanations, which none of which I've ever found satisfactory.
Seiter: Contrary to the “official history” of China advanced by the current day CCP, Professor Saich argues that the party’s rise was anything but inevitable. Context, strategic allies and luck all played a role. What Saich does attribute to the CCP itself is its adaptability. On paper, the CCP looks like a traditional Leninist party operating with a top down model known as democratic centralism. And to be sure, the CCP has always concentrated power in a single leader and maintains a strong apparatus of propaganda. But with 95 million members and a country of immense ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, the CCP has had to learn how to adjust its central directives to fit local conditions so it can maintain its legitimacy.
Saich: So as a result, what we see is not the kind of unified, disciplined party that we’re always being told about, but really an amalgam of different ideas merged into that one party. And also a party which again, despite what it tells us, actually has a considerable number of factions within it.
Seiter: Saich says these adjustments have rewarded the CCP with more loyal community leaders, especially in rural areas of the country. That adaptability has its limits, of course, particularly when the CCP views local activities as a threat to party dominance.
Saich: Where it really becomes a problem, I think, is in the areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, which clearly have a different narrative about their own history, which is distinct from the narrative the Chinese Communist Party tells. It's also a narrative that links to a world outside, whether it's in Xinjiang out into Central Asia, or whether it's in Tibet to the Dalai Lama.
Seiter: At a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP in 2021, Xi Jinping proclaimed that, “We will achieve the goal of building a great modern socialist country in all respects and fulfill the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.” Whether Xi will fulfill the Chinese dream remains to be seen, but Professor Saich's careful analysis of the CCP's legacy offers historical clarity - and a thrilling story.
The book is From Rebel to Ruler 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party, written by Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. It's published by Harvard University Press. To learn more about the origins of the CCP, check out this past episode of Behind the Book, which takes a look at Professor Saich's previous book, Finding Allies and Making Revolution: The Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party. This has been Behind The Book, a production of Library and Research Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSLibrary and visiting our website.