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The Communist Party is marking a century since its foundation – although the exact date of the first meeting is unclear. Photo: Kyodo

ExplainerWhy China’s Communist Party celebrates anniversary on July 1, earlier than first official meeting

  • The party held its first national congress in July 1921 but the political confusion of the times left exact day unclear
  • Date of the inaugural gathering was lost through incomplete records, a police raid and the country’s civil war

This is the 13th in the South China Morning Post’s series of explainers about the Communist Party of China in the lead-up to the party’s centenary in July. Here, Jane Cai explains why the anniversary is celebrated on July 1, even though the first national congress was held in late July, 1921, and how that particular meeting did not go according to plan.

On Thursday, the Communist Party of China celebrates its 100th year. But although it has marked its anniversary on July 1 for much of its existence, it was years before the world’s second-largest political party – after India’s Bharatiya Janata Party – officially decided on that date.
This was largely because of incomplete records at the start. The Communist Party was officially founded at its first national congress in 1921, which official documents say took place from July 23-31 in Shanghai. According to the party’s website, 13 Chinese party members were present, as well as two representatives from Communist International (Comintern), the now defunct Soviet Union-controlled organisation that advocated for global communism.

For a long time though, the exact date of this meeting was unclear, in part because of the ensuing confusion in a police raid. Attendees got wind of it and managed to flee beforehand, travelling 100km (62 miles) to the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province where they finished their historic gathering in a boat on Nanhu Lake.


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Many papers and documents were lost because of the raid. Later, caught up in the chaos of China’s civil war, which only ended in 1949, celebrating the party’s birthday was the least of members’ worries. It was only in the 1950s, after records held by the Soviet Union were transferred to China, that there was any official confirmation of dates relating to the first national congress.

Zhang Baijia is the former deputy director of the Party History Research Office. In 2011, in an article in History Reference, a magazine belonging to the People’s Daily newspaper, Zhang wrote: No one remembered the opening date of the first party congress. They just remembered it was in July, so they decided on July 1.”

It took a few years, and several events, before that date was fully established as the party’s anniversary.


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Banquet in Moscow

In 1936, the Comintern hosted a banquet in Moscow attended by delegates from China’s Communist Party. The dinner was to celebrate the Chinese party’s 15th anniversary. The Comintern’s magazine featured a series of commemorative articles, including one by Chen Tanqiu, who had attended the first national congress. His piece, now regarded by China as the first published record of that meeting, contained a detailed account of it but no specific date. It merely said it took place “at the end of July in 1921”.

Zhou Enlai’s speech

On July 1, 1937, according to the Communist Party’s website, party leader Zhou Enlai delivered a speech to mark the 16th anniversary. Zhou, who later became the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, called on members to play a leading role against Japanese invaders. His words helped to educate, boost morale and recall the then-short history of the communist organisation without mentioning its exact birthday.

Mao Zedong decides

The following year the party decided to officially commemorate July 1 for the first time. It began preparing in the spring for what would be its 17th anniversary. Still holed up with communist fighters in caves in Yanan, in the western province of Shaanxi, was Hunan’s Mao Zedong, then in his 40s.

Later the founding father of the People’s Republic, Mao had been one of the attendees of the first national congress. In 1938, he recalled that the initial meeting had taken place in July 1921, but did not remember the exact date.

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In speeches in May and June, he declared July 1 would be marked as the party’s anniversary and stressed that members must make greater efforts to win a “protracted war” against Japanese troops.

Not long afterwards, the party’s Central Committee released guidelines for the 17th anniversary’s celebrations. Military parades and dinner parties were held that year and July 1 was officially “set” as the party’s foundation day. It was also decided that commemorative activities would be held annually.

Since then, July 1 has been seen as a day for party leaders to reach agreement, come together and gain the public’s support.