What China’s 70th Anniversary Celebrations Really Tell Us

World Politics Review, 09.10.2019
Howard W. French, corresponsal internacional y escritor de temas globales

The evening gala at Tiananmen Square for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.(AP/Ng Han Guan).

When the Chinese Communist Party recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of its rule, it predictably pulled out all the stops. These included stepped up censorship of already tightly controlled domestic media for weeks before the event, extraordinary security measures in Beijing designed to prevent even the slightest disturbance, and the largest military parade in the country’s history.

Responses to China’s celebrations have been equally predictable, too, and although they fall into two broad and opposing camps, there is no real contradiction between them.

On one hand, some observers focus on China’s achievements since the early 1980s, starting with the rapid and prolonged economic growth that has “lifted” hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. From the evidence on display in the parade, it has also created a world-class military that is quickly becoming a peer rival of the United States, despite vastly greater spending by the Pentagon.

In the briefest of timespans, historically speaking, China has also gone from being an inward-looking country whose emphasis was on economic self-reliance and survival through sheer demographic size during the Cold War, to becoming the world’s biggest manufacturing power, its largest exporter of capital, and an uber-ambitious provider of public goods around the world. The immense infrastructure-building that its construction companies and state banks have undertaken in Africa over the past two decades, it turns out, was merely a training school for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, an even vaster scheme that aims at lashing Central Asia, Europe and much of the world beyond to China, via Chinese-built and Chinese-financed infrastructure.

There is no force that can shake the foundations of this great nation,” China’s leader, Xi Jinping, exulted in his speech at the anniversary celebration.

No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”

For many observers in developing countries, and possibly even more and more in Western ones as well, this amounts to stout vindication of China’s authoritarian one-party political system. Never mind that this swims against the current of more than a century of dominant and sometimes preachy Western doctrine about the merits of democracy and pluralism. Success, say the convinced, speaks for itself, and it sounds all the more eloquent when contrasted with the increasing incoherence emanating from a West locked in disarray.

If mildly chastened, though, the other side of this debate has hardly thrown in the towel. Yes, China’s income has risen, but the gap in per capita terms with the rich countries in the West still seems insurmountably large, especially when considered against the severe looming environmental and demographic constraints China faces. China has come very far very fast, to be sure, but to catch up with the West on these per capita terms along present lines of development would mean certain environmental collapse for China and catastrophe for the entire world. The historic youth dividend that helped launch the country’s high-growth era, meanwhile, has come to a dramatic end. Suddenly, 4 million more people are retiring than entering China’s work force each year, and the growth of an enormous dependent class of the aged, many suffering from expensive chronic illnesses, will create onerous new fiscal burdens on the state that will be extremely difficult to meet.

It may not yet be evident today, but having freshly created a large middle class, China will enter this new era with a citizenry that will feel more and more entitled to having a say in the momentous tradeoffs that lie ahead. These tradeoffs will not be between guns and butter, per se, so much as spending on the military and the global contest for hard power, or meeting the ballooning welfare needs of its own people.

Both sides in this debate miss important questions of context, however, without which one cannot adequately understand either China’s past achievements or their limits. A 2014 book called “The Perfect Dictatorship,” by the Norwegian scholar Stein Ringen, provides one of the most helpful frameworks for this necessary context.

Ringen compares China’s recent decades of achievement to those of other high-achieving East Asian countries and finds that China comes up short. In 40 years, for instance, South Korea moved from a poor dictatorship to an affluent democracy with a social welfare safety net. By comparison, after 40 years of China’s reform and opening up, it has equaled South Korea in only one achievement: economic growth. “And in the time South Korea made itself a high-income country,” Ringen wrote, “China has made itself no more than a middle-income one.”

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan all have another major, historical accomplishment that deserves citing, which can easily get lost in comparisons of overall performance that are distorted by the fact of China’s sheer size: Their rapid economic development and transitions to democracy were accompanied by the blossoming of robust and vibrant civil societies.

That China could not be more different in this sense is on display in recent events within the country, whether the ongoing repression of the predominantly Muslim Uighur population in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, or Beijing’s unwillingness to grant even the limited self-determination to Hong Kong that its people were promised in 1999 when the longtime British colony was returned to China. In the end, even its greatly increased national wealth does not seem to have made China much more secure, and this is reflected in the fact that pluralism in all of its forms remains anathema to Beijing, which sees it as an existential threat to the party’s power.

Despite all of the recent anniversary pomp, the most revealing reflection of where China finds itself after seven decades under the Communist Party did not come from the tightly choreographed official celebrations or any associated events at all. Instead it came as if out of nowhere from the unscripted world of Twitter, which is banned in China precisely because it cannot be censored. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, set off a fury when he saluted the Hong Kong demonstrators on his personal Twitter account. China immediately cancelled lucrative commercial sponsorship arrangements with the team and suspended broadcasts in the country of the NBA’s preseason games.

This incident serves to illustrate that China’s problem is not only, as some distant observers have long imagined, that its stringent official intolerance only stunts its own people, which of course it does. As China grows richer and more powerful, it will increasingly seek to project its intolerance outward, making others bend before its censored political speech in an attempt to normalize it.

Imposing norms on others, of course, is routine business for great powers. The United States has long employed official sanctions to punish other nations and enforce conformity, and China now is doing more and more of that itself.

As important as it is to note the similarities, though, one must also understand the differences. Where Washington has sanctioned by government decision, China claims to do so on the basis of an illusory unanimity in its own public opinion. When the state is offended it hides behind the masses, frequently claiming that the feelings of 1.4 billion people have been hurt. Of course, such absurd claims can only be made in a country where speech is aggressively censored and the public sphere ruthlessly policed.

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