Today marks the 60th year since Mao Zedong stood on the podium of the Forbidden City to announce the birth of Communist China. Based on China’s own history of peasant revolts, he saw and tapped into the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and turned it into the revolutionary force that succeeded in changing the face of China, putting in place a huge reform programme aimed at land reform and poverty alleviation under the single party rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Women were given equal rights, child labour was abolished and infrastructure for basic health and education put in place.
However, Mao’s 30-year reign left a mixed record. His great mass movements, including the Great Leap Forward of 1958, hoping to catapult China into the first world, left millions dead in a famine that followed. Similarly, the Great Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, an attempt to destroy the old, was a dark chapter in China’s revolutionary history.
Mao’s constant class propaganda and his attack on intellectuals saw the horrific victimisation of many great writers and intellectuals. Many died or committed suicide. Monasteries and temples were destroyed. According to demographic data, millions died to fulfill Mao’s ideological dreams.
The biggest surprise during Mao’s tenure was the famous rapprochement with the US and Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1971. The Sino-US alliance changed the global balance of power and brought China out of its enforced isolation. It became a member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and was already a nuclear power in 1964, emerging as an important player in the world arena.
China’s economic reforms were ushered in under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. They revitalised China’s agricultural sector and ushered in State ‘capitalism’. Deng Xiaoping famously said, “It’s good to get rich”, and these reforms succeeded in pulling more than half the population above the poverty line. Today, it is the second largest economy in the world standing at more than $3 trillion, underwriting US debt and propping up the financial institutions in South-east Asia. It is the engine that drives global manufacturing and is one of the largest consumers of energy with demand rising by 15 per cent per annum. Its economy continues to grow at more than 8 per cent per annum.
As a permanent member of the UNSC, China has quickly filled the vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union, emerging as a strong counter to US unilateralism. It has the world’s largest standing army, with modernised forces matching the power and technology of the West, and China’s own projection of its ‘peaceful rise’ has succeeded beyond measure. Today, there’s even talk of a G2 between China and the US.
While China races ahead, it has internal problems that will need to be carefully handled if it is to remain a stable power.
Amongst these is the growing internal economic disparity — visible in the more than hundred thousand riots and demonstrations that have taken place in China over the past few years, related to land takeovers by the State, corruption in the CCP and displacement of large peasant populations. Education is no longer free, and is leading to greater and more permanent class divisions. The enormous environmental damage caused by rapid
industrialisation and increasing use of fossil fuels, has turned it into the world’s largest polluter. The total control of the CCP and lack of an effective judicial system are also issues, as is the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet.
Thus, the main challenges before China today are internal and not external. Yet, these problems do not detract from China’s remarkable journey into the 21st century. We can only hope that its rise will remain a peaceful one that will lead to regional and global stability and not to the birth of a new and aggressive world power.
Ravni Thakur is Associate Professor, Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal