China at 70: A tale of achievements, riddled with paradoxes | Analysis
China’s transformation is miraculous. Its days of keeping a low profile are gone. But it confronts major challenges
Mao Zedong “liberated” China, Deng Xiaoping “made China rich” — and now Xi Jinping is “making China powerful” — thus is the 70-year-old journey of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) often summed up by ordinary citizens in the PRC today.
This articulation, eulogising the contributions of three powerful leaders of the Communist Party, places the Party at the very core of China’s impressive transformation, which is today the cynosure of the world’s eyes and the subject of intense, polarising international debates about what the rise of China means for the West-dominated world order. In his speech delivered at the Tiananmen Square on the occasion of the PRC’s 70th National Day celebrations, Xi Jinping, interestingly, referred only to Mao’s role in founding the PRC, as he underscored their present determination to scale further heights. “No force can shake the status of our great country, no force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation from marching forward.” China, Xi declared, was now prepared to “struggle” to achieve its two centenary goals — rid China of poverty by 2021 and emerge as an advanced socialist nation by 2049. A vibrant and colourful parade displayed the PRC’s socioeconomic achievements and its cultural traditions under the leadership of Xi, advances in science and technology as also the state-of-the-art new weapons (including the DF-41 missile which can carry 10 nuclear warheads and strike anywhere in the US and the debutante JL-2 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile). Deng Xiaoping days of “keeping a low profile” in international affairs, are quite definitely over.
The past 70 years are, however, merely the modern nation-state blip in the life of a civilisation that has evolved over centuries. It has witnessed the rise and fall of dynasties and empires; it has led the world in trade and been feted and sought for its goods and its riches, before being humbled and exploited by the imperialist powers for its market and reduced to being the “sick man of the East”. And it rose again. What the Chinese people achieved was certainly miraculous — but it was no mere miracle. Much hard work, tremendous sacrifices, dogged determination and well-crafted policies have underpinned — and continue to underpin — their long march towards modernisation, in accordance with the post-Industrial Revolution developmental paradigm. In the process, they have moved very far indeed from the ideology, politics and goals of the Mao-era — even as Mao remains the source of the Party’s legitimacy. Socialism albeit with “Chinese characteristics” continues to be pursued. But while there is still some hesitation at branding China a capitalist system, we are certainly not looking at a socialist society.
Several paradoxes, along with diverse achievements, characterise the PRC at 70. It has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but in the process, from being one of the most egalitarian societies until the 1970s, China is one of the most unequal societies in the world today. Its unprecedented growth, which has unleashed a revolution of rising expectations, has also created unparalleled environmental challenges — air, water and soil — which mar the quality of life and the health of its population. It is also undergoing a demographic transition which is shrinking its labour force and enlarging the population of the elderly, who are increasingly vulnerable to rapidly shrinking State welfare packages. And it is struggling with a disturbing gender imbalance and record corruption levels in the Party and government. Presiding over this scenario is an authoritarian Party-state and the current regime has taken the centrality and supremacy of the Party to unprecedented — if you like, unchallengeable — levels. A popular slogan at one time – mei you gongchangdang; mei you xin zhongguo (If there had been no Communist Party, there would not have been a new China) — may still finds some echoes, but is perhaps said with less fervour. This is also indicative of the disenchantment, both within the Party — which sees the unraveling of the socialist agenda as an outcome of the corporatisation of the Communist Party — and among a section of the population, which has been left out of the growth story.
And yet there are significant changes, from elections at the grassroots to the freedom for autonomous decisions and experimentation at the provincial levels and the strong push to “putting people first”. The socialist market economy — the brainchild of the Communist Party – has taken a path that is markedly different from Western market economies.
The rise of China — an economic phenomenon to begin with — came about in a world order dominated by Western capitalism and capitalist institutional structures. Having secured the membership of the World Trade Organisation, the PRC, since the turn of the century, has been riding the waves of economic globalisation, with aplomb — making no compromises with its “independent foreign policy”. This essentially amounted to taking positions vis-à-vis global capital, which were in consonance with its national interests. Thus they hold no brief for the western insistence that its economic reforms and liberalisation (Chinese style) must be accompanied by political changes (Western style). It is also steadily augmenting its defence capabilities, working at developing a financial ecosystem on the fringes of the United States-dominated institutions and leveraging its enormous financial reserves to make friends and influence (buy) countries. China under Xi is focused on achieving higher per capita incomes and making a success of the Belt and Road initiative. The world’s response is mixed — from admiration to suspicion to hostility, and has brought them directly into the cross hairs of the US, although it is no match yet for their military, economic and cultural resources.
So the balance sheet is a mixed one; neither is the Chinese State fragile, nor is the Party, which is certainly no monolithic entity about to disintegrate. Why does the Party-State value “stability” above all; Why does it speak of the relevance of Confucianism even as it continues to uphold Marxism; How does it balance the western power game — these are issues, which need to be framed in all their complex totality, not in black and white binaries. More than four centuries of domination of western ideas and values and institutions are now being questioned — implicitly and explicitly — by the resurgence in Asia. And China is at the very centre of this questioning. This need not be a zero-sum contestation. The possibility that the 21st century can be shaped by non-Western (Chinese and possibly Indian) ways of thinking — mutually enriching and of benefit to the world — will depend entirely on how the West, and the US, responds to the continuing rise of China.