China, Then and Now: the PRC Turns 70

The People’s Republic of China turns 70 years old today.  On October 1, 1949, the Communist Party announced its victory over the nationalist KMT party, which had previously ruled China but was forced to flee to Taiwan.

Then, no one quite knew what to make of the new communist China or its leader. Many thought Mao would be Joseph Stalin’s de facto subordinate, taking orders from Moscow.  Instead, Mao was beginning a reign that would last nearly 30 years, feature a major break with the Soviet Union, and see Mao’s power wax and wane (attempts to sideline the Chairman after his disastrous Great Lead Forward led to the worst famine in history were rebuffed through the Cultural Revolution, which violently reinforced Mao’s control in the country).  (Don’t give President Trump any ideas)

Now, after a period in which Chinese presidents routinely served roughly 10 year reigns and then peacefully retired, President Xi Jinping has established himself as potentially the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao (definitely the most powerful since Deng Xiaoping), and has the potential to remain in office indefinitely.  Xi has cracked down on “foreign” religion in China and on dissent in general, while seeking to jumpstart the country’s economy and expand its foreign influence.

Now, the People’s Republic of China is officially older than the Soviet Union ever was (the USSR collapsed just short of its 69th anniversary), and significantly more powerful than Russia on most measures (though Russia did win the contest to hack US democracy, but China’s warming up to make a go for it in 2020; oh dear, this should be fun).

Then, the KMT fled to Taiwan, where it established a fairly dictatorial one-party state and planned a never-accomplished invasion to retake mainland China. Eventually, Taiwan developed into a de facto independent country (even as China pressured other countries not to recognize Taiwan as such, since China still claims the island and its people as Chinese), and eventually advanced economically at an impressive rate.

Now, 100,000 Taiwanese recently marched in Taipei in solidarity with Hong Kong protestors, who have been out in the streets for months, initially defying a Chinese-backed extradition law (in a growing history of protests with Church backing and widespread popular support) but has since expanded to a full-fledge rebellion aimed at maintaining Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy, under threat since territory was returned from Britain to China in 1997.  Taiwan was earlier this year offered the opportunity to remerge with mainland China under the same “one country, two system” policy implemented for Hong Kong (indeed, the policy was originally designed for Taiwan), but Taipei said “no thank you.” Taiwan defends its independence, despite the fact that it has been largely alienated from the international community through Chinese pressure; today, about 18 countries recognize Taiwan as an independent country, including Vatican City (which was actually the first to recognize Taiwan-who knew?) and Eswatini (the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland).

Then, the world was not sure what to make of the new China’s might or place in the world.  American General Douglas MacArthur, for example, didn’t think that the Chinese would intervene directly against American forces in the Korean War, and was shocked when China’s invasion nearly defeated the US and its allies. People forget: China and the US fought a major war, with tens to hundreds of thousands of deaths on each side (which still pales in comparison to the Koreans who were killed).

Now, China is building its military capacity, but no one expects it to directly challenge the US in a military conflict.  North Korea remains a headache for China (China pays a lot of money to prop up the country, fearing that a famine or political collapse would send massive amounts of North Korean refugees across the border into China).  Meanwhile, US President Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un have developed a strange bromance (well, the North Korean government is leading on Trump through flattery, but I digress).

Then, Mao Zedong became ruler within a coalition of parties, with the promise that the CCP would rule China democratically, as it had been indicating in its rhetoric for years.

Now, China makes no pretense to being democratic (it conducts low-level elections, but that’s about it), defying scholars from modernization theorists who held that economic growth fosters democracy to Francis Fukuyama, who predicted in 1989 that liberal democracy had emerged as the world’s only legitimate form of rule. China instead derives its political legitimacy from results – economic growth and security for its people.  A fair amount of indoctrination, censorship and repression is mixed into that as well, but shhhh, we’re not supposed to notice that too much.

Then, China was a rural economic backwater, rife with poverty.  This inspired Mao’s adaptation of Marxism to this agrarian environment, and also inspired him to embark on the Great Leap Forward, the deadliest mistake in human history, which resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

Now, since abandoning communism in a reform process that took hold in the 1980s post Mao, China has achieved the most astonishing feat of sustained economic growth in human history, raising hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and, depending on the metric you use, either challenging or actually overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy.  This growth has largely occurred in a context of interdependence with the US, and the current Trump-initiated trade war with China is hurting both economies as each country’s leader attempts to get the other to blink.  But even in a period of sustained economic slowdown, exacerbated by the trade war, China’s annual GDP growth is still above 6%, about twice that of the United States. Under Xi Jinping, China continues on an unprecedentedly ambitious project to redirect most of the world’s economy through China via the Belt and Road Initiative and generally make the country a superpower.

We’v covered the past and present, but what about the future? Will Xi and the Chinese leadership achieve their goals? China’s definitely making a full court press towards achieving world economic (and to a lesser, or at least more instrumental extent, political) supremacy, using soft power, economic power, Confucius Institutes, investment and loans, cajoling, political subversion and more to get other countries on board with the plan.

On the other hand, the United States has kind of enjoyed being the world’s lone superpower, and doesn’t really like to share. And while other Presidents have been cautious about disrupting the interdependent (should I just way codependent? Yes, yes I should) relationship between China and the US, Donald Trump doesn’t know the world caution (resist urge to make Twitter joke [make meta-Twitter joke instead]). His approach towards China (we might be able to call it a strategy) has been called crazy, but it might just be crazy like a fox, if the fox went in with a half-thought out plan but stuck with it even as it caused the little fox cubs to starve, until eventually everyone else gave in because otherwise this crazy fox will kill us all (I’m pretty sure that’s how the idiom goes).

But China, Xi and the CCP have longevity on their side. They’ve demonstrated their abilities to consolidate power and established a long game, one that can potentially wait out an American president or even protests from places like Hong Kong.  the CCP and President Xi might not, however, be able to wait out social change; despite the most efficient uses of surveillance and policing technology, the development of an increasingly middle class, increasingly religious, increasingly internationalized Chinese citizenry is likely to bring about additional changes that the CCP will eventually have to adapt to in order to survive.  Let’s see whether or not the Party can do so, and whether it can convince the Chinese people to give it another 70 years.

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