The People’s Republic of China is celebrating its 70th birthday. China made major strides in these decades transforming the country from the “sick man of Asia” to a power to reckon with. Such transformations are visible in economy, politics, science and technology, defence and in diplomacy. China is no longer a pariah state as it was in the 1950s but a bubbling country on the verge of becoming the “centre of gravity” in Asia and beyond as Mao Zedong desired in 1949.
The Communist Party which came to power in 1949 through the slogan of “power flows from the barrel of the gun” but the “gun should be controlled by the Party” through “absolute control” is organising a massive military parade in Beijing to showcase the achievements. On October 1, President Xi Jinping will address the 300,000-odd participants at the military parade with a major statement. However, celebrations in Hong Kong, which is witnessing massive protests, will be muted.
On the occasion were several statements that encapsulate the seven decades of the existence of the PRC. China released a white paper on “China and the world in the new era” explaining its economic growth pattern. Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi wrote an article in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily a week ago. He also spoke at the recent United Nations General Assembly’s 74th Session outlining China’s policies.
The white paper, stating how the country’s gross domestic product increased from about $9 billion in 1952 to $13 trillion in 2018, suggested that this unprecedented development is a miracle for other countries to emulate. The “China model” is thus for export, possibly in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America where the Belt and Road Initiative is gaining traction. Such a model has Party-State at its core, authoritarian ethos as the basis and influencing the global order in favour of China as the motive.
Wang stated in his People’s Daily article that China aspires to hold a “leading” position in global affairs. Earlier, President Xi Jinping mentioned in his Davos speech about “leading” the globalisation process given the country’s extensive enmeshing with export and import markets. This is a new trend in China’s direction as Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s wanted his country to “keep a low profile”, with no military bases abroad. Today, on the other hand, China is setting up bases in Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. If the United States became a superpower at the end of the World War II by taking over the UK-controlled 2,000 bases abroad, China is today attempting a similar process of expanding its footprint in global commons through stealth.
At the UN, Wang stated that China does not seek hegemony and it has not been involved in any war for over 30 years, thus showing restraint like no other emerging country did in the past. He was perhaps alluding to, as the Chinese narrative has been in the recent times, to the role of Japan and Germany in the 1930s. He, of course, did not mention how Vietnam or Philippines are struggling to protect their islands in the South China Sea in the light of China’s assertiveness. Or that of Taiwan, Japan and India on territorial claims.
China indeed made major strides in its economic growth story. The Marriage Law soon after the PRC was established, provided equality among men and women. Social engineering projects brought dams and other public goods to the peasants. Collectivisation of agriculture pooled together all land holdings in “noodle strips” across the country, even though Great Leap Forward brought unimaginable disaster. Cultural Revolution created a tabula rasa (clean slate) among the people overturning traditions. Today, since Jiang Zemin, China is promoting neo-Confucianism across the country as a part of “three represents”.
These were reversed by the 1978 reforms in agriculture, industry, science and technology and defence. Crucial to the success of the reforms – a factor several Chinese are shy to report – is the blessings of the United States ironically to make China a great power. Deng Xiaoping’s February 1979 visit to the U.S. resulted in not only American investments, high technologies, joint ventures and exploring markets but also that of its allies in Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others.
In the din of President Trump’s tariff wars, most Chinese forget that without such a positive push from the U.S., China’s rise would have been a distant dream. If the then Soviet Union transferred vertically the most modern military industrial complex technologies in the 1950s (about 156 industries), the U.S. and its allies transferred dual-use technologies to China unforeseen in human history. Of course, the Party-State in China skilfully utilised these against the then Soviet Union and now against the U.S. and its allies. Beijing’s diplomacy outsmarted that of both Moscow and Washington.
Seven decades of the PRC also led to over 60 per cent Chinese today living in the urban areas unlike 11 per cent in 1949. When the Communist Party seized state power in 1949, it did so with sansanzhi (three thirds) policy, i.e. the land occupied through Red Army conquests from the Kuomintang is distributed one-third to peasants, one third to communist party cadres and the rest for the Red Army families – thereby garnering public support. Most significantly, today bereft of peasant support, the Communist Party intends to transform itself into an urban dispensation – possibly taking a cue from the European social democrats.
China’s spectacular developments in poverty alleviation programmes and raising of per capita income or building of extensive infrastructure projects across the country also came at the cost of peasants and migrants, alienation of people in remote areas, ethnic minorities, middle income trap or environmental degradation.
The July 2019 White paper on defence as well as the June 2018 Foreign Affairs Work Conference clearly expanded the envelope of China in the global and regional domains. The direction that China is taking clearly is a contest with the United States through its recently adopted “accomplish something” slogan.
As a result, the coming years are likely to witness intense jockeying between the United States and China, tearing apart the global fabric and forcing countries to choose between them. Thanks to its rise, Beijing has been dividing the existing power structures across the globe such as through the European Union (mainly central and east European countries) -16+1, SAARC +1 (in South Asia), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (by reducing Russian influence), CELAC+ China (in South America) and AU+China (in Africa). China has already been forcing countries to take sides on Taiwan, South China Sea, Tibet, Xinjiang and Senkaku islands. The next levels include regional security and stability issues and global commons. For this, China is building and promoting its “community of common destiny” and the Belt and Road Initiative.
India has to brace for such medium to long term contest between the United States and China in the coming years, forcing it to side with one or the other. China’s political support, investments or technology transfers to India have been minimal so far while friction points have increased on Kashmir, territorial dispute and on Indian Ocean. In this context, New Delhi needs to craft a clear-cut policy to enhance its national power.
(The author is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expresed in this article are personal.)