At 68, the People’s Republic of China will continue to exceed expectations

Chi Wang says China’s transformation from strife-torn nation to global heavyweight could hardly have been imagined at the time he left for America as a young boy. This gives hope as Xi Jinping tries to steer the country in a new direction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 7:28pm

With the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, I find myself looking back at the decades of Communist Party rule and what it means for China and the Chinese people.

When I was a young boy growing up in China, the country was in turmoil. Internally, China was fighting for the future of the country, disagreeing on what a post-imperial China should look like. Externally, China was dealing with the Japanese threat. The Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese civil war created the landscape of my childhood. In the end, the Japanese were defeated and the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, leaving the Communist Party to declare the founding of a “New China”.

I moved to the United States not long before the People’s Republic was formed. As I began my life in America, I tried to imagine what this New China would be like. My memories were of a war-torn country, fighting to survive. With war over, what type of country would China become?

With the cold war creating global tension and animosity, and China’s strong memories of its recent victimisation at the hands of Japan and the West, China became increasingly isolated. Mao Zedong tried to wrest the country away from the traditions of its imperial past, ideas he associated with the weaknesses of the Qing dynasty and China’s century of humiliation. This New China needed new ideas. Mao Zedong Thought and Chinese-style communism were used to rally the people.

This new country was not without its faults. Isolationism and authoritarianism allowed for the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. When I returned to China in 1972, for the first time since leaving as a young man, I hoped I would find it improved from its war days. The cities I visited, however, appeared even poorer. While the world outside had moved forward and developed, China had not. The country that had once been a pillar of civilisation and scientific discovery, the famed Middle Kingdom, had fallen behind.

While the world outside had moved forward and developed, China had not

My trip followed US president Richard Nixon’s famous visit and built upon the goodwill he established. I was there to help the US government initiate bilateral exchanges in education and culture. I spoke to respected Chinese academics, such as Peking University’s Dr Zhou Peiyuan, historian Dr Zhou Yiliang, and Fudan University geneticist Dr Tan Jiazhen. They received their college degrees in the US before China closed itself off. Recognising the value of their international education, they urged me to help connect Chinese youth with the outside world so they could learn and then return to help China prosper. Nixon’s trip heralded a new stage in China’s development. By forging ties with the US, China was gearing up to reopen to the world. I was happy to have played a small part to help foster these new global ties.

When Mao died, China faced an identity crisis. The Cultural Revolution had been disastrous and, without their founder to rally behind, the country needed to redefine itself. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, chose to do that by focusing on economic reform and opening up. When forming the People’s Republic, Mao claimed China had put an end to its century of humiliation. Deng’s new goal was to move beyond that. Not only would the humiliation be over, but now China would grow economically and regain the status it once had.

How China’s development story can be an alternative to the Western model

I still remember a brief conversation I had with Deng during his 1979 visit to the US. He told me the purpose of the revolution was to make life better for the Chinese people. Deng’s reforms did just that. China saw unprecedented economic growth. In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics. For many, this spectacular display was seen as a coming-out party for China. The country had finally arrived as a global power strong enough to stand alongside the other world powers as an equal. China has reached a level of development I could not have imagined when I stood in Beijing in 1972.

Now that Deng’s economic policy has proven a success, China has been dealing with the question of what happens next. Economic growth has slowed, and there are new issues for the country to deal with, such as pollution, income inequality and government corruption. There’s also the question of how China should use its new-found global power.

China has reached a turning point in its history, Xi says

In light of these challenges, President Xi Jinping is working to again redefine China. He has launched an anti-corruption campaign to restore faith in the Communist Party and is taking steps to enlarge China’s role in Asia and around the globe. Ambitious projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” are seen as attempts to not only spur growth but also increase China’s global clout.

Xi demands ‘strong hands’ to maintain stability ahead of Communist Party congress

As the People’s Republic celebrates its anniversary, the country is also gearing up for its 19th party congress, during which the party leadership for the next five years will be confirmed. These important meetings should offer insight into where China and its leaders see the country heading. Since its founding, the People’s Republic has surprised watchers with its growth and exceeded expectations. I am optimistic about China’s ability to continue to do the same in the future.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation