Xi Jinping’s China is ignoring the role the US, and others, played in its rise to economic glory

  • Chi Wang says China, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, is diminishing the roles that Deng Xiaoping and foreign countries played in its reform and rise. In reality, it relied on the fair market access that it now denies other countries
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 1:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 3:10am

I left my home in China in 1949, nearly 70 years ago. I thought I would just be studying in the United States before returning to China. But events beyond my control – the Communist victory over the Nationalists soon after I arrived in the US, the escalation of the cold war, and the Korean war – kept me in the US. I quickly built a life in America, became an American citizen, and pursued my own version of the American dream. All the while, China was morphing into a country I would hardly recognise when I was first able to return in 1972. And the China of 1972 would, again, seem entirely foreign to those viewing China today. 

The vast changes China has gone through over the decades are difficult to wrap one’s head around, especially for those who did not live through them. How does a country that has changed so drastically reconcile its identity today with that in the past? What role should history play in today’s policy? How should past events be used to craft the present-day narrative?

For China, this is a decision made at the highest level of government. The Communist Party leadership sets guidance and restrictions on media reporting and school lessons. It carefully constructs and aligns the narrative with its goals, to fortify the power and legitimacy of the party. It emphasises certain facets of events, while overlooking others. In practice, this leads to a propagandist narrative in which the Communist Party has valiantly led the country out of the century of humiliation, spearheaded economic growth, and reclaimed China’s historic position as a world power.

The official rhetoric out of China today, coupled with the country’s more aggressive and combative behaviour under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, displays a China that is preoccupied with showing its current strength, while at the same time overlooking what went into achieving it in the first place. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform policies. Seemingly, this would be the perfect time to reflect on not only how far China has come in the past decades, but on the efforts and policies behind it. However, that has not been the case.

An exhibition remembering China’s reforms at the National Museum of Art in Beijing gave Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, pride of place over Deng in paintings. I met Xi Zhongxun in the 1980s, when I hosted a dinner for several Chinese provincial governors visiting Washington state. While he was a great man, his contributions to China surely do not outweigh those of Deng. Similarly, an exhibition in Shenzhen closed for renovations, only to reopen with Xi Jinping featured more heavily than the actual architect of reforms. Over all, the theme of the 40th anniversary celebrations was “Carrying the reform and opening-up through to the end”, placing extra emphasis on the continued efforts of the Communist Party, specifically since the 18th National Congress at which Xi came to power.

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By reappropriating China’s past, Xi is doing a disservice to the country. The picture of a strong China, buoyed by an even stronger central leader, fuels the nationalistic idea that China’s successes are the result of the current leadership and that the Communist Party will continue to stand up to outside forces that try to threaten the country’s well-deserved place in the world. This, however, does not match the reality I witnessed. The party did not carry China to victory all on its own. Economic growth followed years of struggles and required a large amount of outside assistance – from the very countries the Chinese leadership is now fighting.

In 1978, when Deng was striving to implement his new economic policies, China was in a dire situation. The people were still reeling from years of unrest and famine – a result of the disastrous Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Deng was left with the challenging task of trying to revitalise the nation and heal the aftereffects of these failures. Deng knew that, to ensure the mistakes of the past were not repeated, he needed to learn from other countries – namely, the US.

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Not long after beginning the process of reform, Deng and then-US president Jimmy Carter announced the normalisation of diplomatic relations. When Deng visited the US in January 1979, I had the honour of speaking with him briefly. He expressed his determination to improve the lives of the Chinese people and his hope that his trip would help. It did.

The US-China Trade Relations Agreement was signed and bilateral trade was opened up. Soon, China began to establish special economic zones encouraging international trade and foreign investment from the US and other Western nations. In 2000, the US granted China permanent normal trade relations. In 2001, with US backing, China joined the World Trade Organisation. China’s growth was spurred by an export-driven economy supported by Western markets.

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Understanding that China’s future prosperity relied on trade with other countries and a stable, globalised, international system, Deng set out a foreign policy strategy of keeping a low profile and biding time (韬光养晦). This strategy assured other countries of the nature of China’s rise and gave China room to flourish. At the same time, the US presence in the Asia-Pacific – left unchallenged by China – maintained stability in the region, allowing China to focus most of its efforts on domestic concerns and economic growth.

Today’s China does not share the same view of the international system. Instead of striving for acceptance under the current system, to take advantage of the economic benefits of globalisation, China is now creating many of its own rules. Now that China sees itself as having arrived, its leadership is consciously overlooking the many shoulders it stood on to reach its current heights. The leadership is especially playing down the US role in China’s rise.

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China did not rise on its own. It relied on the fair access to global markets that it now denies other countries. While I disagree that the US import tariffs were the right course of action in addressing China’s behaviour, the underlying concerns about China’s unfair trade practices are legitimate and needed to be addressed. As the trade war between the US and China continues, it is more important than ever to recognise that economic prosperity does not occur in isolation. If the leadership instead chooses to continue to push away allies and pursues aggressive policies, China will surely learn this lesson the hard way.

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