China at 70 must take on its greatest challenge yet – political reform and opening up
- The People’s Republic can be proud of its achievements to become a world power. But its turn in the past 10 years towards greater political and social controls takes it back to the repressive past, instead of a future in which it can realise its full potential
Anniversaries should be occasions to celebrate accomplishments, reflect on the past, take stock of the present and look to the future. The People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary is such an occasion.
These new weapons systems will not only intrigue PLA watchers, but will also send powerful signals throughout Asia and to the United States of China’s continually increasing military reach and punch.
One wonders if this has occurred to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department? For a nation seeking to tamp down the “China threat theory” and project a benign image abroad, is this the best way to go about it? The answer is likely to be that the parade is intended more to stoke domestic pride and nationalism than to reassure outsiders.
Beyond the military parade on October 1, what should we make of China’s past, present and future?
Certainly, the Chinese people and government have a great deal to be proud of seven decades after Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the new republic.
By any number of measures – economic statistics and social development indicators, security and territorial integrity, foreign relations and China’s standing in the world – China has achieved unprecedented progress in world history and is now one of the world’s major powers.
While China’s government and its citizens legitimately have much to be proud of and accomplishments to celebrate, reflecting on the past is more difficult. Contemplating the past is not something the regime encourages, because it is filled with so many policy mistakes and so much human suffering, particularly during the Maoist era.
The People’s Republic’s first 30 years were horrific on many levels. Yet this is not something the Xi Jinping regime wishes to address.
Official propaganda has almost entirely whitewashed the period from 1949-1978 (particularly 1958-1976), and any analyses that contravene the doctored narrative are labelled as revisionist “historical nihilism”. Not facing the past with any real kind of historical honesty is only a recipe for a deeply distorted national identity and Potemkin-like regime legitimacy.
The past 10 years, though, have witnessed increased repression and greater social and information controls. While, in 2009, there was still a pervasive sense in China and abroad of progressive opening and incremental liberalisation, the past decade has seen a sharp reversal.
What was seemingly a linear evolution from the mayhem of the Maoist era through the pragmatic optimism of the Deng Xiaoping era, to the technocratic and reformist rule of Jiang Zemin, and further cautious reforms under Hu Jintao, the Xi Jinping era has been a throwback to the repressive past alongside stalled reforms.
These maladies do not add up to a China in crisis or a system under imminent threat, but they are serious problems and realities that any honest stock-taking of present-day China must recognise.
Looking to the future, the greatest apparent challenge for China lies in the political domain. Its rigid political system is the major impediment to many of China’s objectives – territorial, economic, social, intellectual, and innovation. Like people at 70, change does not come easily – but only by loosening up and opening up can China achieve its full potential, reach its goals and truly celebrate future anniversaries.
David Shambaugh is professor of Asian Studies and international affairs and director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University, Washington DC