Illustration: Craig Stephens
by David Shambaugh
by David Shambaugh

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.

Certainly, there will be grand pageantry orchestrated with military precision in Tiananmen Square. A decade ago, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary, I sat in the reviewing stands beneath the Gate of Heavenly Peace and watched the weaponry and floats, soldiers and citizens, pass down the Avenue of Eternal Peace. It was an impressive display of national confidence, coming on the heels of the successful 2008 Olympic Games. In the evening, there were grand fireworks and more pageantry in the square.
This time portends an even more elaborate celebration. Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army is expected to unveil some new missiles, multiple rocket launchers, strategic bomber, lightweight tank, unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles and a wedge-shaped long-range hypersonic reconnaissance drone.

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.

Yet, as it occurred to me 10 years ago while watching that display of firepower, isn’t such a martial demonstration contradictory and counterproductive to the peaceful and neighbourly soft-power image that Beijing constantly seeks to portray? Pew polls reveal that strong majorities across Asia already view China’s rise and growing military power negatively.

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.

With such material and tangible accomplishments also comes a genuine sense of psychological achievement for the Chinese people. Restoring its sense of national dignity, following a century of dismemberment and humiliation, was one of the major goals embodied in the founding of the People’s Republic of China – when Chairman Mao proudly proclaimed atop Tiananmen that “ The Chinese people have stood up!
Mao Zedong declares the birth of a new China, in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on October 1, 1949. Photo: AP

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.

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If the first three decades were largely repressive and traumatic, the last four decades have been much better – although not without further tragedies such as 1989. But, overall, China is more open to the world and domestically.

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.

On the surface, many indicators still suggest that China’s “great rejuvenation” is on track. Yet, under the surface, many problems lurk: an ageing population and gender imbalance; an unaccountable Leninist political system; a state-dominated fiscal system and economy; a rigid educational system; high income inequality; severe repression of civil society, dissent, and religion; draconian controls over Tibet and Xinjiang; thorough censorship and controlled media; a still-high level of corruption and kleptocracy; capital out-flight; industrial overcapacity; ballooned corporate and local government debt (about 300 per cent of gross domestic product); slowing GDP growth; the middle income trap; housing market bubbles and overbuilding (ghost cities); environmental degradation; and a dictatorial leader with no succession plan.

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.

Externally, China’s global footprint has never been as extensive. It has truly become a world power by many measures. Yet Pew global public opinion polls also continue to show that China’s international image is an even mixture of positive and negative.

The beginning of the end for China’s Communist Party rule?

Closer to home, Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to be particularly troublesome problems for China’s leaders. The ongoing civil disobedience in Hong Kong and the massive parallel demonstration planned there for October 1 are clear indicators that, after 70 years in power, the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation is badly tarnished and there is pervasive discontent with the way that “one country, two systems” is working.
In Taiwan, which has remained a separate self-governing entity for the past 70 years, there is also substantial majority sentiment against incorporation into the People’s Republic of China. This continuing resistance in Hong Kong and Taiwan should be a sobering reminder for Beijing that, for all of its domestic accomplishments and greater international standing, it has yet to reunify China.

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