China’s governing party is in a moment of major transition. While domestic politics is tightening up, Beijing has plans far beyond the country’s own borders – aiming for the transformation of Asia and beyond through an infrastructure development programme and political nationalism. No, this is not just about the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China under Xi Jinping, or the Belt and Road Initiative. It is a story that harks back to the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of China in 1945.
The current congress does indeed have huge implications for Asia as a whole. However, it is not the first time a Chinese government has tried to reshape the region. And comparing today’s Communist Party with its Nationalist predecessor at the end of the second world war raises some similarities – and at least one important difference.
The major reason that China’s word is now taken so seriously, compared to 1945, is simple: money. After the second world war, China was a broken society. It had resisted the Japanese for some eight years of widespread conflict, but the effects of that conflict had been devastating. Thousands of miles of railways and roads damaged or destroyed, millions of civilians dead, and widespread disease and malnutrition.
Members of the Chinese government at the time, such as the former historian Jiang Tingfu, saw an opportunity here. By reconstructing its economy and society, he argued, the war could produce some positive results for China’s future. Furthermore, a reconstructed China could act as an example for the many colonies in the region seeking freedom: Malaya, Korea and Indonesia among them.
Watch: Beijing readies itself for the 19th Communist Party Congress
However, this vision quickly faded. China plunged into civil war just a year after the end of the conflict with Japan, and widespread disillusionment with the economic failures and human rights abuses of the Nationalists condemned them to defeat.
But the most important factor that doomed them was their economic situation. Nationalist China had no money, and its vision of reconstruction was entirely dependent on loans from the United States and organisations such as the UN. Nonetheless, the now almost-forgotten Nationalist Chinese vision of a post-war Asia was genuinely inspiring to many at the time.
Move forward more than seventy years. China’s ruling party is currently in congress, as the world waits for the announcement of the next leadership line-up and hints of plans for the next five years.
However, this meeting is unusual in historical terms. For the first time in decades, we can expect the party will put forward a vision of the future in which its role in the region and the world is spelt out in something more than broad statements about the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” or the need for “peaceful development”.
The Belt and Road Initiative is not yet a fully worked-through plan. But it does do something the outside world has asked for over the years: put forward an alternative, Chinese-led vision of a new order for Asia and beyond.
The overall contours of the plan attract attention because unlike its Nationalist predecessor, China today has real economic clout. If Chiang Kai-shek’s government had been in charge of the second biggest economy in the world, his ministers’ proposals on the combination of infrastructure and nationalism would have had rather more potency.
Watch: What has Xi Jinping done during his first five-year term?
Projected costs for the belt and road keep going up, but one estimate is that some US$26 trillion will need to be spent on the project by 2030. Nonetheless, China’s startling economic growth in the past quarter century means its message will receive a respectful hearing. But it also means two messages coming from the congress will be carefully analysed by the rest of Asia.
First, the message about economic reform. For decades, China has been pledging to open its markets and internationalise its currency. The stakes were raised at Davos back in January when Xi Jinping spoke in favour of free trade and against protectionism, in a clear rebuke to Donald Trump. However, the reality is that the US, not China, has been the driver of opening markets and creating multilateral trade deals in Asia over the years. For China to take on this role will demand real sacrifices in terms of the control that China – and Xi himself – can have over the domestic Chinese economy, at a time when reforms are urgent. Can China make this leap?
Second, the Chinese Nationalists in 1945 had their own vision of a revived Asia. It was one where the US would be the most powerful actor, acting alongside China to liberate colonised Southeast Asian nations. Those nations are all now independent and have their own ideas about the shape of the region, though many are still unsure whether Chinese economic strength in the region will preserve or enhance their autonomy.
Vague slogans about “win-win” scenarios will not be enough. This congress has a chance to articulate a genuinely cooperative Chinese vision of the region. We will know in a few days if they have chosen to take it. ■
Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival