China at 70: Successful Model or Insecure State?

On 1st October, People’s Republic of China completed 70 years. To commemorate the occasion, China had organized a grand parade in Beijing. As the whole world was watching, advanced weapons systems including ballistic missiles, fighter jets and tanks were on display in the parade. It was an occasion to mark the success of the revolution and demonstrate that a new, powerful and confident China is taking its rightful place in the world. However, as China was celebrating 70 years of its revolution, economic growth is slowing down, Hong Kong was engulfed in protests and repression in Xinjiang has reached new heights. Therefore, this is a good occasion to ask whether China is a successful, modern country or is it just an authoritarian state interested only on increasing its power?

China’s post-1949 journey could be divided into two broad phases. First phase, dominated by Mao Tse Tung and his aggressive politics resulted in the chaos, instability and destruction. Great leap forward of late 1950’s and Cultural Revolution of mid-1960’s pushed the country further on the brink of turmoil and disorder. During this phase, Mao managed to survive in power, spread his influence abroad and outwit his opponents despite keeping the country in a constant state of flux. Notable achievement of this phase came in 1971 when the imperatives of Cold War politics resulted in US-China rapprochement and cooperation with the West against the Soviet Union. However, till Mao was in charge of the country, China remained a closed, communist state. After the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping seized power in the ensuing power struggle and launched reforms in China. Thus, in 1978, second phase of People’s Republic began.

Deng was reported to have said that ‘it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice’. Therefore, to pursue prosperity and enhance its power, he launched modernization program for agriculture, economy, science and defence in 1978. Modernization and economic reforms placed China in a unique category. Although China opened up its economy for foreign investment and private firms, Chinese political system remained non-democratic and closed. Therefore, how to reconcile contradictions arising out of open economy and closed political system remains the central paradox in the Chinese model. Notwithstanding emphasis on Chinese nationalism and domestic stability, it continues to pose challenges for Chinese leadership and state.

In the last four decades, Deng’s reforms have lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty and provided them with a better life than they previously experienced. China also transformed its cities and built modern infrastructure including large airports, super fast trains and super highways at a breakneck speed. However, this economic growth came at a great human and environmental cost whose effects are now visible. Moreover, China forced millions of people living in rural areas to migrate to cities and continue to supply cheap labor for incoming foreign investments. China also redefined its social contract. The state guarantees its citizens prosperity in return for political and social rights. For Chinese Communist Party to continue to stay in power, economic growth is a necessary pre-condition.

After forty years of economic growth and political repression, China enters a new era under the leadership of Xi Jinping. He has launched ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and is following the footsteps of Mao. He has jailed his opponents such Bo Xilai, concentrated more and more power in his hands and just like Mao, is not averse to creating personality cult around him. He has removed term-limits and has increased repression at home. To divert attention from more important issues, he stokes nationalism often and postures aggressively in foreign policy. Xi is also not afraid of projecting power abroad and has in fact opened China’s first military base in Djibouti. China has also reportedly opened‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang and has kept more than a million Muslim citizens in these camps. Despite growing military and economic power, Tibet and Taiwan remain core national security issues for China.

Therefore, as China celebrates 70 years of revolution, a very paradoxical picture of powerful yet insecure state emerges. China is the second largest economy in the world and yet greater prosperity has not resulted in consequently greater democratization of its political system. China displayed military might and political power on the 1st October parade and yet feels threatened by the spread of Islamic radicalism in Xinjiang. China is the greatest beneficiary of the US-led liberal international order and globalization and yet wants to challenge the United States. China wants to project its model abroad and yet it has failed to convince the citizens of Hong Kong about the benefits of Chinese model.

It is a lesson of history that open societies and democratic politics tend to correct mistakes of the past and result in more robust policies. In China, openness is not a virtue. In fact, sections of the Communist Party would want to implement more repressive policies. As Xi Jinping faces economic slowdown and difficult international environment, he is likely to tilt towards greater repression and authoritarianism. Therefore, for all the display of weapons and military power, China may in fact be more insecure now than it was at any time in its 70 years of revolutionary history.