China has changed tremendously since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power. The leaders of the CCP have plenty of reasons to celebrate the centennial of the organisation under whose stewardship China has become the largest economy in the world.
According to the CCP’s Secretary-General Xi Jinping, China under CCP leadership has eliminated the scourge of poverty, is sending taikonauts to a new Chinese orbital station, and plans to send people to Mars in 12 years from now. Meanwhile, it has achieved remarkable success in tackling the global COVID-19 pandemic while ensuring continued growth. It would be impolite to mention, of course, that the culture of secrecy so important to the CCP since its founding is partly responsible for the global spread of the contagion, because its leadership, in the first few weeks of the outbreak, downplayed the severity of the disease.
When the CCP took power in 1949, the country was ravaged by poverty, the legacy of a brutal invasion by Japan remained, and a last round of hostility against the Nationalist Party endured. The latter relocated its government to Taiwan, and after 38 years of martial law, gradually transformed into a political party that had to earn power though genuine and competitive elections. In its commemoration, the CCP has been quite loose with the facts about the remembrance of the three decades that followed its victory. One of the deadliest famines of the century followed ill-conceived policies of Mao Zedong who, far from recognising his folly, launched a Cultural Revolution against the CCP to punish those who had dared to criticise him, thereby unleashing a chaos that ruined the country. In the process, the CCP killed more Chinese between 1949 and 1978 than any foreign power in modern times.
When the CCP under Deng Xiaoping changed course and reversed Mao’s policies with his policy of four modernisations, it appeared set on a course leading toward democratic socialism, as students, workers, intellectuals, and others clamoured for the fifth modernisation of democracy. The world watched in horror as this promise of change was brutally suppressed in Tian’anmen Square on the fourth of June 1989. Shortly thereafter, liberal democracies decided to turn the page under the professed belief that China would change course and become a responsible actor on the world stage. Until recently, some critics of this policy blamed the naivety of liberal politicians. Those critics miss the point: multi-national corporations that never cared much about the rights of workers in industrialised countries were extremely willing to outsource their production to a country where the largest work force on the planet cannot count on the support of independent trade unions, and where those who denounce this situation face harsh punishment.
In facilitating China’s admission to the structure of global governance, however, the international community has empowered a country that never gave up on its revanchist obsession against the countries the CCP deem responsible for the “century of humiliation” it experienced. The CCP has imposed this self-aggrandising myth in successive campaigns of patriotic education even though the international community has sought to repair and atone for this legacy by supporting the regime, a process culminating in the PRC accession to the WTO. We have ended up in an untenable situation where the advanced industrialised economies that were looking for a greater integration of China into the global economy realise that they have been willing for too long to look the other way when the promise of liberal democratisation and respect for human rights failed to materialise.
In the name of global governance and macro-stability, the United Nations’ institutions have let China gain more influence. Major corporations’ enthusiastic outsourcing of their production to China has further entrenched the hollowing out of industries throughout the Western world, a decision with adverse consequence revealed suddenly during the COVID-19 outbreak by the shortage of crucial medical supplies made in China. We are paying for this carelessness with economic calamities and the rise of populist politicians who propose hasty solutions to complicated issues. This shift of tectonic plates favouring China is accompanied by some unpleasant realisations.
Far from assuming co-responsibility in global governance, the CCP has asserted with increasing alacrity its claims to control vast swathes of the South China Sea, while disputing its borders with India and Japan, and threatens Taiwan by invading its airspace with rising frequency. Even worse, its “wolf-warrior diplomacy” is now intimidating friendly middle powers like Australia and Canada with economic blackmail and the kidnapping of its citizens on spurious charges. This policy should not surprise us. The CCP has never stopped to nurture the self-serving fantasy that the “West” always wanted to prevent the rise of China. In the last few years, this concern has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The CCP course is unsustainable. Its aggressive posture towards its neighbours has alienated public opinions around the world to historically low levels. Most importantly perhaps, the CCP is facing a rising level of domestic challenges. The risks it faces within the country are even bigger than those from outside. To start with, the challenges of China’s demography posed by its ageing population will affect the global supply chain. Its skewed sex ratio threatens its social stability as 30 million men are unlikely to find a bride. The deterioration of its environment burdens the future development of the country.
One can only hope that the party will reform from the inside. This is the most positive scenario conceivable now, in the absence of any credible political opposition. Signs of disagreement and discontent within the higher levels of the CCP have emerged. Professor Cai Xia, a vocal critic of the regime since her exile to the US in 2020, has deplored the failure of Western leaders to see that their policy of engagement has entrenched a leadership inherently hostile to liberal democracy. She knows what she is talking about: she has been teaching for nearly 40 years at the Central Party School, the top institution of China that trains the countries’ future leaders. It is to be hoped that the party will listen to voices of dissent and move to greater political opening as befits a country of its size, rich cultural legacy, and enormous promise.
André Laliberté is Professor of comparative politics at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, where he teaches on the politics of Asia, and is co-director of the Research Chair on Taiwan studies. He is the author of more than 50 articles and book chapters, about different aspects of domestic politics in Taiwan and China, as well as about cross-strait relations.
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