People’s Republic of China is today celebrating 70 years of existence. On this day in 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the new state at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, marking the end of a bloody civil war against the previous government of China under Chiang Kai-shek, who by that time evacuated the remnants of his Nationalist army and his supporters (together almost three million people) to Formosa/Taiwan, ceding the mainland the the reds.
Modern China, ran by the Communist Party from Mao to Xi, has been a land of contrasts and contradictions.
In absolute terms*, it has been the most murderous of the 20th century totalitarian regimes. In its seventy years, Chinese communists haven’t quite managed to kill off seventy million of their compatriots, but they have come pretty close at anywhere up to 60 million. Forty-five of those have been the victims of the mass famine that accompanied Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign, the typically misguided and typically murderous communist scheme to modernise agriculture and industry (it did neither). The other 15 million have variously been murdered, starved or worked to death in several waves of mass repression between the end of the civil war and the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death.
Around the late 70s and the early 80s, Chinese communists stopped mass murdering their people and decided instead to enrich them. As China created the world records in its first thirty years in genocide stakes, for the next forty years it made history by elevating the greatest number of people from poverty, and quite a number of them into the middle and upper classes. In 1990, 750 million Chinese people were living below the international poverty line; today less than a million do. This was achieved by ditching socialist policies in economy and introducing capitalism as well as integrating China into the globalised world economy.
Whether China has been starving or feeding its people over the past seven decades, the one constant has been the unassailable position of the Communist Party and its vast administrative apparatus as the absolute rulers of the land. While China today is nowhere near as repressive as during the Maoist era, it remains a one party dictatorship with its citizens enjoying few human and civil rights. The Party remains omnipresent and omnipotent, its influence extending into every aspect of people’s lives. Chinese businesses, ostensibly simulacra of corporations elsewhere in the world, continue to be ultimately guided by internal Party cells. Political and social dissent tends to be suppressed, the civil society that might compete with the Party for people’s loyalty (such as organised religion) is heavily policed. The government is at the moment rolling out the “Social Credit System”, an Orwell-meets-high-tech surveillance and control net, where every citizen’s actions will be tracked and used to determine appropriate punishments and rewards in terms of access to services and privileges (such as credit or travel). Meanwhile, at the edges of its empire, the Han communists maintain hard line against ethnic minorities like Tibetans or the Muslim Uighur, ten per cent of whom (around one million) are currently being held in “re-education” camps (those perhaps can be considered the lucky ones, since their organs have not yet been harvested).
Internationally, China has been reasserting itself, building a quasi empire to feed its resource hunger, rattling modernised sabers at its neighbours, and expanding its soft and not so soft power through public diplomacy, espionage, mobilisation of parts of the vast Chinese diaspora, and buying friends and spruikers. The “Beijing model” of economic progress combined with authoritarian control – Marketism-Leninism – has some appeal in many parts of the world but it’s one that’s deeply hostile to the free, democratic, liberal West. As I said not that long ago, China might not be an enemy per se and hopefully will never become a hot one, but we should not kid ourselves that it’s a friend or an ally – or indeed a “normal” state like those of the developed world that we are most accustomed to dealing with.
The Thousand Year Reich lasted only 12; the Soviet Union, the future of the world, collapsed after 74 years. No one knows how long the communist China will go on for. It has many things going in its favour, including economic might and the ability to mold modern technology to its authoritarian needs. In other respects, it is a giant sand castle built on foundations of hocus-pocus finance and a boiling pot trying to contain and channel the energy and aspirations of more than a billion hard-working and ambitious people. The problem with unstable stability is that its end can be quite sudden and quick.
Today’s celebrations in Beijing centre around a giant military parade, with China showcasing what the tens of billions of dollars have bought over the years. Confident states don’t need to reassure themselves with the sound of goosestepping and the glint of semi-erect missiles. I wish the Chinese people good health and prosperity as well as peace and freedom in the years to come; Chinese Communist Party I wish a speedy road to the ash heap of history.
* in relative terms, other regimes have been more murderous, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Nazis did not kill many of their own but accounted for 20-30 million civilian deaths elsewhere throughout Europe.