China’s 70th birthday: A nurtured narrative

October 03, 2019 08:00
Most of China's impressive achievements were made in the 40 years after Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao Zedong, launched the nation on the road to economic reform in 1978. Photo: Reuters

The People’s Republic of China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding this week with fireworks, a huge parade showing off its latest military hardware and a vast outpouring of facts and figures to show the progress that had been made under Communist Party rule.

The achievements are real for the most part and celebrations warranted but, behind the facts and figures lies a not-very-glorious story that the party would prefer the rest of the world not to know.

In recent weeks, white papers have flowed from the government, covering such things as improvements in life expectancy, in per capita GDP, in health care and also about how China’s development is a huge contribution to the world.

China, as always, views itself in a global perspective and claims credit for solving a large part of the world’s problem simply by taking care of itself.

A white paper on “China and the world in the new era”, issued on Sept. 27, speaks of Beijing’s goal to basically eliminate extreme poverty, thus “making a new contribution to global poverty reduction”. It does not mention that such Chinese poverty resulted from misgovernment in the first place.

Interestingly, amid the celebration of the birth of what used to be called the New China, there is almost no mention of its founder, Mao Zedong, who was worshipped as a god.

Millions of Chinese died because of the political campaigns Mao launched, including the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, a failed effort to achieve rapid industrialization which led to a famine in which 30 to 45 million people died. The decade-long Cultural Revolution, which brought disaster to the country, only ended with Mao’s death in 1976.

Because of such campaigns, China basically stood still as the rest of the world moved ahead. China’s per capita GDP had actually dropped relative to the world average from 1952 to 1978.

Today, it sounds pretty impressive to say that China had made huge achievements in 70 years but, in reality, those gains were made in the 40 years after Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, launched China on the road to economic reform in 1978.

To get around such awkward facts, Beijing has smoothed out the many rough edges and provided its own narrative which, in the words of a white paper on human rights progress also issued on Sept. 27, says: “Seventy years ago, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the people of China were emancipated and became masters of their country. Over the subsequent seven decades, the Chinese nation has stood up and grown prosperous and is becoming strong.”

This is coded language. What it is saying is that Mao led the party to power; Deng made the country rich and now, under Xi Jinping, China is becoming strong militarily.

This is the essence of Xi’s China dream, one that some people have had since the 19th century, when China was the victim of western imperialism, in which the country seeks – and finds – wealth and power.

The paper on China and the world seeks to reassure other countries that they have nothing to fear from a resurgent China. “China will never impose its will on other countries, nor will it allow others to impose theirs on the Chinese people,” it asserts.

That is because “we respect the right of the peoples of all countries to choose their own development paths and social systems, respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and oppose interference in others’ domestic affairs”.

But, here again, history intrudes. Mao, who was keen on world revolution and was an early supporter of African independence struggles, grossly interfered in those countries’ internal affairs.

In Southeast Asia, China’s Communist Party gave material aid to underground communist movements even after those countries had established diplomatic relations with China. Beijing called itself the friend of those governments, while its Communist Party supported insurgents in those countries whose aim was to overthrow those governments.

It was only after Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew spoke with Deng Xiaoping on the issue in 1978 that China’s paramount leader in the 1980s ended such support and stopped interfering in those countries’ internal affairs.

So, while China justly celebrates the impressive progress it has made, it should also remember history and the lessons it teaches. Banning media and classroom discussion of historical mistakes made by the party, as Xi has done, is not the way to prevent future mistakes.

China is right about its contribution to the world. Even Mao’s gargantuan mistakes resulting in the loss of countless lives is a lesson from which the world can learn. There is no need to hide them.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.