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Opinion

People's Republic of China's 70th anniversary demands honest reflection

Xi Jinping must face up to Maoism's failures and avoid repeating them

People pay their respects on the 43rd anniversary of Mao Zedong's death on Sept. 9. The hallmarks of Maoism have been resurrected.   © Getty Images

For China's rulers, 2019 is shaping up to be a terrible year. On the economic front, growth has fallen to its slowest pace since 1992. The political crisis in Hong Kong, triggered by an ill-conceived extradition bill, threatens to spiral out of control.

Geopolitically, the escalating U.S.-China trade and tech wars signal the beginning of an open-ended conflict that, should history of the Cold War repeat itself, could threaten the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power.

By coincidence, this October 1 happens to be the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. The challenge facing President Xi Jinping and his colleagues, then, is to counter the rising worries, perhaps even creeping pessimism, about the party's future during the festivities for this important occasion.

Based on the party's tradition, it is a safe bet that the celebrations of the party's 70th anniversary in power will be heavy on symbolism and light in substance. Spectators and television viewers will be treated to a military parade showcasing China's lethal hardware and goose-stepping troops.

President Xi will deliver a speech extolling the virtues of one-party rule without mentioning the unspeakable sufferings it has brought to the Chinese people.

Instead of lifting the morale of the party's rank and file and reviving the Chinese people's confidence in the direction of their country, Xi's paean to one-party rule wrapped in a sanitized version of history and fortified with appeals to nationalism will likely be received as tired rhetoric, especially by China's business elites the party needs to reassure most urgently.

In addition, after four decades of political apathy most Chinese people are very pragmatic and far less susceptible to official propaganda.

As the country faces a fateful choice between continuing openness and integration with the West and sliding backward toward repression and isolation, President Xi needs to use the occasion to reflect honestly on the past 70 years and present a new direction that shows he and his colleagues have truly learned from history.

One inconvenient, but vital, fact that President Xi must point out to gain any credibility is that the party's first 27 years in power under Mao Zedong's rule were an unmitigated disaster.

During the Maoist period (1949-76), the people's communes, planned economy, self-sufficiency and criminalization of private enterprise impoverished a people known for its industriousness and entrepreneurship. Constant purges terrorized the party. Class struggle and political campaigns claimed the lives of millions of innocent people.

Generations of young people were deprived of educational opportunities while ideological indoctrination and Mao's personality cult turned the country into an intellectual and cultural wasteland.

Externally, Maoist China was a giant rogue state. It cut itself off from the West, treated the U.S. as an existential enemy until 1971 and supported communist insurgencies around the world. Self-imposed isolation and radicalism made China both dangerous and insecure.

It fought two wars -- in Korea and with India -- provoked crises in the Taiwan Strait and border clashes with the Soviet Union in 1969, and narrowly escaped a preemptive Soviet nuclear strike in 1969, thanks to American intervention.

The party saved itself after Mao's death in 1976 only by completely abandoning his extremist ideology and reversing his destructive policies. Pro-market reforms and opening to the West unleashed the nation's long-suppressed economic dynamism and transformed China from a poverty-stricken land into an upper-middle income country and an economic juggernaut.

Ideological flexibility enabled the party to adapt and experiment with pro-growth policies. Collective leadership restored peace and security among the ruling elites while the end of mass terror and growing permissiveness allowed most Chinese people to live a life without fear.

In foreign policy, despite its ideological animosity toward the West, Beijing's pragmatism and caution helped sustain a stable and cooperative relationship with the West, in particular the U.S., the only power that could derail China's march toward prosperity.

The implication of this reflective exercise is obvious. Orthodox communist ideology, state-socialist economic policies, domestic repression, one-man rule and hostility toward the U.S. were responsible for the PRC's catastrophic failures.

China has achieved stunning economic success in the post-Mao era only because the party learned the correct lessons from its failures and adopted more enlightened policies.

Tragically, today the party has forgotten these precious lessons. Since President Xi came to power in late 2012, China has been regressing on all fronts. Market-oriented reforms have stalled while statism has gained ascendance. Social control and repression have reached the worst level since the death of Mao.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power, China has been regressing on all fronts.    © Getty Images

Purges have returned with a vengeance -- about 11% of the party's Central Committee members since 2013 have been punished, most of them given long jail terms. Hallmarks of Maoism -- ideological indoctrination, one-man rule and personality cult -- have all been resurrected.

Most worryingly, China's ambitious foreign policy has steered the country into a geopolitical collision course with the U.S.

It is unimaginable that President Xi will openly and honestly reflect on the history of the PRC and acknowledge the giant leap backward the country has taken in the last seven years.

But if he wants to regain the confidence of the party's worried rank and file, reassure the Chinese people and repair ties with the West, he will have to perform this cathartic exercise when he delivers his speech in front of Tiananmen Square on October 1.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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