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Communist China at 70

After 7 decades, China's Communists still strive for legitimacy

Turning Hong Kong into a second Tiananmen would invite global isolation

BEIJING/TOKYO -- The 70th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule comes amid a confluence of political and economic threats to a leadership team determined to build China into the world's preeminent superpower.

The first three decades or so after the founding of the People's Republic of China, on Oct. 1, 1949, was defined by a series of hardships and crises brought about by Mao Zedong. Mao's Great Leap Forward ended as a massive failure; it brought on a famine that claimed an estimated 30 million lives. Later, Mao's Cultural Revolution plunged the Chinese economy into dire straits.

But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening-up" policy began to transform China. The nation went from a society of doddering state industries and bureaucratic trade barriers to a global growth leader that enjoyed rapidly rising living standards.

The breakneck economic expansion has come at a cost. The nation is now plagued by a slew of deep-seated problems, from yawning income gaps to human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, the administration of President Xi Jinping is pursuing an ambitious agenda to rival the U.S. in global leadership, a task slowed somewhat by Donald Trump's high-stakes trade war.

Xi's ambitions face additional hurdles, such as Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests.

The president is among a fifth-generation of leaders mostly born after the founding of communist China in 1949. Mao and other members of the first generation were "founding fathers" who fought against the Imperial Japanese Army and then against the Kuomintang-led government in China's Civil War.

After Mao, Deng of the second generation, Jiang Zemin of the third and Hu Jintao of the fourth all had to make enormous efforts to maintain party unity and secure the legitimacy of their monopoly on power.

Many of the current fifth-generation leaders entered university in the mid-1970s and later, after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. But they all lack the kind of charisma possessed by Mao and Deng, who were considered symbols of the nation and worshipped as demigods.

The Xi administration, inaugurated in November 2012, has devoted a great deal of energy to tightening the party's grip on power, and now a political movement is underway to consecrate Xi as the infallible and unchallengeable leader, like Mao.

The party stakes its claim as the only legitimate source of authority to its revolutionary origins. But its history depicts furious power struggles, often accompanied by harsh purges.

Xi's reign has been no exception. Since coming to power, he has wielded an anti-corruption campaign that many observers see as a means to ensnare political enemies.

This jaw-dropping act of courage near Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, was made in vain.   © Reuters

The party has consistently taken a hard line against pro-democracy movements. In 1989, it mobilized the People's Liberation Army to put down the Tiananmen Square protest. In 1999, the party outlawed the Falun Gong spiritual group, labeling it an evil cult and brutally attacking its adherents. In 2009, Beijing deployed riot police to clamp down on Uighur protesters in Urumqi, the capital of the restive province of Xinjiang.

Democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who helped author the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08, has been detained repeatedly. He remained locked in jail even after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Now Beijing is trying to put down massive protests in Hong Kong, where millions of young people and others are calling for freedom and democracy under the "One country, two systems" framework established in 1997 upon the former British colony's handover to China.

A proposed law that would have allowed Hong Kong suspects to be extradited to China triggered the protests, which have since become rallies for universal suffrage. The leaderless movement shows no signs of surrendering despite reports and images of police brutality and hints from Beijing that Chinese troops could be sent in.

The unrest has raised concerns about a "second Tiananmen Square crackdown." But outright military force would no doubt bring serious international isolation.

Hong Kong's anti-government protesters assemble in the Causeway Bay district on September 29, 2019.   © Reuters

Already the Hong Kong turbulence is working against China in Taiwan, which Beijing would like to put into the same "one country, two systems" box.

China's current economic success can be traced back to the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping was in power. But only recently have people's lives dramatically improved. In the 1990s, bicycles served as the main means of transportation. Then in 2009 China overtook America as the world's largest car market. Since then, Alibaba and other Chinese companies have grown to rival the world's leading players in various industries.

While living standards have dramatically improved, vast swathes of the population have been left behind. The haves and have-nots are separated by a vast ocean, an inappropriate state of affairs for a socialist country.

This is not the only incongruity plaguing modern China. The country's information technology sector has proved to be especially adept in convincing the population to adopt cashless payments and other technologies. But this same digital prowess has also allowed authorities to create a powerful surveillance apparatus.

China's economic development is also helping the nation build a mighty military, whose budget (as allocated by the central government only) has posted higher growth than the target economic growth rate for nine consecutive years.

In late 2015, China created a "Rocket Force" in the People's Liberation Army to handle missiles with nuclear warheads. The move put China on a path toward becoming a military superpower. It has also given neighboring countries reason to believe they face a greater threat from the world's most populous nation.

But China's faceoff against the U.S. is nothing new. From the days shortly after the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China, the country found itself jousting against the U.S. It did so in the Korean War (1950-1953) and continues to do so over Taiwan.

U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 paved the way for rapprochement, and for years afterward the countries mostly maintained good relations as strategic partners. More recently, however, the nations have become economic and military adversaries.

For decades, the U.S. was among the developed nations that extended technological and other assistance to China, believing that an economically developed China would democratize. These benefactors were late to realize that economic growth was doing little to bring democracy to China.

Chinese rulers were seeking hegemony.

This is clearly reflected in the "Made in China 2025" plan, which Xi's administration unveiled in 2015. The initiative forms the core of Beijing's long-term strategy for making China one of the world's leading global manufacturers by the time the country celebrates its centenary in 2049. It calls for providing huge amounts of subsidies to foster high-tech enterprises.

The U.S.-China trade war, mostly an exchange of punitive tariffs that began in July 2018, can be understood as the world's largest and second-largest economies battling for global leadership. There is no end in sight to this broader battle of opposing forces. One side endeavors to depose the global political and economic order. Its opponent prefers today's rules-based international market.

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