Seventy years ago, on Oct. 1, 1949, communist revolutionary Mao Zedong stood before a battery of microphones above Tiananmen Square in Beijing and declared “Long live the People’s Republic of China!” It was the birth of what would become the world’s most populous communist nation and its longest-lasting. But much has changed in China since 1949.
This year on Oct. 1, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will undoubtedly utter the same words as Mao, but unlike his legendary predecessor, Xi will appear in a crisp business suit, not a revolutionary Sun Yat-sen jacket. As in 1949, there will be hundreds of dancers, musicians, glowing lanterns and big fireworks, but security cameras, police drones and internet memes will add a layer of virtual reality and surveillance that did not exist when Mao presided over the nation’s founding. While the celebrations in 1949 included military parades and a show of weaponry (much of it foreign-made and captured from the communists’ adversaries), this year’s National Day celebration is expected to feature the biggest military parade in the nation’s history, showcasing 15,000 soldiers, 160 aircraft and some of the country’s most advanced hardware.
“The celebration this year will be grander and larger than the one in 2009 [the last 10-year anniversary],” wrote Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the D.C.-based Stimson Center via email. “We can expect to see a bigger military parade, potentially with the more advanced weapons systems China has been developing.”
According to Sun, the bigger celebration reflects President Xi’s determination to present China to the world as “a first-tier great power,” having pronounced “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” after stepping into leadership in 2012.
“Xi sees himself as the leader that makes China strong, following in the vein that Mao made China independent and Deng [Xiaoping] made China rich,” Sun told us. “In this sense, [Xi] sees himself as the most consequential and important leader in the recent history of China, since the reform and opening up…. [T]he 70th celebration will gear toward the demonstration and reinforcement of his paramount status.”
Sun said there are also important differences in ideology between the Chinese leaders who stood above Tiananmen Square in 1949 and Xi and those who will join him on the platform this National Day.
“Back in 1949, the Chinese leadership was highly ideology-driven,” Sun said. “The party then claimed to be the Communist Party bringing China to the new stage of communism. That is not what the Chinese leaders today claim,” she said. “What China aspires to today [more resembles] the ancient ideal of China being the advanced civilization, the Middle Kingdom, and the hegemon that commands the respect and deference” of other countries.
Sun believes that, in terms of its domestic politics, China’s system is more meritocratic than ideological, driven by performance and practical concerns. In economics, “state capitalism” has replaced state communism and central planning. “I’d say the Chinese Communist Party has shifted very far away from the original days under the founding fathers,” Sun said.
Despite such differences, Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center, believes today’s Chinese leaders do have much to celebrate.
“There’s been undeniable success in improving the welfare and living conditions of most Chinese people since 1978,” he told us. “They’ve increased the living standards of more people in a shorter time than ever before in human history.”
But Daly believes many Westerners are loathe to acknowledge the Chinese Communist Party’s role in this success. “Some credit must be given for these enormous increases in human wellbeing, in education, in living standards,” Daly argues. While political freedoms are significantly lacking, he cites the tremendous increase in personal and individual freedoms for many Chinese, such as being able to choose where to go to school, whom to marry or having the freedom to travel abroad. “Nothing like this has ever been done before,” Daly said of the sweeping economic and social changes over the last four decades. “That’s the primary thing they’ll be celebrating.”
China’s growth has indeed been impressive. The World Bank describes it as “an upper middle-income country” — a far cry from any description of China 40 years ago — which, over the last several decades, has experienced the fastest sustained economic expansion of any major country in history. More than 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty — over two and a half times the total population of the U.S. — and China has become the world’s second-largest economy and the largest individual contributor to world economic growth over the last decade. Although economic inequality between urban and rural areas remains a serious problem, the World Bank reports that China “is on track to eliminate absolute poverty by 2020” according to the country’s internal poverty standard.
While these economic achievements are noteworthy and deserving of recognition, Daly points out that the Chinese Communist Party has celebrated them or similar accomplishments before, on earlier 10-year anniversaries. Now, he says, the party is using these successes “to make both implicit and explicit that it should remain in power, and that it is right.”
What’s new, Daly suggests, is that “the party will claim not only to have greatly improved the Chinese standard of living, but also to have greatly enhanced China’s international standing and global influence. It’s not just that China is successful and developed and a good place to live. It’s that now China is a great power in the world, spreading its influence.”
A primary example of China’s spreading influence is its sprawling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been described as the most ambitious infrastructure development and investment effort in history, stretching from East Asia to Africa and even Europe. According to a background report prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), more than 60 countries, representing two-thirds of the world’s population, have signed on to or expressed interest in Chinese-financed projects such as the development of railways, highways, bridges, dams, seaports, energy pipelines and the creation of special economic zones.
But all of these things come with a price in terms of loan debt and the possibility of Chinese interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The CFR report notes that the United States shares the concerns of other nations “that the BRI could be a Trojan horse for China-led regional development, military expansion, and Beijing-led institutions,” wrote authors Andrew Chatzky and James McBride, who suggest that China’s supreme leader has skin in the game, too.
Xi has made much of China’s plans for global development, no doubt with an eye toward America’s own international reach. According to Chatzky and McBride, the BRI serves “as a pushback” to the celebrated Obama-era “pivot to Asia,” which Trump administration policies and the current trade wars have made increasingly irrelevant. Their report asks if, among other things, the BRI is “a plan to remake the global balance of power.”
“China has definitely become a more assertive international actor under Xi Jinping,” said the CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia currently focusing on China’s approach to soft power in the region. He believes that in recent years, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) “has provoked extensive anxiety among most other countries in Asia,” although these countries recognize that their options for response are limited given China’s size and strength.
Kurlantzick sees China’s new assertiveness on the international stage coinciding with increasing authoritarianism at home. “The question for today,” he said, “is whether China is headed in an even more authoritarian direction, away from collective rule to one-man rule. It seems like it is.” Kurlantzick suggests that, even though Xi presides over a vastly different country with a vastly different economic system — not to mention world standing — his actions and the response to them within China often bring to mind the cult of personality that grew up around Mao after 1949.
Daly, too, is concerned about Xi and notes some commonalities with Mao, although he says such comparisons are often “way overblown.” Nevertheless, like Mao, Xi seems to have become supreme leader for life (unlike past presidents, he has yet to anoint a successor), with his political ideology, “Xi Jinping Thought,” codified like Mao’s into the nation’s constitution. Unlike Mao, however, Xi’s doctrine has been enshrined while he still very much alive and in power.
Daly also argues that since Xi became China’s president in 2013, the country has backed away from reform, placed new limits on individual freedoms and more deeply politicized educational institutions, media and think tanks in a manner reminiscent of the “Maoist playbook.”
“Xi has been retrograde,” Daly said, presiding over two “big bad China” narratives. The first is that China is having more difficulty than ever on its peripheries, Daly said, citing ongoing unrest in Xinjiang Province and in Tibet, the decades-long tensions with Taiwan and now political chaos in Hong Kong.
“The party has had 70 years to make its case to Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan that it is in their best interests to be part of the People’s Republic,” Daly said. “But now these places are less interested in being part of the PRC than ever before. The party has failed dramatically after 70 years to make its case, despite its economic successes. They’re not getting joiners.”
The most recent entity to rebel against Chinese rule has been Hong Kong, which Britain handed over to Beijing in 1997. A proposed extradition bill led to protests in June that have morphed into a broader pro-democracy movement that has challenged Xi’s control of the wealthy, semi-autonomous enclave.
Yet while many in the West have supported Hong Kong’s struggle for greater freedoms, many inside China aren’t as sympathetic.
“[T]o many mainlanders who believe the China model has benefited their economic development and their private lives, Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and freedom is not so attractive any more. They believe the mainland government is not perfect, but a messed-up government is worse. They fear political turbulence, poverty, foreign invasion — but not an authoritarian government,” wrote Beijing-based author Karoline Kan in a July 30 article for Nikkei Asian Review. “What’s worse, many believe the existing freedom Hong Kong enjoys is a ‘special treatment’ that spoils the city. They believe the mainland has helped Hong Kong, but the city is ungrateful and constantly making trouble for China.”
So while Hong Kong and other territories chafe under Chinese authority, not all of China’s 1.4 billion people want to throw their system out in favor of Western-style democracy, especially in light of the political turmoil and populist uprisings that have engulfed democracies in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.
Indeed, as China has grown more prosperous — and proud of that prosperity — many Chinese increasingly resent what they see as Western heavy-handedness and hypocrisy. Just as older generations seethe at the West’s history of imperialism and colonialism — stretching back to China’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the British in the mid-1800s during the Opium Wars — today’s younger generations suspect the West of trying dominate the region by containing China’s rise.
Former President Obama’s Asia pivot, for instance, was seen by Beijing as a thinly veiled attempt to sideline China in its own backyard. Meanwhile, President Trump has abandoned any pretense of cooperation and openly describes China as a geopolitical competitor. His tariff war has sparked a nationalist backlash in China that could embolden Xi. Washington’s stepped-up military presence in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its own despite competing claims from neighboring countries, and its frequent denunciations of Beijing’s human rights record have also stirred nationalist sentiment in China.
The Communist Party uses these disagreements to bolster its longstanding argument that the U.S. tries to interfere in China’s internal affairs and wants to impose its own values and system of governance on the country.
Many Chinese citizens likely agree that the U.S. has a tendency to meddle abroad. And while they might be more pro-stability and less pro-democracy than Western observers often suggest, that doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t worried about their own government overreaching.
That gets to the second, newer “bad China” narrative that Daly says has emerged — that of the technologically enabled totalitarian surveillance state.
With the advanced technology of nearly 200 million closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition software, cloud computing and 5G (fifth generation) wireless cellular networks, the Chinese government has the ability to keep track of more people than ever before — and the wealth to do it.
“There’s a technological totalitarian impulse under Xi,” Daly argues, adding that every “street and alley in Beijing is covered by a 24-hour camera.” While Daly said this surveillance “impulse” is not new in China — it goes back at least as far as the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century — Xi has been very interested and effective in employing the most advanced technology to keep a watchful eye on his countrymen.
If government cameras will be focused on citizens, it remains an open question how focused the 70th anniversary celebrations will be on Xi specifically, Daly said. He believes the celebrations “will probably be very party-focused” and thinks the important questions will be how militarized the event is, whether or not anything is said about Taiwan and how the Chinese media report on it.
For Daly, the lead-up to Oct. 1 has been as interesting as the event itself. Among other things, the official Chinese state media censor has banned “entertainment-driven” programs (i.e. historical dramas, game shows, reality programs) from Chinese television in the two months leading up to the 70th anniversary. Instead, broadcasters have been told to select “patriotic programs” from an approved list that focuses “on different historical aspects that show the great struggle of the Chinese nation as its people have stood up and become richer and stronger,” according to a Reuters news report.
For his part, Daly will be watching the anniversary celebrations from across the straits in Taiwan. He says he’ll be looking for “how [the Chinese leadership] are performing in power. What are they saying about the nature of all the progress China has made, and what does it mean? Those will be the interpretable things,” he suggests.
Yun Sun said that overall, the West’s response to the Chinese National Day festivities will not be positive. “[M]ost Western observers will focus on the Chinese show of force and Xi’s show of authority,” she wrote. “They probably will see an authoritarian leader trying to consolidate his legitimacy and authority in front of the world by portraying an image of unanimous support from his people and cheering foreign dignitaries.”
Sun suggests that the involvement of foreign dignitaries will be an important element to watch for, as it will offer clues about other countries’ participation in China’s own narrative. According to Sun, most Western observers are very likely to conclude that “China today is a bigger problem” than it was decades ago, and certainly than it was in 1949, when U.S. President Harry Truman vowed never to recognize the new government in Beijing. (The PRC was not formally recognized by the United States until 1979, under President Jimmy Carter.)
Meanwhile, Chinese and U.S. leaders can celebrate at least one thing together on Oct. 1. There will be no new tariffs on Chinese goods. President Trump moved the next round of punitive tariffs against America’s economic rival to Oct. 15, tweeting that the action was “a gesture of good will” that was “due to the fact that the People’s Republic of China will be celebrating their 70th Anniversary on October 1st.” How long that goodwill lasts, however, is another question entirely.
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.