Editorial: On 70th anniv. of Communist rule, China's rise inspires both hope and fear
It has been 70 years since Mao Zedong, fresh from his final victory over China's Kuomintang nationalists, stood before a large crowd in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to declare the creation of a new country: the People's Republic of China (PRC). "China is a sleeping giant," Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked. "Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world."
It appears China is just as Napoleon predicted.
The PRC's extraordinary rise has befuddled the global community, its growing power stirring widespread anxiety. The ongoing trade war with the United States and the months of protests in Hong Kong are two signs of this uneasiness over Beijing's strength and intentions. Will China tear down international order? Or does it seek to exist peacefully within it?
China's GDP is now at least 170 times the size it was the day Mao made his foundation speech. The country's average lifespan is said to have gone from 35 to 77 years. Its march from being one of the poorest nations on Earth to become the "factory of the world" is surely one of the most remarkable transformations in human history.
The road there was not simple, however. From the late 1950s to the 1970s, countless Chinese people died of starvation under Mao's reckless "Great Leap Forward" policy. Yet more were killed in the chaos and terror of the Cultural Revolution.
After Mao's death in 1978, his successor atop the PRC Deng Xiaoping looked back on this litany of sorrow and decided to part ways with the socialist planned economy, opting instead for the introduction of market principles and slowly opening the country.
Amid improving ties with the U.S. and Japan, China welcomed foreign investment and successfully pivoted to an export-driven growth model, acceding to the World Trade Organization in 2001. From that year on in particular, China reaped the benefits of globalization.
But Beijing's defense policy is haunted by the ghosts of the colonial era. From the Opium War in 1840 through the first decades of the 20th century, China was subjected to repeated seizures of its territory and other humiliations at the hands of the Western empires and Japan. That history of victimization by foreign powers has compelled the Communist regime to pour enormous resources into building up China's military strength.
The vast outlays of wealth and leveraging of technology to build artificial islands in the South China Sea -- far from the Chinese mainland -- made China as a threat more palpable. We are witnessing the birth of a new sort of military power -- one very different from the model of the Soviet Union, where economic stagnation paired with unsustainable military outlays led to the collapse of the state.
China's self-awareness as a great power has grown in the years since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, expressed through greater diplomatic assertiveness that has put other countries on edge. It is perfectly natural that an increasingly strong Beijing would turn its attention to the wider world. And many nations have been more than willing to sign onto the Belt and Road Initiative, China's attempt to create a new, globe-spanning economic bloc. On the other hand, the case of Sri Lanka -- where a Chinese corporation seized ownership of a major port after the Sri Lankan government failed to keep up infrastructure loan payments to Beijing -- has sparked worries that Belt and Road is in fact a hegemonic project.
We must also question the Xi administration's understanding of the PRC's history. Deng Xiaoping spoke against the Cultural Revolution during his time in the top job, but Xi has a strong tendency to see that period as a connecting element in the 70 years of Communist rule. During the Cultural Revolution, human rights were trampled and minorities including Tibetans and Uighurs oppressed. The current administration cannot win trust as long as it ignores this part of the past.
Meanwhile, Beijing's enormous investments in the information revolution have made China a leader in 5G and artificial intelligence technology. If harnessed by the government, this technology will enable both more efficient administration and an unparalleled level of surveillance of the Chinese people. We can think of just one name for this: digital dictatorship.
Observers had long expected that economic growth would bring democratization to China. The opposite appears to be happening. Furthermore, there are said to be foreign governments eyeing the Chinese state model as a way to boost their own economies. That the United States has taken aim at the Chinese firm Huawei, a leader in 5G tech, comes down to Washington's worries that China will move to shape a new world order.
The Chinese and American economies have become intertwined in complicated ways in this globalized age. The economic "decoupling" from China favored by some figures in the U.S. is simply unrealistic. Attempting it would risk global economic chaos. At the same time, however, if Beijing does not try to allay U.S. worries about China, the confrontation between the two countries will go on for some time. China should thus make it plain that it wishes to exist peacefully within the current international framework.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other regions are keenly cognizant of Chinese pressure, and growing increasingly distrustful toward Beijing. To celebrate the PRC's 70th anniversary, the communist government mounted an enormous military parade through the capital. The Chinese government has not done enough to reassure its neighbors that this display of might is nothing more than an expression of patriotism.
There are many problems in our world that cannot be handled without China's cooperation. In the wake of the ignominious end this year to the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces arms limitation treaty, the threat of a new arms race that could reach even into space is becoming a reality. Managing global IT behemoths, cryptocurrencies and other issues of the digital economy, tackling the climate crisis, reforming the WTO -- to deal with any of these world-spanning problems, China must be at the table. One shortcut Beijing could use to build international trust is to use its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to take the initiative on consensus-building.
For Japan, there is no other choice but to coexist with our giant neighbor to the west. Next spring, President Xi is scheduled to make his first state visit to Japan. Tokyo's role -- and we believe it is an important one -- will be to express its concerns frankly to China, and work to reduce tensions between Beijing and Washington.