A half century ago the West, average folks and government officials alike, feared the People’s Republic of China. That changed after Mao Zedong’s death and Beijing’s embrace of reform and the international system. Alas, Western fears are rising again, as the PRC again embraces rigid social, political, and economic controls.
The U.S. relationship with China is long and complicated, hitting its nadir during the early years of the Revolution. For a time, U.S. officials contemplated a preemptive strike against China’s nascent nuclear program. That era eventually passed, thankfully. Under Deng Xiaoping the Chinese Communist Party stepped back to free its people. This unleashed an entire nation’s creativity, determinism, and dynamism.
Of course, ethnic Chinese had long enriched other nations with their entrepreneurship and hard work. The tragedy was that the necessary freedom had been available only outside of China. However, the Deng reforms changed that.
Along with economic liberalization came much greater personal autonomy and even a contested political opening. Many leaders, including Deng, were not prepared to accept a challenge to their own positions, and some Chinese suffered greatly as a result. Nevertheless, visitors to the PRC saw and felt that it had become something much more like a normal country. Individuals could plot their own educations, careers, and lives.
This China invited the world to participate. Business cooperation, financial investment, and academic exchanges abounded. American tourists visited the PRC while Chinese students studied in America. Australia, Canada, Europe, and South Korea also created extensive bilateral relationships.
Challenges emerged along with successes, corruption for one. Nevertheless, China was welcomed internationally as it prospered and grew in influence. The PRC’s economic take-off was more often viewed as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Yet all this is changing. The West sees a much darker future for Beijing. This helps explain President Xi Jinping’s latest speech to the CCP leadership justifying his government’s policies. He insisted that party primacy was necessary for continued growth. The lesson of the reform era, he contended, was the importance of the CCP’s control of “overall tasks.” Explained Xi: “It was precisely because we’ve adhered to the centralized and united leadership of the party that we were able to achieve this great historic transition.”
Yet his government is retreating almost across the board from the policies during that transition, abandoning his predecessors’ willingness to allow freedom to emerge in the PRC. The time of trusting the Chinese people to share leadership with the CCP is over, at least for now.
This approach is not consistent with the reform era. Rather, President Xi seems to be leapfrogging backward into Mao’s time, dragging the party along. With his thought enshrined in the constitution and his rivals sidelined, President Xi appears to be returning the PRC to strongman rule. Marxist-Leninist doctrine is being cited, political education is being strengthened for students, party cells are being established in businesses, and the party’s centrality is being promoted.
Personal autonomy and freedom, especially to hold thoughts contrary to the CCP, are shrinking. Internet censorship has tightened, reformist groups have been shuttered, religious persecution has deepened, academic freedom has retreated, and human rights activism has been punished.
There’s no Cultural Revolution, to be sure, but politics is being exalted and party controls are being expanded. If angry crowds are not waving red books and demanding self-criticism at those who fall short of new collectivist ideals, the social credit system might indirectly achieve much the same result. Reeducation camps in Xinjiang create memories of other cruder, and hideous totalitarian systems.
This shift into the past will undermine China’s growth machine. So far, the PRC has remained afloat despite the dire predictions of many economists. Productive forces unleashed continue to work. However, international businesses have begun turning against a market which they believe does not play fair; some encouraged the Trump administration’s more confrontational trade tactics.
Academic cooperation is more difficult, limiting research and commercial benefits. New restrictions on information and expression cannot help but undermine the creativity and productivity Beijing is counting on for future growth. Beijing’s increasing commercial dictats add political dead weight to companies facing vigorous foreign competition.
Equally worrisome for the PRC, other nations are increasingly viewing China as a destabilizing, disruptive, even dangerous force. This is not just a matter of Western jealousy. Territorial challenges have led communist Vietnam to look at India and Japan as friends. The Philippines wants Tokyo to do more militarily. The Sino-South Korean spat over missile defense undermined a warming relationship. Several East Asian nations are stirring militarily, and their target is neither America nor Japan.
The problem is economic as well as military. The U.S. is not the only country to confront Beijing over trade, economic piracy, and technology security. The PRC’s growing economic role has even led to blowback in countries like Zambia. Burma’s military liberalized the political system in part to draw back the West and thereby weaken Beijing’s suffocating embrace. President Xi’s high-profile Belt and Road initiative has created friction with governments ill-prepared for the resulting economic burden. Malaysia’s new government, for example, has killed two projects worth $22.3 billion.
In the midst of this challenging environment, economic growth appears to be slowing and criticism of the government’s current direction seems to be emerging. Reassertions of party authority are a poor substitute for a dialogue with and among China’s educated, creative, and resilient population. “Let contemporary Chinese Marxism shine even more brilliant rays of truth,” President Xi told the recent party gathering. However, his authoritarian centralization of power makes learning truth virtually impossible.
China’s success matters for the rest of the world. If Washington and Beijing can cooperate in coming years, despite their inevitable disagreements, the 21st Century is likely to be both peaceful and prosperous. Working together, these two nations and peoples should be able to overcome any challenges before them. But a breakdown in these relationships would threaten a far uglier future, including the possibility of catastrophic conflict.
Undoubtedly, Western criticism of Beijing reflects a mix of motives. However, the PRC’s own conduct, most importantly China’s return to its recent destructive past, is generating much of the increased hostility. The new year offers the Xi government an opportunity to rethink how it engages its people and the world.