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book review

Chinese flags fly in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 29, 2015.Jason Lee/Reuters

In October, 2019, Beijing celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

Many critics saw the lavish public celebrations as a cynical choreographed charade of Chinese national unity and power. Among the dissenters were anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

Their demonstrations over the last two years have lead to ugly scenes of police brutality and mass violence. The protests began with China’s attempts to interfere with Hong Kong’s judicial independence. And last year China’s parliament approved national security legislation for Hong Kong to tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. It points to a more worrying trend: China is heading further and further down the road toward a bureaucratic dictatorship under the unbending leadership of Xi Jinping.

“No force can ever stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward,” China’s President explained in a brief, but stern, opening address marking 70 years of one party Communist party rule.

Despite his hubris, nations around the globe are increasingly alarmed over Beijing’s brutal treatment of Muslim minorities, including Uyghurs. This week, Canada joined the United States, Britain and the European Union in imposing sanctions, with Canada also calling back its ambassador to China to discuss how the federal government should deal with Beijing’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, including trials of two imprisoned Canadians.

China’s authoritarian ruler has also spoken of achieving a second “centennial goal” by 2049. The ambition couldn’t be clearer: China wants to become the number one global superpower by the middle of this century. Despite an ongoing trade war with the United States, China is clinging onto its semi superpower status. The Confucian Leninist state has the largest standing military on the planet. As well as the largest national economy. China recently had its biggest economic growth in two years after the slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But China’s per capita income ranks at 106 out of 228 countries. That puts it on a par with countries like Gabon or the Dominican Republic. In other words: relatively poor.

Published by The University of Chicago Press.Handout

This message is repeated many times in Invisible China by Natalie Hell and Scott Rozelle. The book begins in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader. Deng had no time for social reform. But he was a pragmatist on economic matters. Under his watch China opened up for business. The method was cautious but effective: state capitalism. The invisible hand of the market was allowed to work its magic. But the authoritarian rules of a one-party communist system still applied.

The experiment worked. Agriculture and industry was reformed. Investment in science and technology was encouraged. Construction boomed. Private businesses flourished as foreign investment was welcomed. Especially in the area of low labour manufacturing: where China began assembling high tech goods in sweat shops for western consumers. The result was an economic miracle unparalleled in human history. China transformed itself from a traditional agrarian society to a modern urbane nation. The country’s productivity has increased by 20-fold, lifting 850 million Chinese citizens out of poverty. Most were rural uneducated peasants. They flocked to cities seeking higher salaries in factories and construction sites. In 1980, China’s per capita income stood at less than US$1,000. By 2016, it was US$15,000. During those four decades, China’s GDP figures increased almost 70 times.

This book also tells a less well known story: how China’s political system is plagued by inequality and discrimination. Both authors claim China’s economy is on course for a catastrophic nosedive. High wages are the main reason. They’ve risen exponentially with economic growth, and many multinational companies have relocated to cheaper Asian countries, like Vietnam. China is stuck in middle-income country status. Making the transition to high income status requires having a versatile labour force. But China’s education levels are abysmal. In 2015, national census data showed only 12.5 per cent of China’s work force had a college education, while 70 per cent were high school drop outs. Since infinite economic growth is no longer a viable option, how will order, stability, unity and harmony be maintained?

Answering that question requires a nuanced understanding of China’s history.

Michael Wood’s The Story of China provides it. The book kicks off where the mythical beginnings of Chinese civilization began to coalesce: in the Yellow River Plain around 2000 BC. Wood claims this started as a series of ritualistic practices around shamanism, astrology and divination. There was no one defining state or single cultural entity during this early epoch. That changed when the Shang polity arrived in 1550 BC. Ruling for nearly 500 years, it believed ultimate power lay with a single sage monarch who got their divine authority and spiritual wisdom from heaven and the ancestors.

Published by St. Martin's Press.Handout

Coercion, control, order, stability, unity and harmony defined the Qin dynasty: it came to power in 221 BCE. The First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, declared to have brought ”peace to all under heaven.”

During the Qin’s brief 15 year reign, an autocratic dictatorship was established with a legal system and currency. But the lasting legacy was philosophical: one polity is subordinate to the Emperor’s will and the state is both the executive and the dispenser of the law.

Wood also makes clear that China’s story from antiquity to the present day is as colourful as it is cosmopolitan and combative. He lucidly whittles that narrative down to five words. Rise. Decline. Collapse. Renewal. Rebirth.

China’s journey as it broke away from the ancient world and moved toward modernity had many historical landmarks. Wood notes four major moments: the fall of the Song in 1279, the collapse of Mongol Dynasty in the 14th century, the decline of the Ming Empire in mid 17th century and the demise of the Great Qing, which ruled from 1644 to 1911. As these empires came and went, cultures and customs evolved accordingly. When foreign tribes ruled, like the Mongols or the Manchus, the language even changed. Imperial rule was eventually overthrown by numerous forces and individuals. Among them was the physician and political philosopher Sun Yat-sen. He became the first president of the Republic of China in 1912.

In The Invention of China, Bill Hayton notes how the “new state inherited the boundaries of the Qing Great-State as they stood when the revolution broke out.” But the disunified nation was a bloody battleground between nationalists and communists. After a vicious and arduous civil war, the latter group triumphed in 1949 – when Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China. The Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 purged so-called party traitors and enemies. The Great Leap Forward launched a year later was meant to modernize the Chinese economy. It ended in a man-made famine where an estimated 36 million perished. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966: the decade long class-conscious cleansing operation saw 1.5 million murdered. Dissidents who stayed alive faced torture, incarceration or confiscation of property. Confucian values – like virtue, wisdom and filial piety – were replaced by abstract Marxist theory. A Utopian future was promised, but it never arrived. A glimmer of hope did when Chairman Mao died in 1976.

Published by Yale University Press.Handout

But the post-Mao late modern economic miracle China has experienced over the last 40 years has now run its course. To keep a firm grip on hierarchical state power, China is need of a distracting myth.

Hayton claims the Communist Party of China (CPC) has found the perfect fairly tale: emotive nationalism. China’s government is now feeding Chinese citizens a fictitious version of their own history: this makes inaccurate claims that China is a 5,000-year-old civilization with one glorious culture stemming from a single superior race. The reality is more complex and cosmopolitan. Enforced monoculturalism only emerged at the end of the nineteenth century with a Chinese nationalist project. It understood to bring down imperialism required beating the drum of nation state politics.

Hayton calls the People’s Republic of China in 2021 an ethnocracy: it views politics and culture through the hierarchical prism of Social Darwinism. Outsiders are persecuted and punished accordingly, as is presently happening to more than a million Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The (mostly Muslim) minorities are being held in so called re-education centres. This past February, both the Dutch and Canadian parliaments passed non-binding motions claiming it amounts to genocide. The comparisons this book makes between China in 2021 to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s seem fair game. The same methods are being used. Alienating of racial others and maintaining state power through coercion, physical force, imprisonment and mass surveillance. The People’s Republic of China presently spends more money on internal security than on external defence.

Those Orwellian values are now being exported abroad. This is the main gist of Jonathan E. Hillman’s The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century. The book notes how Huawei has helped install high tech surveillance technology in Kenyan cities like Mombasa and Nairobi. The Chinese multinational technology company labels this “Smart City” technology.

Published by Yale University Press.Handout

The market value for the surveillance industry abroad is set to be worth US$3.5-trillion to China by 2026. Developing nations, like Kenya, see China as an attractive investment partner. It offers cheap prices, materials, labour and assisted finance – they help build and design everything from railways to wireless networks.

This is the driving impetus behind the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013, it aims to be completed by the hundred year anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049. The global development plan is using Chinese capital, skills, organization and political clout to further its influence in infrastructure projects across 70 countries. But is the BRI just another rung on the ladder toward reaching the “centennial goal”? Hillman believes so. He says it’s modern imperialism masquerading as global capitalism.

Expanding and exporting Chinese global hegemony across the planet includes the promoting of ideas like China’s “Great Firewall.” It shows other countries what a sophisticated online state censorship plan really looks like. It makes for obedient and silent citizens. Welcome to the Chinese century. Individual liberty, human rights and social equality are not part of its agenda.

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