Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
The People’s Republic of China is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding this week with fireworks, a huge parade showing off its latest military hardware – and a vast outpouring of mostly real facts and figures that mask a not-so-glorious story that the Communist Party would prefer the rest of the world not know.
In recent weeks, white papers have flowed from the government, covering such things as improvements in life expectancy, per-capita GDP and health care. The broader picture: China’s development is a huge contribution to the world.
China, as always, views itself in a global perspective, and claims credit for solving a large part of the world’s problems simply by taking care of itself.
One white paper issued last week speaks of Beijing’s goal to effectively eliminate extreme poverty, thus “making a new contribution to global poverty reduction.” That paper elides the fact that such Chinese poverty resulted from its own misgovernance in the first place.
Indeed, amid the celebration of the birth of what used to be called the New China, there is almost no mention of its founder, Mao Zedong, who was worshipped as a god, but whose political campaigns cost millions of Chinese people their lives.
In 1958, Mao’s Communist Party introduced the Great Leap Forward, a failed effort to achieve rapid industrialization – and which, by its end in 1962, left as many as 45 million people dead as food output plunged and a famine wreaked havoc. The decade-long Cultural Revolution, which brought disaster to the country, only ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
Because of such campaigns, China basically stood still as the rest of the world moved ahead. China’s per capita GDP had actually dropped relative to the world average from 1952 to 1978.
Today, China’s huge strides over 70 years sound pretty impressive but, in reality, those gains were made in the 40 years after Mr. Deng launched China on the road to economic reform after taking over from Mao’s chosen successor.
To get around such awkward facts, Beijing has smoothed out the many rough edges and provided its own narrative. In the words of a white paper on human rights progress: “Seventy years ago, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the people of China were emancipated and became masters of their country. Over the subsequent seven decades, the Chinese nation has stood up and grown prosperous and is becoming strong.”
This is coded language. What it is saying is that Mao led the party to power, Mr. Deng made the country rich and now, under Xi Jinping, China is becoming strong militarily.
It would appear this is the essence of Mr. Xi’s dream, for his country to seek – and find – wealth and power, after decades of being the victim of western imperialism.
Another paper seeks to reassure other countries that they have nothing to fear from a resurgent China. “China will never impose its will on other countries, nor will it allow others to impose theirs on the Chinese people,” it asserts.
That is because “we respect the right of the peoples of all countries to choose their own development paths and social systems, respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and oppose interference in others’ domestic affairs.”
But, here again, history intrudes. Mao, who was keen on world revolution and was an early supporter of the independence struggles of some African nations, grossly interfered in those countries’ internal affairs.
In some countries in Southeast Asia, China’s Communist Party gave material aid to underground communist movements even after those countries had established diplomatic relations with China. Beijing called itself the friend of those governments, while its Communist Party supported insurgents whose aim was to overthrow them. It was only after Singapore’s prime minister at the time, Lee Kuan Yew, spoke with Deng Xiaoping about the issue in 1978 that China’s paramount leader ended such interference.
So, while China justly celebrates the impressive progress it has made, it should also remember history and the lessons that history teaches. Banning media and classroom discussion of historical mistakes made by the party, as Mr. Xi has done, is not the way to prevent future mistakes.
China is right about its contribution to the world. Even Mao’s gargantuan mistakes resulting in the loss of countless lives is a lesson from which the world can learn. There is no need to hide them.
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