China’s long march to national rejuvenation

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As the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 70th anniversary on Tuesday, the contrast between its past achievements and current challenges could hardly be more stark.

Its economy is slowing, increasingly due to deep-seated structural reasons. Its relations with the US, partly because of the trade war, are unambiguously adversarial. Hong Kong is engulfed by pro-democracy protests that challenge Beijing’s doctrine of authoritarian control and Taiwan appears likely to choose a pro-independence candidate at presidential elections next year.

No wonder then that Xi Jinping, the president, used the world “struggle” nearly 60 times in the published version of a speech he delivered this month. Nevertheless, Beijing does not profess to be daunted by the challenges it faces, but determined to defy them. “We must win the struggle,” Mr Xi said.

His goal is a long-term one. He has pledged that by 2049, China will have achieved the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, a term that encapsulates both economic and territorial significance. Economically, it means that China will by then be a “fully-developed” country, surpassing the US to become the world’s leading economy. Territorially, it means reunifying with Taiwan, which split away from the mainland afterthe 1949 revolution.

Such goals are crucial to the Chinese Communist party’s self identity. But it is the way that Mr Xi’s administration is going about achieving them that is raising profound questions about both Beijing’s stewardship at home, and its future relations with western powers.

Essentially, China’s response to its panoply of “struggles” is to double down on old authoritarian reflexes. A government policy paper published last week put it simply. “Due to China’s vast territory and complicated national conditions, the governance of China is uniquely difficult,” it says. “Without centralised, unified and firm leadership, China would have tended toward division and disintegration.”

Tough, unbending policies are increasingly adopted when greater flexibility may better serve the national interest. This is despite the fact that China’s glittering economic success in the past four decades sprang largely from economic reforms, openness to foreign investment and a flexible, pragmatic foreign policy.

The results speak for themselves. China’s GDP growth rate averaged 8.1 per cent between 1952 and 2018, according to official figures. Some 770m people living in rural China have been raised from poverty since 1978 and life expectancy has risen from 35 in 1949 to 77 today. More than $2tn in foreign direct investment entered the country over the past 40 years.

These and other achievements provide ample scope for celebration on Tuesday, but they also pose a series of insistent questions. The first is: if China’s success has derived from flexibility, why is rigidity now setting in?

Is it wise to alienate foreign corporations, once Beijing’s strongest lobbyists in overseas capitals, with an official plan called “Made in China 2025” that seeks to reduce their market share? If Beijing’s authoritarian influence in Hong Kong is so deeply unpopular with its people, why not back off? If private enterprises have been the most vibrant contributors to Chinese growth, why re-emphasise the primacy of state-owned enterprises. Why shock the world with a brutal crackdown on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang?

These questions, and others, dog China’s leadership as it struggles to achieve its “great rejuvenation”. Beijing should realise that making concessions now to win future growth and acceptance is not a sign of weakness.