China at 60: Dramatic rise but unsettled future

Pushing The Limits, Day After Day

Since 1949, China has seen a dramatic rise in
its fortunes. But its future is far from settled, says Brahma Chellaney.

Times of India, The Crest Edition, October
3, 2009 http://ow.ly/sCWG

Six decades
after it was founded, the People’s Republic of
China can truly be proud of its
remarkable achievements. An impoverished, backward state in 1949, it has risen
dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world. But such success
has come at great cost to its own people. In fact,
China’s future remains more
uncertain than ever. It faces a worrisome paradox: Because of its opaque, repressive
system, the more it globalizes, the more vulnerable it becomes internally.

Unlike India, China first concentrated on
acquiring military muscle. By the time Deng Xiaoping launched his economic-modernization
programme,
China
already had tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and developed a
thermonuclear weapon (also known as a hydrogen or fusion bomb). The military
muscle gave
Beijing
the much-needed security to focus on civilian modernization, helping it to fuel
its remarkable economic rise, which, in turn, has armed it with even greater
resources to sharpen its claws.

China’s economy has expanded 13-fold over
the last 30 years. Consequently,
China has arrived as a global
economic player, with its state-owned corporate behemoths frenetically buying
foreign firms, technologies and resources. Add to the picture its rapidly swelling
foreign-exchange coffers.
Beijing
thus is well-positioned geopolitically to further expand its influence.

Its defence
strategy since the Mao Zedong era has been founded on a simple premise — that
the capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a
nation has to pass on the way to becom
ing
a great power. So, even when
China was poor, it
consciously put the accent on build
ing
comprehensive national power.

Today, its
rapidly accumulating power raises concerns because even when it was backward
and internally troubled,
it employed brute force to annex Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950), to
raid South Korea (1950), to invade India (1962), to initiate a border conflict
with the Soviet Union through a military ambush
(1969), and to attack Vietnam
(1979). A prosperous, militarily strong
China cannot but be a threat to its
neighbours, especially if there are no constraints on the exercise of Chinese
power.

Communist
China actually began as
an
international pariah state. Today, it is courted by the world.
  Its rise in one generation as a world
power under authoritarian rule has come to epitomize the qualitative reordering
of international power. As the latest
US
intelligence assessment predicts,
China is “poised to have more
impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.”

A long-term vision and
unflinching pursuit of goals have been key drivers. But
China’s rise also
has been aided by good fortune on multiple strategic fronts. First,
Beijing’s reform process
benefited from good timing, coming as it did at the start of globalization
three decades ago. Second, the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse delivered an
immense strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for
Beijing to rapidly
increase strategic space globally.
Russia’s
decline in the 1990s became
China’s
gain. And third, there has been a succession of China-friendly
U.S. presidents in the past two decades — a
significant period that has coincided with
China’s ascension.

China’s rise indeed owes a lot to the
West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the
1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but
instead to integrate
Beijing
with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign
investment and trade. That the choice made was wise can be seen from the
baneful impact of the opposite decision that was taken on
Burma from the
late 1980s — to pursue a penal approach centred on sanctions. Had the
Burma-type approach been applied against
China
internationally, the result would have been a less-prosperous, less-open and a
potentially destabilizing
China.

Although China has come a
long way since Tiananmen Square, with its citizens now enjoying property
rights, the freedom to travel overseas and other rights that were unthinkable a
generation ago, political power still rests with the same party and system
responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the so-called
Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other state-induced disasters. The
greatest genocide in modern world history was not the Holocaust but the Great
Leap Forward, a misguided charge toward industrialization that left 36 million
people dead, according to
Tombstone,
a recent book by long-time Chinese communist Yang Jisheng.

That the communist party
continues to monopolize power despite its past gory excesses indeed is
remarkable. This is now the oldest autocracy in the world. The longest any
autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the
Soviet Union.

Although China has moved
from being a totalitarian state to being an authoritarian state, some things
haven’t changed since the Mao years. Some other things indeed have changed for
the worse, such as the whipping up of ultra-nationalism and turning that into
the legitimating credo of communist rule. Attempts to bend reality to the
illusions the state propagates through information control and online censors actually
risk turning
China
into a modern-day Potemkin state.

While India celebrates diversity, China honours
artificially enforced monoculturalism, although it officially comprises 56
nationalities.
China
seeks not only to play down its ethnic diversity, but also to conceal the
cultural and linguistic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical
north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance. The Han — split in at least
seven linguistically and culturally distinct groups — are anything but
homogenous.

China’s internal problems — best
symbolized by the 2008 Tibetan uprising and this year’s Uighur revolt — won’t
go away unless
Beijing
stops imposing cultural homogeneity and abandons ethnic drowning as state
strategy in minority lands. But given the regime’s entrenched cultural
chauvinism and tight centralized control, that is unlikely to happen. After
all, President Hu Jintao’s slogan of a “harmonious society” is designed to
undergird the theme of conformity with the state.

More fundamentally, if China manages to resolve the stark
contradictions between its two systems — market capitalism and political
monocracy — just the way Asian “tigers” like
South
Korea
and Taiwan
were able to make the transition to democracy without crippling turbulence at
home,
China could emerge as
a peer competitor to the
US.
Political modernization, not economic modernization, thus is the central
challenge staring at
China.
If it is to build and sustain a great-power capacity, it has to avoid a
political hard landing.

Internationally,
China’s
trajectory will depend on how its neighbours and distant countries like the
US manage its
grow
ing power. Such management —
independently and in partnership — will determine if
China stays on the positive side of
the ledger, without its power sliding into arrogance.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic
studies at the Centre for Policy Research,
New Delhi.

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