Immersed in a sea of red, villages, towns and cities across China will celebrate next week.
The slogans and posters already stare down from billboards and electronic screens, while flags flutter in the breeze amid a media propaganda hype boarding on hysteria.
On July 1, there will a massive stage-managed party to celebrate the centenary of the Communist Party of China.
But despite the anniversary fervor, crippling challenges exist for the CCP and President Xi Jinping’s regime. Beijing’s rabid relationship with the United States and its allies has become a major global flashpoint.
At home, the Party has also turned China into a surveillance state.
The Party and the people
Academic Wu Qiang has become a vocal critic of China’s political system. In 2015, he was dismissed from his post at the elite Tsinghua University.
His crime, according to Beijing, was to conduct research into the Occupy Central movement, which swept Hong Kong just 12 months earlier. Ironically, it would become the forerunner of the pro-democracy protests during the summer of discontent in 2019.
“I am still protesting against Tsinghua’s illegal dismissal, just like how I am still resisting in my thoughts and my comments on politics. It is very important not to stop speaking out. You need to comment on politics and society; that’s how you participate in it,” Wu told the AFP news agency last week.
Still, the political landscape has changed following the purges in academia after President Xi came to power in 2012.
“Ten years ago, perhaps every weekend in every corner there would be a large number of salons and meetings [in Beijing]. But now, this wonderful scene does not exist anymore … everyone talks about one issue when we meet: who’s disappeared or been detained. Everyone is waiting to see who will be next,” he said.
Next, will be the party for the Party, a choreographed show of “survival.”
“The anniversary is, to a large degree, to celebrate how China avoided the fate of many other Communist parties in eastern Europe, as well as the Soviet Union, that collapsed after the Cold War. [The Party] wants to deeply intertwine the CCP’s survival with China and the Chinese people, to establish a sense of historical legitimacy for future rulers,” Wu pointed out.
China and the West
Myths and misunderstandings are at the root cause of China’s diplomatic stand-off with the US and its allies.
In a thought-provoking analysis for the Harvard Business Review, academics Rana Mitter and Elsbeth Johnson separate fact from friction when delving deep into the Chinese psyche.
“Over the past 30 years, China has emerged as a global power, with the second-largest economy in the world and a burgeoning middle class eager to spend. One thing hasn’t changed, though: Many Western politicians and business executives still don’t get China,” Mitter, a professor at Oxford University, and Johnson, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said.
“Many people have wrongly assumed that political freedom would follow new economic freedoms in China and that its economic growth would have to be built on the same foundations as in the West,” they wrote in an article entitled What the West Gets Wrong About China.
“Chinese live, work and invest like Westerners. But at every point since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party – central to the institutions, society, and daily experiences that shape [the] people – has stressed the importance of Chinese history and of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Until Western companies and politicians understand this and revise their views, they will continue to get China wrong,” Mitter and Johnson added.
To underline their point, the de facto one-party state has no intentions of changing.
“China has become an economic titan, a global leader in technology innovation, and a military superpower, all while tightening its authoritarian system of government – and reinforcing a belief that the liberal narrative does not apply to China,” Mitter and Johnson said.
“The truth, then, is that China is not an authoritarian state seeking to become more liberal but an authoritarian state seeking to become more successful – politically as well as economically,” they added.
Innovation, innovation, and innovation
One word has dominated the discussion in Party circles when he comes to technology – “innovation.”
In China’s high-tech universe, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are like supernovas. Massive state-induced funding has also pushed Chinese companies such as Huawei ahead in 5G and the frontier technologies of AI or artificial intelligence.
Technology is at the core of the country’s rising military might and its emergence as a serious space power.
“[But] if China really is an emerging innovation powerhouse, this should show up with a strong productivity performance. Indeed, China has improved over the past two decades, but by any measure [it] remains a low-productivity country, not a world leader,” John West, of Tokyo’s Sophia University and the executive director of the Asian Century Institute, said.
“In the tech area, this may be partly due to the protective wall that shuts out competition from American companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram. But what should be most disturbing to China’s leaders is that productivity growth has declined steadily since the 2008 global financial crisis,” he wrote on the Lowy Institute website.
The innovation gap between China and the West has also been highlighted by the speed and transparency of the vaccine rollout in the US and Europe to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca went through rigorous trials backed by concise data. All three vaccines have proved highly successful against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Yet the jury is still out on Chinese vaccines made by Sinopharm and Sinovac.
“These companies have not been transparent about their trial data, and even the best estimates put their efficacy way behind that of Western variants … In short, it seems that while some companies and sectors in the Chinese economy are highly innovative, that may not apply to many other parts of the economy,” West said in an article entitled China’s innovation dilemma.
“And many innovative companies may also be pursuing their innovative activities on the back of large government subsidies – not all innovation is necessarily efficient,” he added.