Chinese ambitions are still ideological, but they have also become economic and technological. Democracies must form an alliance in order to contain them.
China is preparing to celebrate the centenary of its Communist Party, founded on 23rd July 1921. That meeting, which was interrupted by the threat of intervention by police from the French concession, brought together 13 delegates, including Mao Zedong, who were under the control of Sneevliet and Nikolsky, the Komintern representatives. Over the years, the nebula of revolutionary groups changed into a true Communist party. Then the civil war against the Kuomintang nationalists, interrupted by the war with Japan, ended in victory for the PCC and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China on 1st October 1949.
Having restored the sovereignty of China and brought it up to the second rank in terms of world economies, the PCC now aims at world leadership by 2049, and to achieve this whilst maintaining its one-party status and the totalitarian nature of the regime. These have been reinforced by Xi Jinping who said in September 2020 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the victory over Japan: “The Chinese people will never allow an individual or a force to distort the course of the Party or to malign the nature and the mission of the Party. The Chinese people will never allow an individual or a force to separate the PCC from the Chinese people or to oppose the PCC and the Chinese people.”
The centenary of the PCC will therefore see the consecration of Xi JInping as the heir of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The commemoration of a past that has become a legend will be linked to the glorification of the present: victory over the Covid-19 pandemic, a lively recovery (a 9% growth rate in 2021), and the exaltation of national unity. It will be highlighted by the regaining of control of Hong Kong, the annexation of the China Sea, and pressure brought to bear on Taiwan. As power leverage, it will have technology, symbolized by the putting into orbit of the Celestial Palace space station, and by the quantum computer Jiuzhang.
China’s path forward since 1949 has been unique in history, particularly since 1979. It presents a challenge to the USA at global level. Contrary to the ambitions of the Soviet Union, its ambitions are not only ideological and strategic; they are also economic and technological. China is certainly the USA’s rival, but it is also its main industrial, commercial and financial partner; it is a totalitarian state but also a main player in globalization since it is present, integrated and connected on all continents.
However, despite all the propaganda, there are underlying uncertainties. If ever Wuhan’s virology institute were implicated in any responsibility for the pandemic, the country’s reputaton would be ruined. The Sinopharm vaccine has turned out to be lacking in any therapeutic effectiveness. Life expectancy is increasing, but the population decreased in 2020 to less than 1.4 billion, with a working population that has been falling by 0.4% per year since 2013. The model of growth based on credit faces the stumbling block of public and private debt which is over three times the national wealth. China may wish to become the foremost economic and technological power, but it is coming up against the under-productivity of state-owned companies, the absence of the rule of law, the return to the Communist party’s taking a role in businesses and universities, and the frustration of a middle class that has been deprived of any political rights. There is growing conflict between the priority of the domestic market and the new silk roads program aimed at exporting the totalitarian-capitalism model and to put a ring round the USA. The re-assertion of Communist ideology is in contradiction to the upsurge in inequality and to the endemic corruption of Party officials. As a final point, China’s extremely aggressive foreign policy has given rise to a coalition of countries determined to put a stop to it, particularly in Asia.
The fact is that the Chinese miracle is less due to the PCC than to the vitality and resilience of the Chinese people. Unfortunately, the hold that the PCC has over the economy and society could well stifle this. Furthermore, the history of the People’s Republic has been a bumpy one, marked by its phenomenal emergence since 1979, but also by the tragedies of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” These turning points cannot be dissociated from power struggles within the PCC, which has always been divided between the ideologists in Beijing and the reformers in Shanghai. With Xi Jinping, the hardliners have won out, but his desire to restore a Mao-style power for life – to be validated by the 2022 Congress – still meets with reservations.
For democracies, the centenary of the PCC should be the occasion to draw up a strategy for the containment of China, with the following ideas as a coherent basis:
- Contrary to the West’s long-standing illusions, China is not an authoritarian regime but a totalitarian state that is pursuing the eradication of freedom both within and outside its frontiers.
- The means of exerting power that it has amassed can only be contained by a new alliance of democracies, and not just Western ones.
- Faced by the Chinese menace, and just as they did in order to win the Cold War against the USSR, democracies must apply the doctrine of Sun Tzu, who stated that the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.
(Article published in Le Point, 6th May 2021)