The rise of the People’s Republic of China has caused the largest geopolitical shift since the emergence of the United States as a world power following World War II. What can the world expect from a prominent and powerful China and how will Chinese power influence the direction of world economic and political development?
Less than three decades after Maoism, the PRC is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy as early as 2016. This rise to economic dominance is the fastest in history and has propelled a formerly agrarian, rural nation to the forefront of world technological development.
Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, initiated reforms that reorganized massive swaths of the PRC’s state-planned, Soviet style economy. The prices of basic goods such as foodstuffs skyrocketed as a result and many people found themselves displaced in the economic transition.
A seminal event that marked the social difficulties that accompanied China’s transition to a modern economy is the Tiananmen Square Incident in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) turned its guns on its own citizens who were occupying Tiananmen Square plaza in Beijing to protest for greater personal freedoms. It is taboo in the People’s Republic of China to mention this event. Additionally, the rapid economic and social changes that have occurred since have met some of the very concerns citizens protested for in Tiananmen so long ago.
After repelling the Japanese from mainland China and defeating his rival Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War, Mao united China under a brand of communism strongly influenced by Stalinism yet uniquely his own. His various programmes for Chinese economic and sociopolitical reform, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution, were largely regarded as failures and setbacks for Chinese development; however, because of the great esteem for Chairman Mao among the peasantry and industrial classes, many of these mistakes are largely passed over in historical reviews.
Indeed, Mao Zedong is often credited with creating the foundation for the PRC’s rapid modernization and economic development even though many of the key economic reforms allowing modern China to happen occurred under the premiership of Deng Xiaoping.
The lives and years lost during Mao’s efforts in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution join pollution and rampant, disastrous industrial development as costs of China’s rapid rise to the highest echelons of economic power.
Because of pollution’s devastating effects on the local environment and its future potential costs to economic development, the PRC has embarked upon the world’s largest campaign of nuclear power plant construction in an effort to mitigate its dependence on fossil fuels for power.
In addition to deadly pollution and disparate, sometimes unorganized, economic development is one of the world’s largest income disparities between the bottom of Chinese society and the top. While China has a growing middle class, the difference between the rural poor and the urban wealthy is so great that it poses a threat to the future of Chinese economic development – especially in a nominally communist society.
The Chinese Dream
China’s newest leader, Xi Jinping, has coined a phrase that evokes the emergence of China on the world economic scene and the receding importance of Marxism/Maoism to future of the PRC’s society: the ‘Chinese dream.’
In many respects, Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ concept mirrors that of the ‘American dream,’ the promise of which is famous for luring immigrants to the United States in pursuit of a better life. Yet, what exactly is the ‘Chinese dream’ and how does it mark China’s unique and rapid rise to the top?
As growth in China slows with the passing of time, and given the income disparities between the richest and the poorest, it would seem logical that the Chinese Communist Party would seek a new font of legitimacy. While leaders from Deng Xiaoping onwards have expressed increasing flexibility in terms of accommodating non-traditional Marxists into the party hierarchy, Xi Jinping’s is uniquely nationalistic and particular at the same time.
He has expressed his belief that the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union was due to a lack of rigid party discipline.
“The Chinese dream is an ideal. Communists should have a higher ideal, and that is Communism.”
While Xi Jinping discusses the ‘Chinese dream’ and the need for the party to aspire to higher goals, the question of who is included in this vision for a new China and who is not comes to the forefront. For instance, what about the people of Tibet, who to this day continue to protest for sovereignty and independence from the PRC? Reports of self-immolation, the act of setting one’s self on fire in protest, have increased as Tibetans are increasingly oppressed by a much larger, more powerful Chinese central government in Beijing.
Regardless of the label placed upon it, or the slogan that comes out of the party machinery, it is doubtless that the Chinese Communist Party will face a severe question of legitimacy if it continues down the unsustainable path of increased economic and personal freedom coupled with rigid party authority.