“Every village should build a road and use it to send the girl child to school” (paraphrased). This seemingly anodyne call caught the fancy of the Chinese people and had a transformative effect. The author, a diminutive figure and a compatriot of Chairman Mao (even if 10 years younger), who miraculously bounced back after being purged twice by Mao, was none other than Deng Xiaoping.
He came to power in 1978 after the death of Mao Zedong, laid the foundation of a modern and prosperous China (but also sanctioned the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989) and became the paramount leader of the Communist Party of China (also known as the Chinese Communist Party or CCP) and nation, without holding any public office ever.
The party was born amid turmoil, bloodshed and conflict in 1921 at Shanghai. “From their early beginnings, the Chinese Communists realised that power did indeed flow from the barrel of a gun… (This belief has) shaped the way it ruled the country and its outlook towards other countries, including India,” opines Gautam Bambawale, former Indian envoy to China.
A History of Upheavals
In the process, it has been inflicting tremendous suffering and hardship on the Chinese people. In the last few decades, it has also been engaging in territorial and economic aggression against neighbours and other nations. This trait has become far more pronounced under the stewardship of President Xi Jinping who assumed office in 2012. As per the latest Pew Research Center survey—“unfavourable views of China are at or near historic highs. Large majorities in most of the advanced economies surveyed have broadly negative views of China, including around three-quarters or more in Japan, Sweden, Australia, South Korea and the US.”
Looking back, Chairman Mao subjected the country to two monumental internal upheavals, the Great Leap of 1958 and the Cultural Revolution. “China’s textbooks omit the story of how the Great Leap Forward … was actually the disastrous failure of a hare-brained economic scheme.” (China’s Selective Memory, by Pu Zhiqiang, Chinese civil rights lawyer) Fearful villages and local cadres started faking reports of big harvests that did not exist. The centre collected the ‘surplus’ leaving villages with little or nothing. That resulted in hunger, starvation and the colossal famine of 1960-63 which snuffed out 20 to 50 million lives, mostly women and children.
The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 tore the society asunder with children turning against parents and spouse against spouse. They were condemned for their political views, social status, wealth or scholarship at the whim or coerced compulsion of others. Forced to confess, tens of millions were subjected to indignities and consigned to hardships often in sub-human conditions. Up to a million perished.
That said the Communist Party is nothing if not resilient. Time and again it has shown the capability of reinventing itself, especially under powerful leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping. “Viewed objectively, China’s Communist regime looks surprisingly resilient. It may be capable of surviving for years to come so long as the economy continues to grow and create jobs.” (China: Fragile Superpower, Susan L. Shirk, Professor at University of California)
The Party’s Historic Wager
Initially founded as a party for peasants and workers, the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly diverse. In 1982, it began enrolling university students and in 2002 private entrepreneurs as well. “The party relies on three pillars: control of personnel, propaganda, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some 70 per cent of its 95.2 million members are men”. (Council on Foreign Relations). So are all seven members of the Standing Committee of the politburo.
Mao famously said that “women hold up half the sky.” From day one, the party strove to emancipate girls from regressive social traditions, educate them and induct them into the workforce. By 1990, 73 per cent of the Chinese women above 15 were working, which was among the highest in the world. By 2019, the participation level had declined to 61 per cent (India is at 21 per cent). Even so, the glass ceiling is a reality.
Similarly in the health sector, the party introduced and popularized the concept of ‘barefoot doctors’ who were given basic medical training. They served the rural community reasonably well by combining traditional and modern medicine. Mao carried out much-needed land reforms, even if in a heavy-handed fashion. The Chinese bureaucracy has mostly been disciplined and efficient, a good combination of old Confucian culture and Communist drills.
Some other achievements of the Communist Party stand out in sharp relief. These are: superlative infrastructure, prosperity, emerging as a global manufacturing hub and modernisation of the PLA. To put it in context, India’s per capita income was higher than China’s in 1988. Fast forward 32 years and Chinese per capita income is four times that of India at an estimated $8,600 (in 2018).
Once the economy started opening up under Deng Xiaoping, the party gradually withdrew from the bedrooms and board rooms under an unwritten compact with the citizens that they would not meddle in politics. The “party’s historic wager – that delivering stability and economic growth would ensure acceptance of its authoritarian rule – has largely paid off.” (Wall Street Journal)
Xi’s China Dreams of Global Domination
However, prosperity has resulted in two undesirable side effects—glaring income disparities and widespread corruption—which the party is hard put to handle. As per the latest Gini Coefficient Index, Hong Kong and China figures are 53.9 and 38.5, while the US and India are at 41.1 and 35.7 respectively.
The Party’s tolerance for ostentatiousness, corruption and liberties has waxed and waned, in keeping with the personality of the leader of the day. The system works best when the secretary general of the party (and President of People’s Republic of China) is more of a first among equals in the standing committee of the Politburo, enabling frank discussions and even internal dissent.
Hitherto Mao and Deng had acquired an iconic persona. That pedestal is now being sought by Xi Jinping who has amassed enormous power and authority, by ruthlessly eliminating opposition under the guise of tackling corruption and positioning loyalists at key positions across the country.
The treatment meted out to Bo Xilai—a princeling, a Politburo member and a rising star—as well as Jack Ma, former Chairman of Alibaba group, by Xi Jinping is instructive. Both of them were ambitious, powerful and popular, with a larger-than-life image, which was their undoing. Xi has tightened domestic curbs, dropped the pretence of peaceful rise and unmasked the ambition of regional and eventual global domination. Cai Xia, a former professor at Beijing’s Central Party School, has termed Xi’s rule as the “Great Leap Backward”.
Xi’s China is vastly different from that of Deng or Mao, in that the Chinese people are now prosperous, knowledgeable about the world and social media savvy. Whether or not they will continue to follow the Party’s diktat would depend largely on the ability of the leadership to deliver economic benefits. China has prospered by engaging with the world not threatening it. There is growing angst at Chinese muscle flexing, disregard for global norms, economic espionage and failure to be transparent about the COVID-19 pandemic that it is believed to have originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Is the world ready to accept China as the new hegemon? Will Chinese wolf warrior diplomacy yield the desired results for the party? Has Xi opened up too many fronts and underestimated the resolve of the free world to safeguard its liberties and way of life? It stands to reason that no nation howsoever strong can singlehandedly take on the world. The future may not be easy to predict, but one thing is certain—President Xi is riding a tiger which he will have to dismount, sooner or later, with predictable consequences.