China’s emergence over the past four decades ranks as the biggest and longest-run economic boom in history. Its annual gross domestic product rose from a mere $191bn, or $195 per capita, in 1980 to $14.3tn, or $10,261 per capita, in 2019. It has raised more than 770m people from poverty and transformed the Chinese economy into a high-tech powerhouse that is on course to eclipse America’s in size.
This transformation is the landmark achievement of the Chinese Communist party, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Thursday. The anniversary is a moment for the west to reflect on how it helped to enable China’s rise.
Ever since reforms began in the late 1970s, western nations first opened their markets to China’s exports then kept them largely open in spite of a progressive chill in political relations. Multinationals invested hundreds of billions of US dollars in China’s economy, assisting greatly in its modernisation.
This symbiosis has been a cornerstone of global prosperity. In recent years, China has driven roughly one-fifth of global GDP growth, outstripping the US contribution by a wide margin.
But it is also reason for misgivings. China under Xi Jinping, who is simultaneously state president and head of the CCP and People’s Liberation Army, has morphed into an uncompromising authoritarian regime. This raises troubling questions over the trajectory of its relations with the west and its own stability.
Xi has reversed several checks and balances on CCP power instituted by Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s reform era. He has abolished presidential term limits, setting himself up to become the first leader since Mao Zedong to rule until he dies. He also shows scant regard for the principle of “collective leadership” that Deng and his successors advocated and does not appear to be grooming a successor.
The dangers from jettisoning these Deng-era political reforms go far beyond western concerns over human rights. The tragic flaw of CCP rule — shown by the upheavals and terrible loss of life in the 30 years following the 1949 revolution — is that concentrating authority in one man can lead to vicious power struggles, especially at times of political succession. Meanwhile, a lack of debate in policy circles can prolong and exacerbate mistakes.
Haunting memories of the cultural revolution (1966-76) and the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) — to name but two Mao-era catastrophes in which tens of millions of people died — should warn Beijing and the wider world of the risks. It is easy to forget amid China’s stunning economic progress that its political system today is little different from that which Mao bent to his will.
Last year’s imposition of a National Security Law in Hong Kong, since when scores of democracy activists in the territory have been arrested, and the internment of an estimated 1m Uyghurs and other minority peoples in camps in north-west Xinjiang region, signals the gulf in values with the west.
The CCP leadership should reflect that China owes its economic success above all to free market reforms and the political checks and balances that reinforced them. Instead of demonising the west, Beijing ought also to recognise western countries’ enabling role in its rise.
The US and European powers should celebrate China’s endeavours but recall that its achievements have been built on a political edifice that suffered catastrophic reversals in the not-so-distant past. Their wisest approach is no longer the hopeful and largely uncritical engagement of the early reform decades, but a blended policy of limited economic engagement, resistance against CCP influence campaigns and hard-headed strategic preparedness.