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China at 60: Still a daunting challenge

The future looked bleak for the Chinese people on 1 October 1989 at the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Less than four months had passed since 4 June, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in Beijing to put an end to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. In October 1989 Chinese citizens were still being forced to sit through political study sessions and express support for the ‘quelling of the counter-revolutionary rebellion’ – the expression used at that time by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to refer to the events of 4 June. Decisions by Western governments to sever or downgrade relations with China had left Chinese feeling gloomy about the prospects that their country would continue along the path of modernization and opening up to the outside world.

For outsiders, the uncertainty of China’s future direction posed an immense challenge. Just a few months after the 40th anniversary, the perception in the West that Communist rule in China was coming to an end was strengthened following the collapse of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe. Many China-watchers warned of a China that could turn into a hostile and even belligerent nuclear power of over 1 billion people. Today, two decades later and despite the great transformation China has undergone, outsiders still view China as a daunting challenge and ask: what direction will China take?

A sought-after partner

As the People’s Republic celebrates its 60th anniversary this October, the Chinese people have many reasons to rejoice and a lot to be proud about. China is the world’s third largest economy, after the United States and Japan. China is the largest recipient of foreign direct investment and has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves. Living standards have risen nationwide. Owning a home and car and travelling abroad on holiday are no longer privileges of a wealthy few, as was the case 20 years ago, but are now taken for granted by the growing middle class. When in 1989 China was shunned by the West, today it is a sought-after partner. The Chinese government is engaging with the outside world both bilaterally and multilaterally to address a wide range of global problems, ranging from nuclear proliferation and drug trafficking to revamping the global financial system and addressing climate change.

China’s international role has expanded in a way that would have been unimaginable in 1989. It is not just Chinese businessmen, government officials and people from all walks of life who are engaging with foreigners at home and abroad and having an impact on societies in far-flung corners of the globe. The PLA sends thousands of soldiers to participate in international peace operations on four continents, patrols the Sea of Aden in a multinational effort to curb piracy,  conducts military exercises with former enemies such as Russia, and engages in military-to-military consultations with the United States.

Yet, for all the numerous and multifaceted layers of engagement between China and the outside world, sources of tension abound between China and other countries, especially its neighbours and the West. Many troublesome questions remain about China’s military build-up and what China wants to do – and will do – with its increasing economic, political and military might. This uncertainty breeds the mistrust and suspicion that colours outsiders’ attitudes toward or engagement with China. Although Chinese leaders recognize the jitters historically caused by rising powers and strive to reassure others that they have no reason to fear China’s rise, many countries do feel threatened. The sheer size of China’s economy and its growing need for imported resources mean that global resources will be redistributed in a way which will leave others with a lesser share than they have today. No one knows how China will behave in the long-term if its overseas investments to secure natural resources are genuinely threatened. And what if China decides that it cannot secure the colossal quantities of oil, gas, copper, zinc, timber and other raw materials needed to fuel its economy by abiding by the norms of the present world order? 

Outsiders also ask how China’s leaders will manage the pride with which Chinese view the achievements of the past two decades. Numerous groupings within Chinese society would like their leaders to be more assertive internationally, especially in their dealings with Japan, the USA and other Western countries. In a 2006 study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Asia Society, 87 per cent of Chinese respondents wanted to see their country take an active part in world affairs. Today Internet sites, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor are flush with commentary demanding that China no longer kowtows to foreigners.

Evoking a sense of pride in a prospering and stronger China has been a platform of the CPC since Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in the civil war in 1949. The Party still regularly reminds Chinese of the great strides that the country has made under its rule. At the same time, the CPC has not abandoned its fixation on the theme of national humiliation – that China suffered at the hands of Western and Japanese powers from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. The legitimacy of the CPC is dependent on its promise to never again allow foreigners to subjugate, discriminate against or split China. Not only do children have to study every aspect of ‘the century of national humiliation’, as it is called, but adults too are constantly reminded of it in the form of new books, plays, films, exhibitions and theme parks. One part of the 60th anniversary celebrations is the staging of a grand musical, Road to Revival, with a cast of over 3000, that depicts Chinese history chronologically from the Opium War of 1832–42 to the present.

Keeping China down?

This ‘very deliberate celebration of a national insecurity’, as sinologist William Callahan has phrased it, runs counter to China’s pursuit of respected major power status. There is a contradiction between the mutual trust and respect, which Chinese leaders repeatedly call for in international relations, and the mistrust toward Western powers and Japan that the Chinese Government emphasizes in the public education of the citizenry. Western efforts to encourage China to be more transparent, whether the focus is on its military spending, arms sales, overseas investments or greenhouse gas emissions, are often viewed in China as attempts to impede the country’s development. Likewise, in private conversations Chinese climate change experts suggest that there is a deep-rooted suspicion among Chinese bureaucrats that the driving force behind the push by industrialized nations to reach a stringent post-Kyoto agreement is based on the West’s intent to keep China poor and weak.

Prudence is in order when placing expectations on the 60-year old People’s Republic. Despite the nearly inconceivable transformation in China’s international role since the grim days following 4 June 1989 and despite the acknowledgement by the country’s leaders that interdependence is not only a reality but also imperative for China’s economic development, China’s future direction remains an open question.  While China aspires to be respected as a responsible power, one that has a keen interest to contribute positively to global security, the Communist Party of China does not feel secure about its power base. Thus, it feels the need to cling to the notion of Chinese vulnerability in the international arena. China’s leaders’ defensive stance will continue to be a stumbling block as others encourage, cajole and pressure the Chinese Government to address multiple global problems.

Consequently, there will continue to be a struggle between China and its international partners to balance, on the one hand, the growing expectations for China to be an even more valuable player and, on the other, China’s uneasiness about doing so. Striking a constructive balance will be a daunting challenge.