Platinum China: A republic 70 years in the making

By Austyn Close

‘New China’ has been a miraculous success, comments Zhou Shuchun, publisher and editor-in-chief for China Daily. He’s reflecting on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) 70 years in power and the wonders the country has achieved for both its people and the world.

Take Zhou’s view with a pinch of salt. It is important to understand that China is the grand master of storytelling and manipulating the narrative in such a way that even the most sceptical of critics could be deceived by the young republic’s heavy-hitting statistics and claims.

To mention a few of these, the Chinese state claims that 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty since Mao Zedong and the Chinese Community Party (CCP) took over the reins on 1 October 1949, 70 years ago today. Since then, the Chinese economy has been on a steep trajectory to catch up with the rest of the world – currently commanding the second largest economy on earth.

While Chairman Mao stagnated growth through poorly executed economic policies and plans, it was Deng Xiaoping’s premiership towards the end of the 1980s that oversaw the reform and opening period. Between 1978 and 2018, China achieved an average of 9.4% GDP growth – a figure the ruling party is keen to celebrate at this special time in the state’s history.

The 6.2% growth figure reported for the quarter ending in June this year is not what China wants you to concentrate on – the lowest since 1992 – affected in part by the enduring trade war with the US.

However, China shows no signs of slowing down its presence in the world. Ramping up investments abroad as part of its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and promoting Chinese scientific and technological excellence. One third of the world’s research and development squadron hails from China, producing 7 million university graduates annually. Confucius Institutes that promote greater Chinese understanding, values, ethics and teachings are prolific globally, with a presence in almost every major city. China’s silent reach across the world will only increase as long as its ‘President for life’, Xi Jinping, remains in the driving seat of the state’s ruling apparatus.

With all this power, might and success, China quite clearly sees itself (and rightly so) as a major international player. With all this exhibitionism around its brute military and economic strength, how do the people of China find being a comrade in ‘Red China’?

A quote by the late Deng Xiaoping during his 1992 ‘Southern Tour’ indicates the country’s gross social inequality – “Let some people get rich first”. China’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has led to a climate which is open to investment but constricts its people (especially those in rural provinces) from bettering themselves.

How long will the people ruled under the People’s Republic of China stand for this tight grip on social mobility and progress? Some argue that China will not survive the coming years on its current path – the ongoing Hong Kong protests in retaliation to an extradition bill show the die-hard democratic spirit that could seep into mainland China. What China wants to reinstate on a day of grand ceremonial pageantry, is the state’s robust agenda for how it wants to be perceived at home and abroad as the world’s leading superpower. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” will have huge ramifications for global business as the years unfold. China may be open for trade at the moment (peak levels of Foreign Direct Investment were reached last year) but the erratic behaviour of the state cannot be relied upon and it would be a dangerous scenario if the West did so.  

I find it hard to imagine that China’s staunch position will be swept away by democratic protesters, statesmen or lobbyists during the next decade of communist rule. The coming days, months and years will be interesting to watch as China enters its 70th decade. I look forward to experiencing how the media landscape works from within Chinese borders during my upcoming sabbatical to Shanghai with The British Council. How these stories are told will be vital to understanding the Chinese frame of mind. Stay tuned.