People at a Beijing exhibition on Sept. 26 take pictures in front of portraits of (from left) former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping at an exhibition marking the country's achievements ahead of the 70th anniversary on Oct. 1 of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Photo by Wang Zhao/AFP)
This article was first published on Oct. 1, 2019
Seventy years ago, Chinese communists ended a long-running civil war with victory over the Kuomintang, charted a course that secured China’s borders but turned the country inside out and wrought havoc across the region as successive leaders sought to impose their will.
The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — with chairman Mao Zedong at the helm of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is today celebrating its 70th anniversary — would claim many millions of lives while his power plays throughout the Cold War would cost millions more.
Beijing backed the communists in North Korea and the Vietnam War, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Pathet Lao in Laos, and insurgencies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand and the Philippines.
There was a respite. Mao died and the Gang of Four were jailed for treason and their role in the Cultural Revolution. The Cold War ended and the sheer nastiness of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — seen live on TV around the planet — forced a rethink.
Under reformers like Deng Xiaoping and the Shanghai faction of leaders who followed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would open its nation’s doors, people would grow rich and a desperately backward country would catch up with the industrialized, high-tech West.
That, however, changed under Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012 and established himself as emperor for life. He is anything but Winnie the Pooh, the cuddly teddy bear and meme adopted by his critics to satirize and mock him, albeit with lighthearted irreverence.
The man who would be Mao
Cultivating state heroes is a hallmark of Chinese politics; social engineering designed to supplant the many religions, Confucianism and the code of dynastic rulers that provided old China with its moral fiber but are now banned or under state control.
For decades, every Chinese was mandated a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book,” espousing virtues and a wholesome life and backed by quotes from the revolutionary that ranged from “women hold up half the sky” to “politics is war without blood, while war is politics with blood.”
Mao’s portrait dominates Tiananmen Square 43 years after his death, a constant reminder of his legacy as an omnipotent figure whom Xi and his coterie want to emulate after trying their best to expunge Winnie the Pooh from public life and the online world.
Xi became CCP general secretary in 2012 and through ruthless purges became president of the PRC and chairman of the Central Military Commission before stunning everyone last year by securing his job for life by ending the maximum period of two five-year terms for leaders.
But under Xi China’s economy has faltered, although no one would have expected that the runaway double-digit growth of the previous decade would continue unabated.
And with 1.4 billion people to cater for — a third are very poor — Xi is turning to nationalism and Mao, tarring China with the same brush used from the early 1950s to the late 1980s when gulags and crackdowns were seen as systematic of an evil hierarchy.
China and its dictator are now in a difficult spot, raising unwanted fears for the coming years.
Patriotism, last refuge of scoundrels
Unbridled nationalism is on the rise everywhere and Xi has pushed the notion of Chinese greatness hard as a tactical diversion from the problems, mainly economic, at home.
That includes a crackdown on minorities like Catholics and Muslims, gulags for the Uyghurs, a social credit system that buys favors in return for patriotism, and aggressive propaganda campaigns abroad to promote Xi’s brand of China and communism with the message carried by state agencies.
But selling the Chinese message is also faltering.
In Hong Kong, Beijing has lost its moral authority and made a mockery of its “one country, two systems” policy, initially designed to unify. The snatching of publishers from the streets where they worked in late 2015 was an epic blunder that produced a response in kind.
Hong Kong seethed and growing resentment fueled a protest movement. Demonstrations numbering millions and unprecedented violence on the streets of the former British colony reflect that angst and give the Taiwanese little to cheer regarding Beijing’s demands over their island — Xi’s holy grail.
As Willy Lam, a professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, put it: “Taiwan is very important and he wants to do it within his lifetime. If Xi Jinping can pull off this national reunification by so-called liberating Taiwan, then he has something in the history books.”
With that in mind, Xi has ignored international rulings with relentless maritime claims in the South China Sea and aggressively sought to extend Chinese influence through cajoling, bullying and debt traps over smaller countries of strategic interest.
That includes Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Fiji, where access to ports is paramount to projecting Chinese naval power into the Gulf of Siam and the Indian and Pacific oceans, upsetting the traditional balance of power.
Summoning an irritated world
Scandals surrounding Xi, such as Huawei and the trade war with U.S. President Donald Trump, which China is losing, are the big-ticket items that will burden the CCP on the eve of its eighth decade, a record of sorts for communism and dictatorships in the post-Cold War era.
But his take on Maoism and pushing Beijing as the Middle Kingdom beyond Chinese shores, to a world that has been slow to realize, is palpable.
Under his leadership erroneous concepts, such as the Chinese were in Australia before Europeans, have flourished despite a lack of any evidence. The same can be said for similar Chinese claims over the Americas.
Even more absurd are state-backed claims from Chinese scholars who really want the world to believe that English is a Chinese dialect, and that ancient cultures like the Romans and the Greeks were made-up myths for Western civilizations whose roots belong in China. Seriously?
It’s the silly end of a deadly serious subject. The Xi Jinping era is under the spotlight. The die has been cast in a world railing against China at levels not seen since the Cold War ended three decades ago.
Western countries and the developing world maintain diplomatic niceties with Beijing while building unheard-of bilateral and multilateral relations based on containing the People’s Republic, leaving global security in a parlous state. This is not an ideal political dynamic.
As the PRC turns 70, goose-stepping regiments, accompanied by ballistic missiles, tanks and weapons of war, will parade through Tiananmen Square in a show of nationalistic force where the military murdered 10,000 people, mostly students wanting democratic reform, 30 years ago.
In personnel numbers, China still has a massive army of soldiers, but the reality of its force projection is that its air, sea and high-tech prowess falls a long way short of the United States and is barely a match for regional rivals like South Korea and Japan.
That’s what Xi needs to contemplate before pushing China’s expansionary policies any further. On the global stage, China’s latest emperor for life would be better off sticking with Winnie the Pooh than emulating Mao.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.