Today is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping celebrated with a party: watching large tanks and other massive weapons trundle slowly past.
The nature and technological level of those weapons has attracted some attention, something that is unlikely to terribly worry Xi; indeed, sharing the apparent potential of the Chinese state to confront rivals and enemies on the battlefield is a major aim of this public display. Today also marks the seventieth anniversary of the PRC, first proclaimed by Mao Zedong on October 1st, 1949. A landmark has been achieved: the PRC has now outlasted the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Russian-led state formally founded in 1922 and dissolved in 1991 in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and revolutions across East Central Europe when the “iron curtain” finally fell.
Famously, this did not happen in China. The Tiananmen Incident in June of 1989, when Chinese tanks and troops forcibly dispersed peaceful protestors from the famous Beijing public square, horrified the world but did not spark a collapse in the CCP monopoly on political power. Thirty years beyond that Xi Jinping and his followers argue China is stronger than ever.
That is in some ways certainly true. China is an unquestioned global power today, a world away from the gradually rehabilitating pseudo-capitalist state of the 1990s, let alone the mass socialist experiment China had become in Mao’s final days. Questions do remain. Hong Kong seems committed to an increasing democratic impulse. The state is unabashed in its shameful treatment of Uighurs and Chinese Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang. Not only has Beijing failed to swat away an astonishingly ill-advised trade war carried out in incompetent fashion by a distracted American administration, but that trade war has more greatly illuminated the possible extent of fragilities in the Chinese economy. It has also stimulated interest in the United States towards policing Chinese economic behaviour in ways that may well attract more international allies for the next president of the United States.
Today, however, brings glory. Old fashioned glory at that. I suspect young people in America today would have some trouble thinking seriously about a time when tanks and missiles paraded through Red Square with a clear implicit threat of invasion of western Europe and conflict with the United States. Seems to me now it is more likely to be fodder for ironic post-modern mockery; and indeed, Xi appears to have a taste for the retro: today he became the first Chinese state leader to visit Mao Zedong’s mausoleum on National Day since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
This week and its anniversary has brought something of a sense of nostalgia for me. Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history” after the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Europe, and 2001 brought a clear dividing line of its own and new often scary world. Only a few years ago it was unfashionable to discuss modern China in the same context as the ossified and crumbling USSR of the 1980s. The connection appeared passé, Cold Warrior logic applied to a vibrant economic state pursuing alternate models of development. However, here we are back again talking about major communist powers and military parades; and the resurgence of an old weakness, as the protests in Hong Kong continue to flare in the face of the PRC’s longevity.