China at 70: Notable advances at a horrific cost

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Opinion

October 2, 2019 - 10:08 AM

The 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which was marked on Tuesday by a mass military parade in the heart of Beijing, was less a historical commemoration than a political event. The Communist party of China (CPC) has understood the power of history ever since it seized the reins in 1949: in its earliest days, it encouraged citizens to “recall past bitterness,” to make the New China all the sweeter. Xi Jinping understands history’s importance better than any leader since Mao Zedong. Not long after taking power, he warned his colleagues that “historical nihilism” was an existential threat to the party’s rule on a par with western democracy.

The tanks, planes, troops and missiles tell a story: in 1949, the republic’s 17 aircraft were ordered to fly over twice, to make the display look more impressive. This time the west will watch closely as the People’s Liberation Army unveils new missile, stealth and unmanned vehicle capabilities. The PRC has outlived its big brother, the Soviet Union, and outgrown western economies. Yet it now faces new challenges.

Many in China are grateful for the party’s rule. It enjoys a level of support that many democratically elected governments would envy, and not only because of its mammoth propaganda and censorship apparatus. The last 70 years have seen extraordinary progress in lifespan, literacy and incomes: hundreds of millions are no longer living in poverty. Yet people were not lifted out of poverty; they worked their way out. The party banned the family tyranny of forced marriages, but brought the official tyranny of the one-child policy, and even now polices the womb. The advances came at a terrible and wholly unnecessary cost. The famine sparked by Mao’s Great Leap Forward took tens of millions of lives. Tens of millions more people were hounded in the Cultural Revolution.

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