Asia

Commentary: Chinese leaders must convince others of Chinas peaceful rise

BEIJING: The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China on October 1 has been an exuberant affair, involving glitzy cultural events, an extravagant state dinner attended by Chinese and foreign luminaries, and a grand military parade in Tiananmen Square.

And, at a time of high tensions with US President Donald Trumps administration, it has been imbued with an extra dose of patriotic enthusiasm.

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But while China has much to celebrate, it also has much work to do.

READ: Commentary: The Peoples Republic of China at 70 – reforms, achievements and challenges

MODERNISATION IN THE FIRST 30 YEARS

The first 30 years of rule by the Communist Party of China (CPC) are judged harshly, owing to the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But these were not lost decades.

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On the contrary, major strides were made in modernising China. Local and national power grids were established, industrial capacity was strengthened, and human capital rapidly improved.

As a result, Chinas human-development indicators, on par with Indias 70 years ago, surged ahead. From 1949 to 1979, the literacy rate rose from below 20 per cent to 66 per cent and life expectancy increased from 41 to 64 years.

All of this set the stage for Deng Xiaopings programme of “reform and opening up”, which unleashed Chinas rapid economic growth and development over the last 40 years.

TWO GOALS FOR MODERN CHINA

Today, Chinas to-do list remains long, but its leaders are working consistently to check off agenda items, from reducing inequality and reversing environmental degradation to restructuring the economy.

READ: Commentary: Chinas rise this time is different

China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at a reception to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sep 30, 2019. (Photo: AFP / NOEL CELIS)

If they are to succeed – thereby solidifying Chinas development model as a viable alternative to Western-style liberal democracy – they will need to deliver on two key imperatives in the coming years.

First, China needs to reach high-income status. So far, China has relied on the massive size of its markets and rapid output growth to raise incomes.

READ: Commentary: The Hong Kong rain on Beijings parade as China turns 70

But these forces only take an economy so far, and Chinas institutions, technology, and prevailing mindset remain more closely aligned with todays US$10,000 per capita income than with the US$30,000 level to which the country aspires.

Second, China must ensure that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a success. This means implementing an inclusive programme of cost-effective, environmentally sustainable infrastructure construction that does not result in unsustainable debts.

CONCERNS OVER CHINAS ASPIRATIONS

Neither of these goals will be easy to achieve, especially given a challenging external environment.

While China revels in its birthday celebration, the outside world – beginning with the United States – is worrying about Chinas aspirations to become a global leader in technology and in geopolitical terms.

READ: Commentary: Fighter jet sales to Taiwan and the complex US-China balance of power

A Chinese honour guard practice at Tiananmen Square before a wreath-laying ceremony marking Martyrs' Day in Beijing on Sep 30, 2019. (Photo: MADOKA IKEGAMI/POOL/AFP)

When a large ship sets sail, its wake will agitate other boats, no matter how skillfully it is steered. And yet China faces the daunting task of keeping other countries calm as it sails on.

This will require, above all, open, frank, and consistent communication between China and the outside world.

CHINAS RISE IS PEACEFUL

But the onus is not entirely on China; Western leaders also must be receptive to the countrys efforts. China has long promised the world a “peaceful rise”.

Unlike the 19th-century US, it has no Monroe Doctrine, which attempts to guarantee its sphere of influence, and claims no “manifest destiny” to expand its territory at all costs.

In fact, since Deng, all but one of Chinas border disputes have been settled through peaceful negotiations. It took China 11 years to negotiate, inch by inch, its borders with Russia.

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