China’s remarkable transformation
As the Chinese people celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, there are lessons to be learned from assessing the phenomenal progress the country has made.
My first visit to China was in 1966. The Americans had stopped their military and civil assistance and imposed strict sanctions on Pakistan after the 1965 war with India. At this critical time, when India’s threat loomed largely, China extended full support to Pakistan by offering military assistance on easy terms. It was during this period that in the rank of Major, I was sent to China for specializing in Chinese armored equipment.
Initially, I was put up in the Peking Hotel; perhaps the only 5-star hotel at the time and then moved to a military establishment. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing and I felt very privileged as there were only a few foreigners allowed in the country. It was understandable. They did not want outsiders witnessing the upheaval that accompanied the revolution.
In retrospect, the Cultural Revolution was fascinating, although an unpleasant, process to witness. As subsequent events demonstrated, while Mao had forced China to turn inwards, the momentum for globalization continued apace. Mao wanted to wage a campaign against intellectuals, re-impose his authority on the communist party, eliminate the influence of Nikita Khrushchev of the erstwhile Soviet Union and bring about doctrinal purity. The Cultural Revolution was the culmination of the process that Mao Zedong initiated to eliminate all vestiges of feudal society. The Red Guards spearheaded Mao’s revolution meant to push back revisionist thinking emanating from the Soviet Union. He wanted to preserve the “purity” of communist doctrine, as he saw it, and instructed the Red Guards to destroy everything that the establishment represented, including schools. The state had turned against itself to destroy the old order and build anew. As we know, they went on a rampage destroying historical and cultural monuments. They humiliated intellectuals, academics, and factory managers, and even ransacked museums across the country.
Given China’s recent economic achievements and growing middle class, will it be possible to maintain stability without major political reform and fulfill the dream of modernization?
Back then, it would have seemed almost absurd to think that China would become the greatest force for globalization in the world today. Perhaps the great lesson of the revolution is the futility of looking inwards, and its great cost in human terms.
I returned to China several times in my capacity as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board, and later as Secretary of Defense Production. I was deeply impressed by the way the Chinese recovered from the Cultural Revolution. In terms of infrastructure, science and technology, and human development, they made more progress in the subsequent 40 years than they had done in the thousand years that preceded it. I believe the leadership of one man had much to do with it: Deng Xiao Ping and his policy of harnessing China’s energies with the introduction of capitalist practices.
In a sense, the shift from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution to China’s economic dynamism today may not be as strange as it seems. Mao’s greatest achievements lay in the unification of China by defeating nationalist forces, establishing the Peoples Republic, and leading the most radical social revolution in human history. He may have been a failure at running his own country humanely, but the Cultural Revolution did impress me with its determination to create China’s own future. He certainly knew how to mobilize his people and, once the country was on the right track, China seemed capable of great things.
I admire how patriotic and hard working the Chinese can be, and how proud they are of their heritage. Posterity may conclude that the Communist Party’s continued strong control of the country’s political process helped keep China on track in its quest for prosperity. However, given its recent economic achievements and growing middle class, will it be possible to maintain stability without major political reform and fulfill the dream of modernization?
In the last few years, China’s global role and responsibilities have enhanced manifold as its economic and military power increases. It is the second most powerful economic power after the United States with a GDP of $27.3 trillion and the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves worth $3.1 trillion.
This has understandably transformed the social structure of China. Its economic success has essentially occurred by replacing its socialist economic system with a market-based economy. This was a fundamental departure from its communist ideology. In sharp contrast, it retained a communist political structure.
President Xi Jinping has even tightened his hold on the party and is considered one of the most powerful rulers after Mao. During his period, China’s influence in the world has considerably increased. Nonetheless, the question remains: Is it possible to keep tight control over an economically prosperous country for long, the glimpses of which one witnesses in today’s Hong Kong? Furthermore, will political and over-arching state control not inhibit the huge innovative and creative talent of the Chinese people? These are some of the pertinent questions that the leadership and people of China will have to find answers for.
*Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
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