Updated: October 8, 2021 8:31:20 am
Over four decades ago, Deng Xiaoping ordered the open-door policy to reboot China’s economy. The initiative was called the Second Revolution. The question, in light of recent developments, is whether President Xi Jinping is leading China into its Third Revolution.
The Second Revolution delivered a great deal of good. Deng, a Long March companion of the great helmsman, Mao Zedong, had witnessed the trials and tribulations of the communist movement in China. The path the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) trod in its first half-a-century was paved with painful sacrifices. The Long March claimed some 70,000 lives. The Great Leap Forward led to as many as 45 million deaths due to forced labour, starvation, and execution, and some 20 million more perished in the Cultural Revolution.
Recognising all the actions that led to these sacrifices and their failure to deliver on the promised well-being for all — as was also the case with the Soviet Union — Deng chose, when he became the paramount leader in 1978, to let “some people get rich first”. By that, he distanced himself from the Marxist approach, which, in turn, led to China entering the World Trade Organisation and trading with other nations on equal terms, thus embarking on an unstoppable journey to riches.
By the time Xi took over in 2013, China had become a land of billionaires. By 2015, just 37 years after Deng launched the open-door policy, some 850 million people had risen above the $1.90-a-day poverty line, according to the World Bank, and the remaining 98.99 million did so by the end of 2020. By this time, China had also become the second richest nation, with 387 billionaires, each commanding wealth ranging between $1.55 billion and $65.6 billion. In the following 12 months, an additional 239 citizens joined the billionaires’ league.
To Xi’s chagrin, the Second Revolution also produced a few things abhorrent to the communist objective, like a widening rich-poor divide in the country, undermining the goal of creating a classless society.
Xi assumed the leadership with certain tenacious ideas. To realise them, he got the constitution amended to remove the term limit and let the president remain in power for life. No other leader since Mao has had this privilege. Xi aims to succeed where Mao and other communist leaders have not, and make the Middle Kingdom the everlasting capital of communism.
The Soviet Union, from which communists everywhere had drawn inspiration, collapsed in its 74th year, with all its vassal states in eastern Europe. To prevent this history from repeating and to ensure that the communist system of governing will become the global order is Xi’s objective, now that China is in its 72nd year of communist rule.
So, lately, Xi has taken a few steps. These include an order to online gaming platforms to forbid children from playing video games more than one hour a day three times a week.
This may appear innocuous but is farsighted. More than 70 per cent of China’s 1.4 billion population has internet access. This is a major concern for the CCP as it suspects that its citizens with access to the internet might be proud of the Chinese nation, but not necessarily of the Communist Party that rules the country. Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, grants this fear credence. Hong Kong residents generally have no ill-feeling towards the Chinese nation and people. But a significant number of them are against communist rule, and pro-democracy campaigners there have used the internet ingeniously to mobilise people against the CCP and its local rulers.
Meanwhile, despite the political agenda hidden in regulating video games, many parents in China and elsewhere, who find prising children away from video games a headache, might even admire such control. They might wish for similar restrictions in other spheres of life. People bewildered by those protesting against Covid-19 vaccination in some democratic countries in the name of freedom of choice could be wondering what is wrong about China curtailing freedom for the greater good.
This is a thinking prevalent even among today’s wealth-chasing young generation in China. They ask what’s wrong if human rights and personal freedoms are set aside and the government allowed a free, even dictatorial, hand as long as people can enjoy the wealth they create.
In other words, they will accept a benevolent dictatorship of any political shade rather than free-wheeling democracy. Such arguments are abundant in Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in New China.
Deng inspired such sentiment and logic as his open-door initiative achieved mind-boggling results, particularly compared to the situation in India and America.
India became an independent nation and the world’s largest democracy two years before the communists took control of China. But even today, millions of Indians continue to languish in abject poverty. In America, the world’s wealthiest nation and second-largest democracy, some 34 million people live below the poverty line. These realities raise the question. What should the new world order in the 21st century be — democracy or totalitarianism?
It is a question that Singapore has answered with what could be called a “guided democracy” or “regulated” dictatorship. South Korea and Taiwan have responded with a dictatorship to attain economic prosperity before granting people the right to vote and elect their government.
It is also the question a large number of urbane students and young professionals asked author Osnos during his stay in China, from 2005 to 2013, as a staff writer of The New Yorker. They asked him: Why should we choose democracy if we can still have a good life without democracy?
A new challenge like the Tiananmen uprising, or the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — now held down by a combination of Covid-19 protocols and a Beijing-legislated National Security Law — gaining new vigour, is the least of Xi’s worries.
Instead, he is more concerned about the few in command of the growing abundance of wealth and the people — particularly the young who will find new ways to break protective firewalls — having unfettered access to the internet, which could lead to the spread of anarchist ideas through social media and gaming platforms. Above all, the CCP is paranoid about foreign forces lurking for an opportunity to thwart the socialist system of government that the Middle Kingdom nurtures as the model for a new world order.
There arises the question: Has Xi, with his agenda to build socialism with Chinese characteristics for all to emulate, decided to bell the cat that Deng let roam about freely? Could this be the emergence of a dictator trying to drag the country back to the Marxist path or decide on the society’s overall welfare?
Whatever be his plan, the younger generation of Chinese, who were recently in a frenzy to buy the newly released Apple iPhone-13, may not necessarily be too concerned about it. One of the young thinkers Osnos spoke with said: In the 1990s, it seemed the government was not good, and a good government was needed to lead the nation. But the problem was, “we didn’t know what a good government would be; so, we let the Communist Party stay in place.”
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2021 under the title ‘Xi’s China and third revolution’. Viswa Nathan, author of Hong Kong — The Turbulent Times, was formerly, the editor in chief of the Hongkong Standard and roving editor of the Manila Times
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