China At Seventy
Its meteoric rise holds out both positives and challenges for the world
As the People’s Republic of China celebrates 70 years of its founding today, there is no denying that the world’s secondlargest economy has come to occupy a significant position in the international order. The last three decades have seen its stunning rise to superpower status, upending global geopolitics. Its remarkable economic achievements over the last 40 years – when it lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty, became the world’s largest manufacturer, the largest trader in goods and the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves – have proven to be inspirational elsewhere in the developing world, including in India.
Nevertheless, as China’s party-state system has morphed into an authoritarian technocracy, a large question mark looms over whether there is a ‘China model’ that can be replicated elsewhere. It had been hoped, especially after China joined the WTO and the international trading system in 2001, that it would gradually transform into more of an open society and cooperate more with other countries in evolving global norms and solutions. But that hasn’t happened as the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) has tightened its hold over the country, transforming it into a neo-mercantilist, hyper-nationalist power that frightens other countries.
The Chinese leadership today is confident that China can regain its ancient exalted Middle Kingdom status and is not afraid to use its newfound economic and military might to create a Chinese order – which has brought it into collision with other countries even as its mercantilist/ nationalist attitude has been widely imitated. This has unfortunately contributed to a climate where nationalist claims are privileged over global coordination to solve common problems. We see this prominently in the South China Sea where Beijing is aggressively pushing its extensive maritime claims by militarising islands and building artificial ones. But we see it in the subcontinent too where Beijing undermines regional security by pursuing a narrow vision of its national interest, for example by providing diplomatic cover to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror.
The Chinese state’s growing high-tech surveillance infrastructure, including a social credit system to control social behaviour, presents a huge challenge to liberal values. What’s emerging, therefore, is a new Cold War between the liberal camp led by the West and the technoauthoritarian camp led by China. As growing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong show, the clash of values is well underway. How it shapes up could well determine the course of the rest of this century.