Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao Zedong and his fellow revolutionaries made a new state, proud and independent. It was also authoritarian and murderous. That era seemed over, but oppression with totalitarian overtones has returned to the PRC. What should America do?
China’s history is long and tortured. Once a great empire that dominated its neighbors, it turned inward, falling behind both its neighbors and more distant Western powers. The dynasty stagnated and was humiliated by outsiders. The overthrow of the Manchus in 1911 and rise of Sun Yat-sen offered hope, but the nominal republic suffered through warlord conflicts, Japanese invasion and civil war. There was much to criticize in the rule of Chiang Kai-shek, but his flaws paled compared to those of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary who came to dominate life in the world’s most populous country.
In Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China: “We have stood up.” The Communists became the new elite, with the leadership taking up residence in Zhongnanhai, a well-guarded compound next to the ancient Forbidden City, home to the emperors.
Early during his reign, Mao orchestrated campaigns against “landlords” and other “counterrevolutionaries,” murdered as many as five million people—perhaps more—and sent millions more to labor camps. In 1956 Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which offered Chinese an opportunity to speak freely: “let a hundred flowers bloom,” he said. However, Mao soon tired of criticism and began the repressive Anti-Rightist Movement, punctuated by widespread executions, perhaps reaching the millions.
Barely a year after the PRC’s formation, Mao pressed for Beijing’s intervention in the Korean War, which sacrificed perhaps 200,000 Chinese lives, including Mao’s son, to save the Kim dynasty.
In 1958 came the “Great Leap Forward,” intended to rapidly industrialize China. With food diverted to the cities and overseas for export, people in the provinces starved to death. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured and sometimes killed. After losing influence, in 1966 he launched the Proletarian Cultural Revolution against his enemies: the result was a xenophobic power struggle/civil war which consumed many of his old colleagues while leaving an entire generation without education or skills.
Estimates of the total number who died under the man known as the “Red Emperor” range between thirty-five million and an astounding 100 million people. While he did not intend many of these deaths, his policies created the human horror.
Only his death in 1976 finally freed the Chinese people. Economic reform soon followed, with perhaps the greatest reduction in poverty in such a short time in human history. Although there remain great wealth gaps between regions, even rural residents live far better than their parents. And despite significant challenges—heavily indebted banks, bloated state enterprises, skewed aging demographics, politicized government investments—the PRC is likely to continue growing, though no longer at the breakneck speed of recent times.
Moreover, personal autonomy greatly expanded. On so many decisions once controlled by the state, people are free to live their lives, outside of politics, anyway. Even foreigners, with a few important exceptions, are free to gain a visa, purchase a plane ticket, enter the PRC, fly to a distant city, book a hotel room, purchase PRC products, sell Western goods and engage Chinese citizens. I’ve found entering China to be easier than returning to America—Chinese officials have never searched my computer or luggage, in contrast to U.S. border agents.
Finally, the intellectual atmosphere relaxed. Academic cooperation increased, students criticized censorship, liberal Chinese groups held conferences, VPNs skirted internet controls and more. Political opposition was verboten, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had little credibility. It was filled with opportunists, criticized by leftist cadres and riven with corruption. While democracy was not impending, there was hope that Western contacts, economic development and increased wealth would lead to a steadily freer Chinese society. The exact endpoint was less important than steadily increasing individual space outside of state control.
Not that this would eliminate the geopolitical challenge posed by Beijing. Many of the young, whatever their views of internet controls and Western culture, are rabid nationalists. They aren’t inclined to be lectured by the West and believe eternal China owns the South China Sea, Taiwan and more. Indeed, a democratic China could be more susceptible to nationalist public passions. But this worry seemed to lie far in the future.
Then along came Xi Jinping.
He has oft been compared to Mao Zedong, in terms of the power that he has amassed. But more important is his role as the anti-Gorbachev and even anti-Xiaoping. Increasing his personal authority is an obvious priority. But so is empowering the state. Almost across the board his government has assaulted intellectual freedom, internet access, religious liberty, foreign business and economic autonomy. These attacks are also evident in Hong Kong, once promised legal autonomy, and even against Taiwan, with a recent upsurge in threats and intimidating behavior. Perhaps most unsettling is the attempt to create a totalitarian system of surveillance and social control. It is Maoism reborn through hi-tech wizardry rather than old-fashioned informers and block captains.