Chinaâ€™s Communist Party on Tuesday marked the 70th anniversary of its 1949 revolution, and the fireworks and military parades will celebrate the countryâ€™s rise to become the worldâ€™s second largest economy. Yet there is no denying that this anniversary comes with a paradoxical unease about Chinaâ€™s place in the world. China is more powerful but less free than it was a decade ago and the world views its external aggression with growing concern.
Chinaâ€™s rise since Deng Xiaoping set the Party on the path of market reform 40 years ago has few historical parallels. China has taken advantage of open markets in the West, and the lure of its domestic market of 1.4 billion people to foreign investors, to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and become an export and increasingly a technology behemoth. The U.S. and the world have for the most part benefited from this development. Imagine the alternative if China had remained stagnant and its people sought to emigrate in the millions.
For a time, even after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, it seemed possible that China might also evolve to tolerate more political freedom. Lawyers were allowed to represent dissidents and more religious worship was tolerated. Tens of thousands of Chinese educated abroad returned home with a taste of economic and political freedom. The hope was that China might evolve, if not into a Western or Japanese democracy, perhaps into a state on the Singapore model of relatively tolerant and uncorrupt one-party rule.
Those hopes have been dashed, starting in the years of Hu Jintao and especially in the ascendancy of President Xi Jinping. At home, economic reforms have stalled as the Party maintains political control over finance and refuses to reform state-owned industries. Donald Trumpâ€™s policies have exposed a vulnerability in Chinaâ€™s export-dependent economic model that relies too much on theft and predatory behavior against foreign companies. Beijing must impose currency controls to stop capital flight by Chinese who want a safe haven abroad.
This retrenchment in economic reform has coincided with increasingly draconian political control at home. Self-confident regimes donâ€™t jail human-rights lawyers, crack down on churches or create a Great Firewall and employ tens of thousands of censors to control the internet. Most horrifying has been the effort to eliminate the culture and religion of the Uighur Muslim population in the western region of Xinjiang. The use of AI and facial recognition to control the public calls to mind Orwellâ€™s nightmare of state control.
Then there is Chinaâ€™s attempt to dominate the Asia-Pacific, often by bullying its weaker neighbors. It has illegally occupied islands in the South China Sea and turned them into de facto military bases. Its burgeoning navy harasses foreign ships in international waters. The attempt to renege on Chinaâ€™s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong fits the pattern. Even its use of soft power via its Belt and Road initiative comes with the catch of excessive debt that has left China in control of foreign ports.
The Wall Street Journal