From 1949 to 1979, the literacy rate rose from below 20 percent to 66 percent, and life expectancy increased from 41 to 64 years
BEIJING – The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 will be an exuberant affair, involving glitzy cultural events, an extravagant state dinner attended by Chinese and foreign luminaries, and a grand military parade in Tiananmen Square. And, at a time of high tensions with US President Donald Trump’s administration, it will be imbued with an extra dose of patriotic enthusiasm. But while China has much to celebrate, it also has much work to do.
The first 30 years of rule by the Communist Party of China (CPC) are judged harshly, owing to the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But these were not lost decades. On the contrary, major strides were made in modernizing China: local and national power grids were established, industrial capacity was strengthened, and human capital rapidly improved.
As a result, China’s human-development indicators, on par with India’s 70 years ago, surged ahead. From 1949 to 1979, the literacy rate rose from below 20 percent to 66 percent, and life expectancy increased from 41 to 64 years. All of this set the stage for Deng Xiaoping’s program of “reform and opening up,” which unleashed China’s rapid economic growth and development over the last 40 years.
Today, China’s to-do list remains long, but its leaders are working consistently to check off agenda items, from reducing inequality and reversing environmental degradation to restructuring the economy. If they are to succeed—thereby solidifying China’s development model as a viable alternative to Western-style liberal democracy—they will need to deliver on two key imperatives in the coming years.
First, China needs to reach high-income status. So far, China has relied on the massive size of its markets and rapid output growth to raise incomes. But these forces only take an economy so far, and China’s institutions, technology, and prevailing mindset remain more closely aligned with today’s $10,000 per capita income than with the $30,000 level to which the country aspires.
Second, China must ensure that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a success. This means implementing an inclusive program of cost-effective, environmentally sustainable infrastructure construction that does not result in unsustainable debts.
Neither of these goals will be easy to achieve, especially given a challenging external environment. While China revels in its birthday celebration, the outside world—beginning with the United States—is worrying about China’s aspirations to become a global leader in technology and in geopolitical terms.
When a large ship sets sail, its wake will agitate other boats, no matter how skillfully it is steered. And yet China faces the daunting task of keeping other countries calm as it sails on. This will require, above all, open, frank, and consistent communication between China and the outside world.
But the onus is not entirely on China; Western leaders also must be receptive to the country’s efforts. China has long promised the world a “peaceful rise.” Unlike the nineteenth-century US, it has no Monroe Doctrine, which attempts to guarantee its sphere of influence, and claims no “manifest destiny” to expand its territory at all costs. In fact, since Deng, all but one of China’s border disputes have been settled through peaceful negotiations. It took China 11 years to negotiate, inch by inch, its borders with Russia.
Yet much of the West, as well as Asia, continues to assume the worst about China—a habit of mind that could have catastrophic consequences. As Albert Camus once wrote, “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed, but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything.”
To avoid falling into the trap of war, Western political and intellectual leaders must not blindly believe those who assume that confrontation with an ascendant China is inevitable. If any historical experience should be brought to bear, it is that of near-misses and miscalculations— reminders of how easily a standoff can become a calamity.
Past incidents—such as the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces, or the 2001 collision of US and Chinese aircraft off Hainan Island—have been settled through negotiation. But, given rising antagonism toward China, there is no telling whether leaders would manage to replicate that outcome were a similar incident to occur today.
The first 70 years of CPC rule brought rapid development, but ultimately only modest prosperity. Now, China must shift its attention to raising incomes and implementing the BRI effectively. These goals can be achieved only in a peaceful, stable context. China’s leaders understand that. But they still must convince the West that they do.