The People’s Republic of China celebrated 1 October the 70th anniversary of its founding. President Xi Jinping presided over the celebrations that included an 80-minute military parade that displayed the new-found might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the unveiling of very powerful and long-range missiles. For example, the DF-41 has a range of 15,000 kilometres, which makes it the longest-range missile in the world. Also on display was the DF -17, a nuclear-capable glider that could reach the United States. The parade showed, too, the formidable advances that China has achieved in unmanned systems and electronic warfare.
The top leadership of the State and the Communist Party were assembled atop the rostrum at the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” Among the top leadership figured two former heads of states.
President Xi waved at his own portrait that was put beside a banner reading, “Carry out Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”
In his remarks, President Xi referred to China’s “century of humiliation” stressing that, “no force can shake the status of our great motherland, and no force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation from marching forward.”
As to the role of the PLA, the Chinese president emphasised that it “will serve its purpose in safeguarding the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country, and world peace”.
He called on the ruling Communist Party and the country to unite and continue fighting for the realisation of what he described as the “Chinese Dream” and the nation’s rejuvenation.
He promised that the Chinese government would uphold the “one country, two systems” idea and it would protect the long-term stability of Hong Kong and Macau. As to Taiwan, he said that Beijing would stress the goal of “peaceful reunification” with the island state.
It was interesting to see President Xi wearing a Mao suit instead of the normal dark suit. The message couldn’t be clearer. It was a reaffirmation of the foundational legitimacy of the Chinese Revolution. It is interesting as well to note that President Xi, accompanied by a group of very senior Chinese officials, visited the mausoleum of the founder of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong on 1 October. It was the first time since the end of the Cultural Revolution that a Chinese head of state paid an official visit to the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. The Chinese president wanted to make clear that the revolution still lives on, stronger than ever. In fact, the whole celebrations were meant to highlight the progress that China has achieved and the military might it has developed. The use of the expression “no force” could impede China going forward was meant as an implicit warning to any international power, or a group of like-minded powers, that would try to enter into confrontation with China to slow its resurgence on the world scene as a great power. At the forefront of these powers, the United States is first.
The celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic comes amidst a host of domestic, regional and international challenges facing a rising China.
Domestically, the rates of growth of the Chinese economy have stalled while the tariff war between China and the United States has started taking a toll on the economy. And no one can predict when this trade confrontation will end. It is a war of nerves between Washington and Beijing that gets more complicated by the day due to the unstable political situation in Washington in light of the impeachment inquiry that the House of Representatives with its majority of Democrats has launched. Some people believe that the weakened American president would settle for less than he aspired to in terms of a global and fair trade agreement with China. If this proves true, the big winner would be President Xi.
On the domestic front, the deteriorating political situation in Hong Kong poses one of the greater challenges that President Xi has to face. It was no coincidence that the Hong Kong demonstrations took a violent turn 1 October. The issue is not Communist Party rule, but rule by China and the Chinese president. Hong Kong has started to look like a trap for President Xi.
Hong Kong experienced some of the most widespread scenes of violence in many years. One student protester died of a gun shot by a policeman, the first victim since the youth demonstrations began in Hong Kong in June. The police said the shooting came in self-defence as the victim was wielding an iron bar at the policeman. Whatever the reason, with the death of the 18-year-old student, the situation has become almost explosive. The executive authority in Hong Kong invoked emergency powers to prohibit demonstrators from wearing masks. However, the students defied the order. The last time Hong Kong experienced living under emergency powers was in 1967 when the British had to deal with students demonstrating in support of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland. What an irony.
Professor Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, commented on the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong that coincided with national celebrations on mainland China. “It is a dark turn,” he said. He believes the student movement and the conflict have “passed the point of no return, and the use of live ammunition is adding fuel to the fire”.
Regionally and internationally, the United States is leading a strategy of containment against China with support from strategic partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, while deliberately challenging the Chinese navy in the South China Sea to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation in international waters.
Will the strategy of containing China succeed in preventing the gradual and inescapable rise of China as a superpower in the second half of the 21st century? The odds are not great.
Maybe it would be better for the United States to accommodate the rise of China and enter into a functional strategic cooperation with Beijing to serve their best mutual interests in North East Asia, Southern and Central Asia and the Gulf plus the Arabian Sea, and the approaches of Bab Al-Mandab at the southern entrance of the Red Sea.
Such a path forward will guarantee peace and security for decades to come.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.