China’s emergence as a major political and economic actor is a central fact of current world affairs. It is a signal transformation for most of its own people who have escaped poverty, availed of education, extended their life expectancy and made huge contributions to international development, knowledge and culture. These are universal gains for humanity as a whole and should be judged that way. Predictably they are claimed by China’s ruling communist party on its 100th anniversary. But while its leaders monopolise power in this huge state of 1.4 billion people they cannot claim exclusive responsibility for what has been achieved.
The story of how the party began in Shanghai, developed in rural China, struggled against Japanese imperialism and won power against nationalist opponents in 1949 is full of heroism and personality as told to its present members. It continued with the brutal consolidation of power in the new state. Its first 25 years included world-historical tragedies as land was collectivised with resulting famines and Mao Tse-tung's cultural revolution in which tens of millions died. In the following generation under new leaders China opened out to the world economically, becoming the manufacturing workshop for globalising corporations. In fear of losing power the party smashed opponents in 1989. It then led the extraordinary journey to the present human and strategic strength foregrounded in this anniversary.
That achievement flowed from an openness to learning from the rest of the world and a willingness to allow regional elites accumulate wealth and exercise rule with less central control. Such trends have been steadily reversed under Xi Jinping's party leadership since 2013. He has recentralised power and party control, reversed regional and institutional checks and balances, insisted on strict doctrinal orthodoxy and forcefully asserted China's geopolitical position in Hong Kong and Taiwan. A fear of losing or sharing monopoly party power pervades these shifts. It shows up too in the destruction of Uighur and Tibetan cultural rights and suppression of internal critics and media. As a result China will be less well-equipped to manage its much-heralded transition to a more balanced economy and society in the generation to come.
Such criticisms of its leadership and strategic trajectory are much less tolerated by the ruling communist party than before. China’s genuine popular and civilisational progress and re-emergence cannot be reversed or contained but should be critically engaged. From an Irish and European perspective that will call for greater care to avoid becoming over-dependent on it economically and commercially, a readiness to learn from Chinese achievements, and a determination to judge them by universal standards of values and rights and to speak out accordingly.