Sixty years ago Mao Zedong stood before a sea of people atop Tiananmen Gate proclaiming, in his high-pitched Hunan dialect, the founding of the People's Republic of China and that the "Chinese people have stood up!" The moment was marked with pride and hope. The communists' victory had vanquished the Nationalist regime, withstood the vicious onslaught of the Japanese invasion and overturned the century of foreign encroachment on China's territory. Moreover, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power without significant external support theirs was largely a homegrown revolution.
Mao brought a vision for China that has resonated from the 19th century Qing dynasty reformers to this day: to regain China's fu qiang (wealth and power), dignity, international respect and territorial integrity. In this regard, Mao and the CCP positioned themselves squarely with a deep yearning among Chinese thus earning their loyalty and the party's legitimacy. His successors have not wavered from this singular vision and mission.
Tragically, Mao's belief in restoring China's greatness and achieving modernity was inextricably intertwined with his ideological desire to transform China into a socialist and revolutionary society. Mao's social engineering continually convulsed China in unrelenting political campaigns. These movements disrupted productivity and caused horrific loss of life. Yet, despite the chaos, the People's Republic embarked on industrialization and stood up. By many measures, 60 years on, China has achieved significant progress toward becoming a major and global power. Mao may recognize it, but he would not be wholly happy with it.
As the People's Republic of China commemorates its 60th anniversary, it seemingly has much to celebrate. China is the world's most populous and industrious nation, is the world's third largest economy and trading nation, has become a global innovator in science and technology, and is building a world-class university system. It has an increasingly modern military and commands diplomatic respect. It is at peace with its neighbors and all major powers. Its hybrid model of quasi-state capitalism and semidemocratic authoritarianism sometimes dubbed the "Beijing Consensus" has attracted attention across the developing world.
This growing soft power of China was strengthened by the 2008 Olympics extravaganza, and the Shanghai Expo next year will similarly dazzle. The 60th anniversary celebration in Beijing on Oct. 1 will impress, if not frighten, the world with an arresting display of military hardware and goose-stepping soldiers. Less visible is the fact that China is the first major economy to recover from the global recession and, indeed, is leading the world out of it.
China is on a roll, particularly when viewed over time. Visiting or living in China every year over the past three decades, I have had the personal opportunity to witness dramatic transformations. When I first went to China in 1979, vestiges of the Cultural Revolution were still evident: revolutionary slogans painted on walls and pockmarks on university buildings from bullets and howitzer shells shot by dueling Red Guards. Camouflaged, but just as evident, were the personal scars borne by intellectuals and officials whom I met at the time. I heard stories of beatings and humiliations, confiscations of personal possessions and loss of living quarters, and forced hard labor.
I then witnessed the dramatic blossoming of personal freedoms and economic growth in the 1980s, punctuated by periodic countercampaigns launched by neo-Maoists in the leadership. One could literally feel and see Chinese society come alive after its long Maoist trauma, only to have people quickly recoil when the conservatives in the leadership reasserted themselves. This seesaw pattern persisted throughout the decade, culminating in the dramatic Tiananmen demonstrations and their suppression in June 1989.
In the early 1990s, I again experienced China as a society traumatized, this time by the aftermath of Tiananmen. But by mid-decade Deng Xiaoping had reignited domestic economic reforms and China had normalized its place in the world after its post-Tiananmen isolation. Politics, however, remained frozen and the heavy hand of the state remained evident. Only during the present decade, in the waning years of Jiang Zemin's rule and under Hu Jintao, has the Communist Party begun to experiment with very limited political reforms. My discussions with those party officials involved with crafting the "democratic" reforms makes clear that there are strict boundaries to how far they will proceed.
Thus, when considering the totality of six decades, the record of the PRC is decidedly mixed. While its achievements have been momentous, so are the contrasts and contradictions exposed by those very same achievements. In many sectors, each reform breeds new problems and challenges. China has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.