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The Communist Party praises itself no end on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But let’s not forget the truth on October 1 – China’s people are the power behind the country’s phenomenal rise over recent decades, says Kristin Shi-Kupfer.

Image by ImagineChina

Happy Birthday, China! How nice it would be to celebrate with a public festival, with kites and cotton candy on Tiananmen Square, colourful billboards and outdoor concerts in Beijing’s pleasant October air. How beautiful. And also how unthinkable in a country in which the government seems to live in fear its own people – the People's Republic of China. 

The people seem more like extras in these celebrations tailor-made for the state leadership. A few members of the public got to take the stage in the Great Hall of the People as freshly appointed "heroes". Web pages devoted to the celebrations carry a few portraits of citizens, especially "well-known personalities", and a few stories – like one about Huang, the figure skater from the northeast, or Yang, the firefighter from the western province of Sichuan. Some 590,000 posts with the hashtag "I Love China" are the only interactive element on the special anniversary page of the commercial news portal Sina.com. On similar pages of the news agency Xinhua or the newspaper People’s Daily there is no trace of any place for the public to leave comments. This function seems to have been deliberately switched off. 

Merciless discipline 

This leaves more space for the narrative the Communist Party wants to control. In the style of Mao Zedong, the message is: "Without the Communist Party there is no new China" – the implication being that without Xi Jinping’s new era there would be no glorious future. "Glorious seventy years, the struggle for the new era" is the official motto of the state- and party-run People's Daily. The narrative is about a Communist Party ready to do battle under Xi. But it is also about the expectation of merciless, ideological discipline at home. Beijing is demanding absolute loyalty and devotion from party members who will obey the leader – and succeed in the struggles of the 21st century.  

Past struggles of the last 70 years are mostly referred to as quantifiable achievements. They are underpinned by numbers that sometimes seem almost absurd - government revenues have increased three thousand fold since 1949, GDP is 170 times higher. Success is depicted on interactive maps that show the development of high-speed trains, or the technological path from the telecommunications standard 1G to today’s 5G – all "made in China", of course. Stories of the sort the Communist Party likes to tell of poor villages and poor villagers that in the course of the 1970s grew to become modern cities and wealthy people. 

Late appropriation 

Some of these narratives are also popular in the liberal democracies of the West. The reasoning goes something like this: "The Chinese government has lifted millions of people out of poverty”, or, "The pragmatist Deng Xiaoping created an economic boom after 1979". Such explanations are not completely wrong, but they ignore the real reason for China’s success – its people. A crucial part of China’s dynamism almost always came from below, from individuals and groups whose initiative often sidestepped official regulations. It was only later that China's Communist Party declared these kind of practices to be official policy – when they seemed controllable and safe enough, or when its back was up against a wall. 

Exhibit A - the so-called "reform and opening policy" at the end of the seventies. Once life in the collectives had descended into catastrophic conditions, people turned their backs on this centrally engineered way of living and returned to the old system of farming based around individual households. They also traded goods that were often still scarce on "grey markets". Local party cadres looked away or tacitly supported the initiatives as they improved living conditions considerably. The Communist Party later legalized this system and allowed more experiments with market mechanisms and small businesses. 

Exhibit B - the economic upswing of the "workbench of the world” in the eighties and nineties. It was made possible by migrant workers making a virtue out of necessity. The industrialization of agriculture put many people out of work. Although their residence registration tied them to their leased land parcels for decades, more and more unemployed farm workers moved to the cities and found work in factories, restaurants or waste disposal. Most had no legal access to urban infrastructure and often lived illegally in cellars or in barracks. They worked without a contract and insurance for pay with which they could feed the entire family back home. China’s booming factories and cities desperately needed this peasant labour force, so the government gradually legalized their status, gave them access to the social security system, and eventually allowed their children to attend public schools. 

Exhibit C - the emergence of China's dynamic private companies. In addition to rural cooperatives and small entrepreneurs, more and more courageous and sometimes greedy, well connected and hard-working party cadres, "jumped into the sea", as the Chinese say. On the side or, increasingly, full-time, they began to promote their companies. Some people were only interested in fast money, others developed innovative products and services. The Communist Party for a long time had difficulty coming to terms with these busy cadres. Capitalists had never been part of its clientele. But at some point, the "red entrepreneurs" had created a new reality, and their booming companies created more and more jobs, and more growth than the ailing state-owned enterprises. In 2002, the Communist Party declared itself the representative of all "progressive productive forces". Party membership was from then on no longer an obstacle for entrepreneurial activities – or vice versa. 

Missed opportunity for liberalization  

2008 could have been another year of the people leading the way and the government falling in line. Hundreds of intellectuals, entrepreneurs and employees (a good number of them members of the Communist Party members or state institutions) joined forces with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Together they proposed an admittedly very liberal reform programme, the so-called Charter 08 that touched on a number of issues the political elite was already more or less being openly debating - the abolition of the housing registration system, for example, the protection of private property, privatization of land, or freedom of the press. Other demands went much further – separation of powers, independent judiciary, or even a parliamentary democracy – and would have meant the end of one-party rule, though not necessarily the end of the Communist Party as an organization. Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017, and fellow reformers also raised the idea of a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" and the possibility of a post-reform amnesty.  

But the Communist Party leaders passed up this historic opportunity for peaceful political reform. Instead they responded repressively, with arrests and surveillance. Today, hopes for similar reform proposals are slim. State President and Party Chairman Xi Jinping has made clear that his concept for the future of the People's Republic leaves no room for "Western" ideas – he has even forbidden them being discussed. Nevertheless, some courageous citizens still refuse to allow the "dynamics from the street" to peter out. The future of their country probably means more – or at least something different – to them than to the Communist Party: It's not just about collective dreams, national strength and international recognition, but also about individual freedom, in having the strength to work through the crimes of the past, in the joint creation of a global order.  

It is these people who deserve to be celebrated – but celebrated alongside all the other citizens of China. The country’s vibrant, unbridled society continues to be its greatest hope and offer the greatest possible contrast to its leaders’ totalitarian attempts at forced conformity. Many people imagine Hong Kong will end up like China. But what if Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom actually offered us a glimpse of the mainland’s future? 

This article was first published in German by “Neue Zürcher Zeitung".