July 1st was the 100-year anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC). It was a major event and then again it wasn’t. Let me explain. The whole city was reminded of the upcoming anniversary about a week before the event. Posters were all over the subway stations and 100-year signs were mounted all across the city. There was even a big sign in front my office building in Haidian. Interestingly, while folks were aware of the July 1st celebration well in advance, nobody I talked to seemed to know what the plan for the festivities were until about a week before the event. It was a closely held secret. Even when the information was released it was partial and sparse.
Despite the fact that this was a big event, the 100-year anniversary wasn’t an inclusive celebration. At least not in the way I would have expected it to be. I would have expected this to be a day off for everyone with many organized festivities at a national level as well as a local level, something like the 4th of July in the US or Kings’ Day in the Netherlands, but it wasn’t. It was for the communist upper echelon only as far as I could tell and for everyone else it was a regular workday. Some places, like in my apartment complex, the personnel were watching the live coverage on TV in the morning but that was it.
The event itself was well rehearsed and the security measures were draconian. Everything around Tiananmen square was locked down. Streets, stores, restaurants, malls, etc. were all closed. I had seen how bad it got during last week’s rehearsal so I decided to work from home this day because I couldn’t get a taxi to come to my hotel because the roads were blocked or get to the nearby subway station on Chang’an Avenue.
Thursday’s event started around 7am with a Tiananmen Square filled with people singing patriotic and communist songs, at least that’s what I assumed. My Chinese isn’t that good yet. Around 8am I was expecting the fly-over, like they did two weeks before, and they didn’t disappoint. A helicopter formation flew by spelling out 100 and they were followed by formations of China’s latest J-20 fighters to demonstrate their military and industrial strength. The newspapers made a point of explaining that they showed 20 jet fighters operational where a few months before they had only shown 1.
I knew that at 8am President Xi would give his speech. That schedule detail was in the previous day’s newspaper, but that was the only schedule detail I knew. From the news reports after President Xi’s speech, I gathered that it was about the contributions of communism to the country. How they elevated the population out of poverty and made huge technological and military advances. It also contained a warning to the West (really the US) not to mess with China and how Taiwan was and would always remain a part of greater China. All of these were common themes.
China has every reason to be proud. The social and technological transformation it has gone through over the last 30-years is nothing short of miraculous. Many folks see this as vindication for the abuse by the Western powers and Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The opium wars followed by Japanese imperialism have made a lasting impression on the psyche of the Chinese people and they are determined to never let this happen again. I think that in part also explains their desire for self-reliance. They cannot depend on anyone but themselves and the West still reinforces that sentiment as illustrated by China’s recent space lab successes. The reason, according to the people here, that China developed its own space lab technology, 天宫 (Tiāngōng), is because the US didn’t allow China to participate in the international space station programs and so they had to do it themselves.
The perception of the US here is that it’s a dwindling superpower that is desperately trying to hold on to its powers but is rapidly losing out. I’ve repeatedly heard the analogy that the US is a spoiled kid that doesn’t want to share its marbles at the school playground. The fact that the US is trying to attack China on all fronts is only making folks here more determined and more patriotic: Xinjiang, Hongkong, COVID19, trade wars, the lack of freedom of speech, or the more recently Daines’ resolution to condemn the CPC are all seen as coordinated attacks by the US to try to control China and to keep it down.
None of it is very effective as far as I can tell. Xinjiang is a non-issue for most of the Han Chinese people (the majority of the Chinese population). The fact that Xinjiang cotton has been boycotted is joked about and it is used as an example of how powerless the West is. I have yet to run into a Hongkonger who disagrees with the Hong Kong security laws (HSL). I run into many of them, they are the Chinese who best speak English and they are in high demand, and they all view the unrests in Hong Kong as a bunch of rebellious teenagers that are spoiling it for the rest of them. They actually welcome the stability HSL brings. This is quite different from the view we get in the western media. The resurgence of the accusation that COVID19 is manufactured is also seen as an attempt by the US to cover up its own failures in handling the pandemic. I could go on, but the gist is that none of the issues that the western media is focused on really matters to the folks here, except for one.
Access to non-Chinese media is craved by people, or at least the educated people I hang out with. The Chinese firewall is universally disliked and worked around. There is a strong desire to be informed and see what the rest of the world is doing and thinking. Folks have friends and family in the US and Europe, and they are frustrated they can’t go to Facebook or Instagram to keep up with them. As a US citizen it’s easy to see this as Chinese people want freedom of speech and equate that to a desire for democracy but I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s more about access to and the free flow of information, what political system is behind that is less relevant. If the US really wanted to drive change in China, then this is the area I would focus on because there is broad support for it already. All the other issues, no matter how distressing they may be, simply do not play here.
Continuing along this theme. I’ve been doing round tables with the interns at Microsoft Research (there are about 300 of them) and most of them still want to study abroad, especially in the US. That said, their parents are getting more worried about them, and I had to answer questions in my round tables about COVID19 infection rates and personal safety in the US. I realize that the Microsoft interns are a self-selecting group, but as long as the bright students still want to come to the US to study not all is lost. We have to worry if this stops, because in my opinion an US education is still the best way to guarantee an ongoing life-long dialogue between our two nations.
Will the CPC ever fall apart like it did in Russia? That’s hard to say. The circumstances are very different and the CPC has shown an amazing agility to transform in very fundamental ways. It moved from a central planned economy, that failed disastrously, to effectively embracing a lightly regulated form of capitalism. The later has brought a lot of prosperity to the Chinese people, especially to the folks in big cities. As long as that continues, I don’t think the CPC has much to fear.