The momentum was built for several months preceding the date, with a daily release of posters of milestones in the Party’s history. A separate series of posters carried quotations from Xi Jinping, reminding the people of such unforgettable thoughts as “education is essential to the country and the Party” and “the absolute leadership of the Party over the military is a defining feature of Chinese socialism, and a major source of political strength to the Party and the state.”
Unmentioned in all of these accounts of the glorious past were its historic failures, such as the man-made famine of the Great Leap Forward and the destructive policies of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Indeed, in the campaign against “historical nihilism”—challenges to the official version of history—it can be dangerous to those who question.
As affirmations of their patriotism, citizens from toddlers to adults dressed in somewhat fancifully reimagined facsimiles of Red Army suits, complete with red stars on their caps. Red tourism—visits to the sacred shrines of Chinese communism like Mao Zedong’s birthplace at Shaoshan and the site of the CCP’s founding in Shanghai—boomed, with many of the tourists suitably decked out in Red Army costumes or group-issued t-shirts emblazoned with a “100” logo.
As the day approached, the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium lit up the Beijing sky with a mammoth display of fireworks. A day later, Xi awarded gold medals to 29 people who had been deemed China’s most worthy Party members. And a set of 20 commemorative stamps was issued in an envelope inscribed in gold characters that read “stay true to the original aspiration and founding mission of the Party.”
State media announced that more than 1,300 congratulatory letters had been received from foreign political parties and state leaders, many of them vowing their desire to see the Party share its governing experience and lead international society in dealing with current challenges such as climate change and imbalanced development. In London, Zheng Zeguang, Beijing’s ambassador to the UK who had been appointed after the abrupt departure of his controversially combative “wolf warrior” predecessor Liu Xiaoming, laid a wreath on Karl Marx’s tomb.
The apex of this extravaganza, Xi’s long-awaited speech, didn’t disappoint. Clad in a Mao suit that contrasted—one might say jarred sharply—with the standard navy blue suits, crisp white shirts, and conservative ties of the other worthies on the reviewing stand, Xi’s speech extolled the past while looking toward the future. Under the leadership of the CCP, he stated, China had attained the status of a well-off society and would continue to prosper. He pledged that the central government would exercise jurisdiction over Hong Kong and Macao “in order to safeguard national security” and would “reunify” Taiwan: China’s rise would be “unstoppable.” Each section was followed by enthusiastic applause from the audience, with the most belligerent statements drawing the most enthusiastic responses.
The most outstanding of Xi’s statements was that “the Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave [them]” and that “anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel, forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
In addition to spectator applause, the statement quickly drew 900 million views on Twitter. The English version changed Xi’s words to the somewhat less confrontational: “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel, forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” But it’s the Chinese version that’s more apt to be remembered.
Just as the excesses of any party are followed by the sober reality of the morning after, a less bright reality lurks behind the pageantry and bravado of the CCP’s 100th anniversary. Perhaps symbolically, the brilliant fireworks, spectacular though they were, did little to improve the capital’s famously polluted air or advance the Party’s promise to become carbon neutral by 2060. Surprisingly, there was no parade, with an official responding to a reporter’s query by saying that the soldiers were needed to protect the motherland’s frontiers. He didn’t say from whom, and the number of military members in the reviewing stands and serving as honor guards at ceremonies was impressively large. Concern with guarding the country’s frontiers would seem to be genuine, with at least two of the 29 gold medals being received by ethnic minorities for their work in stabilizing their areas and a third awarded to a Han Chinese for unspecified acts in defense of China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.
In Hong Kong, which was simultaneously observing—celebrating might be the wrong word—the 24th anniversary of its accession to China, the mood was somber. Newly appointed Chief Secretary John Ka-chiu Lee warned that “external forces are still waiting to cause trouble, especially when many countries want to attack our nation when it is getting strong peacefully.” No permits were issued for gatherings on the grounds that they might abet the spread of the coronavirus, and police began clearing Victoria Park, the traditional site of both protests and memorial ceremonies, by noon on the day before the birthday celebration. Risking the possibility of arrest under Hong Kong’s new national security law, a few small groups and individuals passed out protest leaflets nonetheless. The official celebration itself was subdued, with a torch relay race, helicopters flying over the harbor, and a fireboat spraying a water salute.
China has more to worry about than Hong Kong and its other frontiers. Xi hasn’t designated a successor, leaving speculation that his appearance in a copy of the same suit that Mao had worn at the founding ceremony of the CCP in 1949 was meant to signify that he, like the chairman, had no intention of ever retiring. With a Party Central Committee meeting coming up in 2022, such speculation is bound to increase. The fact that he has consolidated so much power into his hands could be a danger not only to the Party but to China itself if he fails.
As good Marxists know—or at least profess to believe—the economy is the substructure on which all else in society is built. And, after a sharp rebound from pandemic-caused contractions, the Chinese economy has begun to soften. Xi has long been aware that a thoroughgoing economic restructuring is needed, but pushback from vested domestic interests has been strong. His attempts to silence critics, such as his protracted dismemberment of Jack Ma’s Alibaba/Ant Financial empire, seem bound to decrease the competitiveness of China rather than enhance it.
As charges of corruption proliferate—in January, Lai Xiaomin, the CEO of the Huarong Asset Management, was executed for bribery, greed, and associated sins—the way forward is unclear. The default of Huarong, the largest Chinese issuer of dollar-denominated foreign debt—$22 billion in total—could provoke a regulatory crisis, since the state is a majority owner.
Xi’s signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has also run into problems. In Montenegro, construction on a highway described as a road to nowhere being financed by a Chinese state bank and being built by a Chinese state-owned company halted when Montenegro couldn’t afford to pay for it; the country appealed to the European Union for help. After Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that, because Chinese companies had been charging three times the normal price for construction, she was cutting $5.72 billion from two railway projects that were part of the BRI agreement between the two countries, China withdrew funding. In Australia, the central government canceled BRI agreements between the state of Victoria and China, as they were inconsistent with Australian foreign policy.
Telecommunications giant Huawei has also run into troubles in Canada, Sweden, and elsewhere.
Although the fireworks may have contributed little to China’s overall air pollution problem, the decision to expand coal mine production in order to stimulate economic growth certainly will.
Xi is under no illusions that the road ahead will be easy, as evidenced by his exhortations to the Chinese people to unite to build on the achievements of the past. Blaming foreign countries for China’s troubles, as China’s state media typically do, may resonate domestically. But muscular nationalism and rhetorical recitations of ideology will do nothing to solve these problems and, as pugilistic wolf warrior tactics have shown, may even exacerbate them.
In ancient Rome, emperors used bread and circuses to enhance their popularity. It worked until the costs of building the coliseum and staging the games began to bankrupt the empire. Xi’s government has proved its ability to supply glittering performances. Whether it can continue to produce sufficient rice will be the real test for Xi’s vows for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami, a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a faculty adviser to the Rumsfeld Foundation, and a former commissioner of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission. Dr. Dreyer has authored several books on China’s ethnic minorities, China’s political system, China–Taiwan relations, and Sino–Japanese relations.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.