On the morning of July 1st, at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the centenary of its founding. About 60,000 people attended the ceremony. Fifty-six cannons representing the 56 ethnicities each fired 100 ceremonial shots. More than 280 soldiers marched in perfect unison. Bright-faced young men and women dressed in identical costumes sang zealously of the glory of the party and pledged loyalty to its leadership.
The grand mass ceremony was reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens. On the balcony of Tiananmen, President Xi stood above the adoring masses and reiterated Chairman Mao’s 1949 claim: “The Chinese People have stood up.”
A secret meeting held on a boat in Shanghai marked the party’s humble beginnings back in 1921. Today, the number of members has grown to 95 million. Yet, apart from the grand ceremony held at the nation’s capital last week, for the majority of the 1.4 billion “stood up” Mainland Chinese people, July 1 was an ordinary Thursday.
Employees needed to clock in at work to fulfil their “996” hours, the expectation that employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Kai Fu Lee explained in his 2018 book AI Superpowers that “996” is regarded by Chinese urbanites as “family-friendly working hours”, since typical workplaces in Chinese cities demand even more.
In contrast to the Mainland, the first day of July has been a public holiday in Hong Kong for only 24 years, since the 1997 handover. In past years, apart from the routine parades and flag raising ceremonies at the Golden Bauhinia Square, an annual protest march led by the Civil Human Rights Front was held at Victoria Park area in Causeway Bay.
In 2019, hundreds of anti-extradition bill protesters broke into the legislative building and paralysed the local government for months. In 2020, thousands gathered in Causeway Bay despite the implementation of the National Security Law the previous night. This year, the park was sealed off, and citizens were warned to refrain from joining unauthorised gatherings. The lack of firework displays at Victoria Harbour made the celebration unusually quiet.
In Beijing, dressed in a grey Mao suit and surrounded by party officials in black Western-style suits and red ties, President Xi declared:
However, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 after winning the four-year civil war against the Nationalist government, and its path to victory evokes a different perspective to that of Xi.
Broken promises count as ‘strategy’
In The Tragedy of Liberation (2013), historian Frank Dikötter described the decisive victory of the Communist Party over the Nationalists in the siege of Changchun. In May 1948, 200,000 Communist troops surrounded Changchun. Army commander Lin Bao, one of the top strategists of the party, ordered the city to be starved into submission. They cut off the water and food supplies.
The Nationalist government allowed civilians to leave but not re-enter the city because they could not provide enough supplies to meet the demands. The Communists refused to let the refugees pass.
By June, around 30,000 civilians were trapped between the two warring armies. Some left their young children to the army and fled, others hanged themselves in front of sentry posts. The siege lasted 150 days. At least 160,000 civilians died of starvation.
Dikötter pointed out that the history of the communist revolution is not only characterised by violence and intimidation like other dictatorial regimes, but also filled with “broken promises”. “Mao achieved power by promising every disaffected group what they wanted the most,” yet these promises were broken one by one. Mao’s strategy was “win over the majority, oppose the minority and crush all enemies separately.” Dikötter adds: “But even as every promise was broken, the party kept gaining followers.”
Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School, provides insight as to why the series of broken promises did not weaken the legitimacy of the one-party rule in China. She wrote in an essay published by the Hoover Institution on June 29:
“One basic cultural tradition of Americans is not to lie, to obey the rules and to respect the spirit of the contracts. In Chinese culture, deception is in our blood. There is no spirit of the contract, no sense of fairness, and people often say different words to mean the same things under different circumstances. Something said today can change tomorrow. … The Chinese Communist Party does not think that this is morally bad, they think that it is a ‘strategy’.”
Birth control policy relaxed too late?
One example of a strategy that changed over time under the communist rule is the birth control policy. In 1979, the Chinese government implemented the one-child policy, which drastically reduced the birthrate in the following decades.
Forty years of forced abortions and sterilisations led to an aging population and shrinking labour force. In 2016, the government adjusted its policy to two children per family, and since May 2021, couples have been encouraged to have three children.
However, it may be too late for these new measures to be effective; the entire social-economic structure has already been shaped by the one-child policy. Long working hours, small apartments, lack of affordable childcare and expensive education have all reduced the desire and motivation for young Chinese urbanites to raise a large family.
Some economists argue that China has exhausted its competitive edge in the globalised economy. The shrinking working-age population makes its sizable low-cost labour and consumer market unsustainable, and China is growing old before it gets rich.
Others argue that China is investing in the most cutting-edge AI and automation technologies and is likely to become the first nation that can capitalise on a technology-driven economy independent of supply of labour.
The rapid development of the self-driving car industry in China is an example of how the state-run economy in authoritarian China can triumph over market-driven economies in democratic nations. China’s ability to centralise resources, tolerate risks, and gather private data without regard to human rights are advantages that democratic nations cannot compete with.
China’s dwindling labour force is also becoming increasingly skilled. Many Chinese families invest much of their resources in the education of their one child, in hopes of bettering their life chances in the long run.