“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
– Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrating its 101st birthday. Last year, 01 July – the founding day of the CCP – witnessed a celebration “low on introspection, but thick with pageantry”, accompanied by an impressive military flypast, light shows, and television extravaganza. Most interestingly, though not surprisingly, we heard Chinese President and Chairman Xi Jinping’s speech where he emphasized, that “any foreign force who attempted to bully China would find their heads broken and bashed bloody…”; while for Taiwan, he stressed the need to “crush any Taiwan independence”.
Xi came good on his promise regarding “crushing independence” earlier this year when the CCP slapped down democracy in Hong Kong, and later played an important role in bringing a furious economic-humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka through its ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy. Earlier in 2020, the CPC abused human rights in Xinjiang (which continues), waged cyber-warfare, threatened its neighbors across its three seas and two borders (which also continue), and intensified “the cult of personality” surrounding President Xi Jinping (remember, his ‘Chairman Mao’ look during the centenary celebrations?), and witnessed a number of its ‘Confucius Institutes’the world over shut down owing to questionable practices such as peddling Chinese propaganda and endorsing State-sponsored censorship.
Yet, as a recent article in The Economist notes that China is, “the country where firms discover consumer trends and innovations; it is increasingly where commodity prices and cost of capital are set, and is also becoming a source of regulations”. There is no doubt that over the last 20 years, mixing market reforms with State control, China has been the biggest source of growth in the global economy. Its tag of being the “world’s factory” – denoting a zenith in manufacturing – has given way to more sophisticated slogans, such as ‘Global Leader in AI and Quantum Computing. However, after the Sri Lankan debacle, and the general realization of its Succubus-style of doing business in Africa, China’s mention causes uneasy stirrings, especially among smaller countries.
As we approach the CCP’s 101st anniversary, it will be worthwhile to introspect its (and China)’s problematic position in the global order – a position marked by overweening global ambition, few friends, fewer trusting neighbors, and a shaky economy heralded primarily by its failure to stem the COVID pandemic(which has its roots in CPC’s egotistical refusal to import effective foreign mRNA vaccines).
The problem, one can argue, isn’t that CPC is power-hungry, but the extent to which it manipulates ‘facts’ to fashion false truths to gain leverage upon its detractors and adversaries. Such tendency not only casts a doubting shadow on whatever grand truths the CPC plans to tell the world about itself this 1 July but also makes such a narrative more and more unbelievable.
To illustrate, last year, in the run-up to the centennial celebration, the CCP launched a comprehensive campaign requiring its members to study the Party’s past closely; A Short History of the Chinese Communist Party was revised and updated, eliminating a previous discussion of the consequences of the Great Leap Forward, which had concluded with the open acknowledgment that “this bitter historical lesson shouldn’t be forgotten”. A frank evaluation of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution was expunged, and replaced with a truncated account restricted to highlighting various industrial advances made over the course of that period (without acknowledging the socio-political turmoil that accompanied it). One wonders, what part of history it will expunge, or re-fashion, this year?
CCP’s Struggles with ‘Truth’ Ever since Xi Jinping came to the helm in 2012, the distance between the CCP and the Chinese State has blurred. In years past, the party’s narrative hinged around rescuing China from the “century of humiliation” wrought by colonial powers and warlords. Today, though under Xi, the focus has turned toward the “great rejuvenation” and his trademark “China Dream.” Noted scholar Yongnian Zheng finds historical resonances in the Party’s governing role, characterizing it as an “organizational emperor”, the “reprogrammed product of Chinese imperial political culture”, dominating both states of society today. The CCP today is the sole authority allowed to shape and interpret any narrative. It erases/reinterprets key historical events and crises as a way of shaping and changing collective memory, not just of its citizens, but also that of the international public. This was most conspicuous in the aftermath of the ‘Wuhan’ virus outbreak, when Chinese diplomats coerced, cajoled, and threatened countries from investigating the Wuhan lab where the virus had presumably originated. Any discussion about investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is still off the table.
In another context, one noted economist writes, “the CCP today has lost its previous reputation for superhuman competence in managing economic affairs”. Such loss of reputation can be attributable to the path the CCP has taken to achieve its global ambitions – squabbling with neighbors, stifling democratic principles, and attempting to arm-twist smaller countries through dubious fiscal policies. China’s economic instability and political turmoil, policy-makers believe, could destabilize all of Eurasia.
The fears aren’t unfounded, given the manner in which Xi’s ‘Zero-COVID’ policy has nearly crippled its economy – retail sales in April were 11% lower than a year earlier and purchases have dipped – at a time when the rest of the world is slowly emerging out of the COVID-umbrella, China is imposing stricter and stricter lockdowns. Meanwhile, members of China’s Uyghur minority, tired of the relentless persecution faced at hands of the CCP, have embraced Islamist terrorism in pursuit of an independent national identity; Xi’s much-vaunted Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has seen numerous setbacks, with China’s overseas investment growth sharply declining over the past three years, due to an increased awareness of the risks and opacity inherent to major BRI projects. Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and Kyrgyzstan, among other countries, have canceled, downsized, or postponed key BRI projects, And yet, like last year, 01 July this year will see outlandish spectacle buttressing various CCP narratives – not all, or even half of which will pass the objective scrutiny. Perhaps, the pageantry which will be witnessed this year should be seen in Mao Zedong’s 1945, proclamation that “we should carry on constant propaganda among the people on the facts of progress so that they will build their confidence in victory”.
In light of the above developments, CCP’s grand 101st-anniversary celebrations seem akin to a bully dancing alone in his own backyard, exaggeratedly believing in his own kindness, while others (both other countries and ordinary Chinese citizens) watch from across the fence, anxious about what, or who, this bully will break next.