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China’s Identity Crisis

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China’s Identity Crisis

How much longer can the Asian nation straddle socialism and capitalism?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Four decades after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Communist China, the relationship between the two is quickly souring.

In retaliation for the U.S. closing China’s consulate in Houston, Texas, Beijing ordered the closing of the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu. China called the Houston event an “unprecedented escalation” of tensions, while the White House cited economic espionage and attempted theft of scientific research as the reason for the original move.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked aloud if relations could stay on track, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an answer: The time has come to change course.

“President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the [Communist Party of China],” Mr. Pompeo said in a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Southern California. He said China’s military had become “stronger and more menacing” and the approach to Beijing should be “distrust and verify,” adapting President Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra about the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” Mr. Pompeo added. “We must not continue it. We must not return to it.”

Since President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China—the first by an American president since the Communists took power in 1949—icy relations between the two had thawed and diplomatic ties flourished. Some in the U.S. even hoped that Beijing would slowly move to be more in line with Western-led democracies.

Yet the Asian nation remains a walking contradiction to the West. It seems to seek trust, but also power. It seeks global partnerships, but also competition. It seeks business with democracies but will not conform to their regional demands.

Rather than undergoing a slow revolution, the Asian nation has been head-deep in a crisis over its identity: Is it better off with democratic freedoms or strong authoritarian control? Thriving on capitalist business models or a socialist market? Is the United States its ally or enemy?

President Xi Jinping has made strides toward the latter on each. He has received the power to rule for life, makes blunt remarks on plans for controlling Taiwan and Hong Kong, and does not shy away from calling out U.S. military posturing in the South China Sea. He has been labeled the most powerful leader since Red China’s founding father, Mao Zedong.

But many citizens and businesses are decrying the de-democratization of the nation. Surprisingly, even editorials in state-run media outlets have spoken out. Nikkei reported that Xinhua News Agency ran an article that spoke negatively about Chairman Mao’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement that resulted in an estimated 500,000 to 20 million deaths.

Both within and without, China is grappling with an epic identity crisis. And it appears the time of straddling socialism and capitalism may be coming to an end.

A Third Way?

Just before the Cultural Revolution, approximately 45 million people starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward—a socialist experiment that left a large majority of the population impoverished. How did the nation go from this low point to now being an absolute economic powerhouse?

“Today, China is the world’s leading export nation, ahead of the United States and Germany,” Forbes reported. “Above all, never before in history have so many people escaped poverty in such a short time as in the past decades in China. According to official World Bank figures, the percentage of extremely poor people [living on less than $1.90 a day] in China in 1981 stood at 88.3%. By 2015 only 0.7% of the Chinese population was living in extreme poverty. In this period, the number of poor people in China fell from 878 million to less than ten million.”

The stark difference in only a few decades, the article argues, was solely from freeing markets.

“Under Mao, the state had an omnipotent grip over China’s economy,” Forbes continued. “What has happened over the past few decades can be summed up in a few sentences: China has progressively embraced the tenets of free-market economics, introduced private ownership, and gradually reduced the influence of the once all-powerful state over the Chinese economy. That the state still plays a major role today is simply because China is in the midst of a transformation process that began with complete state dominance of the economy.”

But analysts question whether China will continue to go down the path that leads to free markets.

“The process of reform has never been a smooth and consistent one—rather, it has been marred by frequent setbacks, especially in recent years, when instances of governmental intervention in the economy have set back the reform process.”

Ultimately, the article posits that China’s greatest danger is believing it has found a “third way”—a unique balance between capitalism and socialism. According to this thinking, it was state control that caused the nation’s unprecedented economic rise, which could make its leaders more prone to seize tighter control.

It is this difference in thinking that lies at the core of the nation’s identity crisis.

“Freedom Could Go Too Far”

The New York Times interviewed 37-year-old Hong Kong scholar Tian Feilong, who had once identified with “the liberal political ideas he had studied as a graduate student” at Beijing’s traditionally liberal Peking University.

But after years of protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, he began to see how “freedom could go too far.”

“Tian has joined a tide of Chinese scholars who have turned against Western-inspired ideas that once flowed in China’s universities, instead promoting the proudly authoritarian worldview ascendant under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader,” the news outlet reported. “This cadre of Chinese intellectuals serve as champions, even official advisers, defending and honing the party’s hardening policies, including the rollout of the security law in Hong Kong.”

After witnessing protests in the city since 2014, Mr. Tian has “rethought the relationship between individual freedom and state authority.”

President Xi, too, has fully embraced the “freedom could go too far” notion—at least in theory. His reestablishment of stronger state authority has been careful and calculated. Move too fast, and he risks everything Chinese businesses have benefited from free markets.

Yet, helping his case, both the 2007 global financial crisis and the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic “have reinforced Chinese views that liberal democracies are decaying, while China has prospered, defying predictions of the collapse of one-party rule,” The New York Times wrote.

Since Mr. Xi took power in 2012, he has sought to discredit democratic ideals and push central authority as a necessity. For example, education authorities generously fund pro-party scholars for topics such as how to introduce security laws in Hong Kong.

As with the millions of Hong Kong residents, the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens are left with a choice.

“We have to choose what side we’re on, including us scholars, right?” Mr. Tian stated in the interview. “Sorry, the goal now is not Westernization; it’s the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Going Back to Roots

Unlike Mr. Tian, many Chinese struggle with the idea of going back to a pre-Westernized China. And recent exposure of the government’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic is only strengthening their distrust.

“It is already clear that Chinese politics and governance will not be the same after the COVID-19 outbreak,” The Japan Times stated. “The myth that Xi and his supporters have sustained about the virtues of centralized control has been demolished.”

The final words of Li Wenliang—the Chinese doctor whose early whistleblowing warnings about the coronavirus got him a swift admonishment from Wuhan police for “spreading rumors”—echo this sentiment.

He stated, “A healthy society should not have only one voice.”

Those words “will remain etched in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese, who have seen for themselves that censorship can endanger their lives,” The Japan Times continued.

The government’s cover-up of early warning signs of the disease, along with Dr. Li’s mysterious death in February, roiled public distrust of the Communist Party’s motives.

But China’s identity cannot remain in limbo forever, and the government’s “great rejuvenation” of the nation involves helping its 1.4 billion people to remember their national past.

In his book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-form the World, author David P. Goldman explained: “It is a delusion to believe that the ‘good Chinese people’ will rise up and overthrow the ‘wicked Communist Party.’ For millennia, China has been ruled by an imperial caste of administrators selected by standardized exams. The Communist Party is simply another incarnation of the Mandarin caste. The character of China’s government corresponds to the character of its people. The emperor is not a revered demigod on the Japanese model, or an anointed sovereign claiming divine right, but simply the emperor whose job it is to prevent all the other emperors from killing each other…”

Authoritarian leaders appeared “in the tragic periods when imperial dynasties collapsed. Civil war, foreign invasion, famine and plague often reduced China’s population by one-tenth to one-fifth, until a new dynasty sorted itself out.”

“America isn’t competing with the government of China or China’s Communist Party, but rather with 1.4 billion Chinese.”

Another Cold War?

The Bible asks a rhetorical question in the book of Amos, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” The answer is no!

Other verses show it is impossible for a lone person to take on a hybrid personality. Jesus Christ stated: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24).

He went on to explain, “You cannot serve God and mammon [wealth].”

Though this statement applies to individual humans, the consequence is the same for entire nations made up of millions of individuals.

If this concept were applied to China’s current identity crisis, Matthew 6:24 could read, “You cannot serve a government authority and capitalism.” Otherwise, the nation will find itself “holding to the one” and “despising the other.”

Eventually, prolonged division leads to instability, division, civil war and ultimately separation.

Most of the world seems to think China will end up capitalist like the West. Despite the last few decades of it trending that way, the nation has spent far too many centuries under strict authoritarian rule. As it addresses its identity crisis, thousands of years of history strongly indicate what path the Asian nation will choose.

While the Bible clearly defines human nature, it also helps see what is coming for the world through prophecy, which can be viewed as history written in advance. In Matthew 24:7, Christ said there would come a time that “nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Strong’s Definitions defines the word rise as “to awaken” and “rouse…from sleep.”

We are in a time now of nations beginning to remember who they are, where they came from, what they value, and their true identities. When that happens, nationalistic pride stirs up and conflict arises.

The U.S. and China are just two nations beginning to look more inward—the trade war, spats in the South China Sea, and barbed rhetoric between Beijing and Washington are all clear examples.

Should China fully recommit to its true old ways, the West should prepare itself for adversarial, Cold War relations with it all over again—except this time with a China far bigger, more powerful and more rich than it ever has been.

This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press.


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