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China at 50: The search for identity continues

Mao Tse-tung declares China a Communist state on October 1, 1949, ending nearly a century of turmoil  

By Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

BEIJING (CNN) -- Chairman Mao Tse-tung stood victoriously at Tiananmen Gate 50 years ago and declared: "The Chinese people have stood up."

The Chinese Communist revolution ended more than 100 years of division and upheaval, including occupation of key cities and territories by foreign powers; peasant, ethnic and religious uprisings; the fall of the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty; civil war; Japanese invasion; and more civil war.

Mao and his government called their country the "New China." China would no longer be the "sick man of Asia."

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On October 1, President Jiang Zemin -- head of what the media here call China's "third generation of leaders" -- will stand in Tiananmen Square and kick off New China's 50th birthday bash. He will do so at a time when he and the other Communist Party leaders are debating some tough questions: What must the party do to stay in power for another 50 years? What kind of political and economic system is best for China and its people in the next century? And, as China grows in economic and military might, what kind of role should it play in the international community?

Crackdowns on the opposition

Internal Communist Party documents circulated to party members during the past few months emphasized that 1999 is a critical year. There are unprecedented challenges from within, including protests by tens of thousands of members of the mysterious Falun Gong meditation sect, many of them Communist Party and government officials. The crackdown against them, while comparatively gentle, is the greatest mobilization of police, media and bureaucracy since the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement a decade ago.

Encouraged by what appeared to be more tolerant government policies, activists in 1998 founded the opposition China Democracy Party, the first time since 1989 that any group has tried to create a formal opposition. Within a year the CDP's key organizers were all tried and sentenced to long jail terms. Unlike the well-publicized crackdown against Falun Gong, few Chinese have heard of the CDP or shown any interest in its fate.

Ordinary Chinese today are not interested in revolution. They are, however, concerned about their own futures: Will their lives continue to improve? Will they be given a fair chance to succeed under the law? What happens when they fall ill or lose their jobs? And once their material needs are met, where can they find spiritual fulfillment? Observers warn that if the Communist Party cannot provide answers, more people will seek out alternatives.

Chinese political analyst Wang Shan says Falun Gong is a symptom of a larger problem. "China now has a division between rich and poor," he says. "The people who get involved in things like Falun Gong are the sick, the old, the unemployed, the people who have lost out. In the future this kind of thing will continue to happen."

'Money-worshipping tide'

Since Deng Xiaoping launched China's economic reforms two decades ago, the Communist Party has promised to bring economic prosperity to the Chinese people. The utopian, egalitarian ideals of the Mao era were replaced with a new pragmatism: the idea that it was OK for "some people to get rich before others."

Grain king
Nearly two decades ago four brothers had a dream to create one of the few private enterprises in China. Six years later, they had earned their first million. Deng Xiaoping's reforms had helped pave the way to prosperity.  

The gamble worked as the overall economic pie got bigger. Typical Chinese citizens are unquestionably better off today than they were 20 years ago. But the gap between rich and poor regions is growing. And as the government struggles to reform unprofitable state-run enterprises -- generators of bad debt that create a drag on the nation's productivity -- an estimated 10 million to 20 million workers are expected to lose their jobs in 1999 alone. A private sector must be developed to absorb so much extra labor, but that will take time -- and already workers are stirring. According to labor activists, roughly 2.5 million workers participated in more than 215,000 labor protests last year.

Creating new opportunities for so many people will require equal opportunity under the law -- so that the "have-nots" can have a chance to become "haves" through their own hard work. Corruption among officials of the Communist Party and government, however, is getting in the way. China's auditor-general recently revealed misspending and embezzlement of billions of dollars by central government departments during the past year.

Corruption was a key reason the Nationalist government fell to the Communists in 1949, and China's leaders have not forgotten. In a speech in July, President Jiang -- who also serves as Communist Party chief -- condemned officials nationwide who have "drifted with the money-worshipping tide and even grabbed state property by taking advantage of their official positions."

Village people
The gap between rich and poor is growing, and scenes such as this in the village of Dongdatai, west of Beijing, where a family of four lives from their son's earnings of about a dollar a day, are not hard to find.  

Party reform, maybe; democracy, no

To stem corruption at the most basic levels, the government in the 1990s has allowed villages in China's countryside to hold direct elections. Initial studies show that the fairer and more democratic the elections, the more villagers are likely to debate problems and support their village chiefs rather than riot. So far, however, China's leaders have rejected proposals to bring direct elections to the cities -- or to higher levels of government.

Western-style democracy is not part of the leadership's plans. With today's nationalistic climate in the aftermath of NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, even those who are critical of their own government express cynicism about Western democratic countries. They condemn those in the West who would like to help China democratize, calling them "imperialists" with "ulterior motives" who "interfere" in China's "internal affairs" in order to control it.

Others point out that while the Chinese Communist Party may not be perfect, there are no viable alternatives.

Chinese embassy
Students protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing following the May 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia  

"Corruption in China is worse than ever -- worse than the Qing Dynasty, worse than the Nationalists," says dissident author Dai Qing. "The only reason I still support the regime is that I think that the alternatives would not behave much differently, because our society is not mature. So I applaud and support the efforts at reform within the party. Why? I hate revolution. I hate violence. So reform within the party is the only solution."

Unity above all else

As if domestic challenges weren't enough for the Chinese Communist regime, Taiwan's first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, chose this summer to tweak Beijing's nose. In an interview in July with a German radio station and in government statements that followed, he challenged the fundamental definition of his island's relationship with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.

While Lee insists he is not seeking formal "independence" for Taiwan, he wants Beijing to recognize Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state. According to Lee, relations between Beijing and Taipei must from now on be defined as "state-to-state" relations.

Although Taiwan and China share a cultural heritage, modern Taiwan is politically, socially and economically a different country from mainland China  

Beijing calls this a rejection of the long-standing "one-China policy," which it says must be the basis of all communications between the two governments. It also accuses Lee of taking a major step toward Taiwanese independence, which Beijing reserves the right to stop with military force.

The ensuing military tensions in the Taiwan Straits are expected to continue at least until Lee's presidential term ends in mid-2000. Many observers, however, see no end to the problems between Beijing and Taipei -- until Taipei accepts a reunification formula similar to the "one country, two systems" model adopted for Hong Kong.

That's not expected to happen soon. Opinion polls in Taiwan indicate the majority of Taiwan's people support the status quo. They support the idea of eventual reunification in theory, but they are not interested in taking concrete steps toward reunification until China becomes more like Taiwan: democratic and economically well-off.

Taiwan independence not a option

In China, however, there's little sympathy for the idea that the people of Taiwan should be allowed to do whatever they want. People on the streets of Beijing routinely and genuinely express their support for a military attack on Taiwan, if that becomes necessary to keep it from seeking independence from China.

Why does keeping Taiwan in a framework for reunification matter so much? For China's leadership, now that Hong Kong has returned to the fold and Macau is soon to follow, bringing Taiwan back is the key to national unity. Letting Taiwan drift away, the leaders believe, will encourage separatist movements in areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, where government crackdowns against separatist unrest have grown in recent years.

The Chinese government has invested heavily in Tibet, building roads and housing and promoting tourism  

"China is a nation with 55 minorities," says Yan Xuetong of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with one of China's security agencies. "If we allow the separatists in Taiwan to get independence, it may bring about a domino reaction."

The government, appealing to the public's desire for a strong, unified and stable country, argues that such a domino reaction would lead to chaos and civil war. Everyone learned in school about the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when a weak imperial government ceded Hong Kong to the British. Any Chinese government that gives up territory would be considered by the public to be weak, vulnerable and unworthy.

China and the world

Understanding China's obsession with Taiwan and with national unity is the key to understanding China's world view -- and the way it perceives its relationships with other nations.

Beijing made much over the fact the United States has upheld the "one-China" policy and chastised Lee for trying to redefine Taiwan's relationship with Beijing. Both Chinese policy analysts and Western diplomats believe that whether U.S.-China relations continue to improve in the aftermath of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade largely depends on how the United States handles Taiwan in the coming months.

The Taiwan issue colors China's relationships in North Asia. The United States and Japan are discussing development of a regional Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system, primarily to defend against possible missile attacks by North Korea. The geographical boundaries of the system have been left vague, and Taiwan is lobbying hard to be included so it can defend against missile attacks by China. This, combined with Japan's refusal to rule out Taiwan-related conflicts under the renewed U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines outlining situations under which Japan would assist the U.S. military, has raised questions in Beijing about Japan's intentions toward China.

Beijing's leaders are aware China doesn't have the military capability to invade Taiwan. They also have concluded from the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict that high-tech air and sea capabilities are the keys to winning modern conflicts. Hence, they have launched a drive to modernize China's military arsenal.

This is being accomplished primarily through arms purchases, technology transfers from Russia and increased outlays for domestic research and development. The Cox Report from the U.S. Congress alleges that China also acquired advanced nuclear weapons technology from the United States. China denies the allegations.

Analysts who study China's military say its arsenal is so far behind that of the United States and other Western powers that China cannot become a global military power for at least the first half of the next century. The focus for the immediate future, the analysts say, will be to develop an arsenal that can defend China's "territorial interests" and deal a spoiling blow to any country seeking to "interfere in China's internal affairs."

A national insecurity complex

China's leaders believe such "interference" is increasingly possible, judging from what they've observed elsewhere in the world. Even before NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, China made loud protests against NATO's campaign as "interference in Yugoslavia's internal affairs." China wasn't the only country that held this view, but it took the situation personally.

"If Kosovo, with the support of NATO, can separate, can achieve independence, this sets a dangerous precedent," strategic analyst Chu Shulong said in March, soon after the bombing of Yugoslavia began. "Other separatist groups in China may think that their separatist activities will receive international support from America, and they may extend their existing separatist activities."

It is this view of the conflict in Yugoslavia that made it so hard for many Chinese -- and even many Chinese leaders -- to believe that the embassy bombing could have been a mistake.

Because of the events in Yugoslavia, diplomats expect China to continue to criticize the emerging "Clinton doctrine" -- the idea that intervention in internal conflicts of other countries can sometimes be justified on human rights grounds. It will seek to restrain the United States and alliances like NATO through the United Nations, and it will continue to defend the principle of "national sovereignty" as inviolable under any circumstances.

Also because of Yugoslavia and the tragic deaths of Chinese citizens in Belgrade, the Chinese government has gained much greater credibility with its public in the face of criticism by international human rights advocates. Around the 10th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, editorials in the Chinese media condemned democracy activists as "tools" of "overseas anti-China forces" that, if given the chance, would use the excuse of human rights to interfere in China's affairs as they did in Yugoslavia. With public anger over the bombing still simmering, this argument seemed convincing to a large number of Chinese.

Fifty years after the Communist victory, China still grapples with many of the same problems that existed before the revolution: corruption, economic inequality, exotic religious movements and ethnic unrest. Unlike its predecessors, the Communist Party wants to prove it can at least keep its borders secure and its territory intact from "outside interference." This lingering insecurity is likely to shape the Chinese government's actions -- both domestically and internationally -- for many years to come.

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