Change will come to China, but not through following western ways | Hans van de Ven

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As it celebrates its first 70 years, the Peoples Republic might benefit from re-examining its past

On Tuesday, 15,000 perfectly groomed military personnel, each between 5ft 9in and 6ft 1in tall, will march down Changan Avenue in Beijing. Some 170 aeroplanes and 580 ballistic missiles, drones, tanks, machine guns and other military kit will showcase the might of the Peoples Republic of China.

The parade marks the 70th anniversary of the day that Mao Zedong announced the founding of the Peoples Republic from atop the Tiananmen Gate. It will inspire a sense of pride among Chinese citizens and worries among their neighbours, especially Taiwan.

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However, to measure the state of China now, it is worth bearing in mind another anniversary that was marked in May the centenary of demonstrations against the decision of the peacemakers in Versailles to hand Shandong province to Japan rather than China.

This was the first nationwide mass urban protest, and called for an end to imperialism, the introduction of democracy, and the radical reassessment of traditional Confucian culture. And because the Chinese Communist party traces its origins to these protests of 1919, the authorities could not possibly ignore the centenary. However, it was commemorated not by a grand spectacle but in talks and seminars at university campuses across the country. President Xi Jinping had to say something, and he praised the students of 1919 for their courage, patriotism and unselfish commitment to national revival. He did not mention their calls for freedom and democracy.

Calls for democracy have run through a century of protest in China. That does not necessarily mean respect for the kind of democracy practised in Europe and the US in recent decades. In fact, the antics of our politicians provoke astonishment, mirth and ridicule among Chinas well-informed and much-travelled public intellectuals.

During the Shandong centenary celebrations, at Peking University, some students and academics were courageous. One made the case for the advantages of weak leadership. The reforms that have brought China so much economic progress began not after Deng Xiaoping centralised power in 1978, but under his predecessor, Hua Guofeng. Back then, power was split between three leaders: Hua was in charge of the party; Ye Jianying ran the military; and Deng the economy. That separation gave local experimentation a head of steam; in fact Chinas economic take-off was rooted in it. The implication was that Xis centralisation of power in his own hands will stifle progress. However, this weeks parade will showcase 70 years of the PRC as an unbroken series of great achievements. It is only understandable that little will be said of the late 1950s famine that left tens of millions dead, largely in the countryside, an embarrassment for a party that rose to power on the backs of Chinas farmers.

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A poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong at a restaurant in Beijing ahead of 70th anniversary celebrations. Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

The success of the economic reforms began by Deng is undoubted but it is also not unchallenged. Students now gather in Marxism study societies to criticise the neoliberal economic model that underpins them. Some have gone out to factories to fight for workers rights. Several have disappeared.

This years other key anniversary was a silent one. Thirty years ago, on 4 June 1989, Deng ordered the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) into Tiananmen Square to crush the democracy protest of that year with a show of force. But often forgotten now is that shortly after he came to power, Deng had thought seriously about introducing democracy. At a point when the reputation of the Communist party had crashed through the floor after the Cultural Revolution, this was as good a time as any. But Deng pulled back at the last moment, a decision for which some of his key aides at the time have criticised him recently.

Hu Yaobang, a Deng appointee who took charge of the party in 1981, had relit the flame. He had ditched the still ubiquitous Mao suit, rehabilitated intellectuals, enhanced intellectual freedom, insisted on greater autonomy for Xinjiang and Tibet, entrenched market reforms, and opened up discussions about political reform, including removing the partys control of the PLA.

He was sacked in 1986 after students protested about living conditions. A conservative faction then took over. Hu died in April 1989, and widespread dissatisfaction with the arrangements for his funeral was the trigger for the protests that culminated in what became the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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The June Fourth Incident, as it is known, cannot be remembered publicly in China. On that day, though, some people choose to stay at home, refuse public contact and decline to speak. Silence can be as powerful as the camp showcasing of military might.

In Hong Kong, June Fourth has been commemorated every year since 1989 in rallies attracting more than 100,000 people. This weeks events in Beijing will probably take place against a backdrop of rallies in Hong Kong by people who want nothing to do with its offerings.

All this suggests we are at an inflection point. The order that has prevailed for the past 50 years is under stress. Students in Hong Kong and in China have different outlooks, and even within Hong Kong they are often at loggerheads, but they share deep anger about property prices, low wages, destruction of the environment and a future that for most will be worse than their parents had.

The west is no longer the great example for what China might become and the yardstick to measure progress. It is not surprising that a newly confident China has rediscovered its history and finds value in it. Change will come, but in ways that will build on principles that have underpinned Chinese politics for centuries. They include a distrust of adversarial debate. Throughout Chinese history, the written word, reflecting considered opinion, free from passions of the moment, has been highly regarded. Another is the idea that political authority must restrain private business.

We might just find something useful in Chinas evolving political practices to inspire solutions to our own, daily deepening, problems.

Hans van de Ven is professor of modern Chinese history at Cambridge University and author of China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China

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