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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.
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.