China: From a despised poor country to powerful state in only 74 years

When former President Uhuru Kenyatta met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, April 25, 2019. [File, Standard]

Few countries can boast of rapid politically-driven socio economic transformation the way China can within a time space of 74 years. From October 1, 1949 China systematically emerged from being dominated, despised and underdeveloped to being a powerful state. It is second to the United States in terms of economic power. In terms of reorienting global geopolitics, however, China surpassed the United States which is not doing very well.

Washington appears to be stuck in the old Cold War bullying mind-frame of 'the American way or no way', But China struggles to ingratiate itself to every corner of the Earth by pushing an appealing common human agenda. To achieve this in 74 years, China adopted a winning political strategy to outwit others, be they the supposed ideological allies like the Soviet Union or rivals like the Conceptual West.

China’s march to great power status appears to have been in three phases dominated by three men who were very sure of themselves as they remained focused on what they considered to be their mission. First was the revolutionary founder in 1949, the historically conscious Mao Zedong, who set the agenda for New China.

A guerrilla warfare tactician for more than two decades, Mao succeeded in making China a ‘Communist’ country by turning peasants into a revolutionary force. Although this was contrary to the Marxian prescription of communism arising from advanced capitalist countries, he had learned from Lenin’s achievement in Russia that advanced capitalism was not necessary for communist revolutions.

He implemented his ideas of peasant led Chinese communism withstanding external pressure, whether Soviet or American. He actually militarily engaged both the Americans in Korea and the Soviets at their common border. China, despite the reservations of the Soviets and the Americans, developed its own nuclear capacity. Subsequently, Mao became such a global force that US president Richard Nixon went looking for his help in extricating the Americans out of their self-inflicted Vietnam disaster.

While Mao made China a global political force, Deng Xiaoping turned it into an economic powerhouse without compromising the communist ideology. Deng’s ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ was, like Kenya’s 1965 sessional paper on ‘African Socialism’, prescription for capitalistic operations because what mattered, he said, was the ability of the cat to catch mice rather than the colour of the cat. Careful not to raise fear of Chinese success, Deng advised the Chinese to hide power lest they appear to threaten anyone.

He remained clear that economic reforms to strengthen the economy were not licences to overthrow the existing communist political order. He thought there was something wrong with Soviet’s Michael Gorbachev who, while Deng in Beijing in 1989, talked strangely about glasnost and perestroika. Gorbachev died regretting the destruction of the Soviet Union as he waited for elusive American ‘aid.’ When some Chinese thought they could challenge communist governance, Deng crushed them at Tiananmen Square, and then returned to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ As the Soviet Union disintegrated, therefore, China emerged as an alternative to the Washington consensus.

Xi Jinping dominates China’s third phase march to greatness. He combines Mao’s and Deng’s attributes of political and economic focus while going out to engage others. His Belt and Road Initiative and related development projects are magnets which others fail to match. As the force behind the BRICS alternative, Xi avoids confrontation, tries to be understanding to all and stresses the global common boat predicament.

While China no longer hides power, its world winning strategy identifies with the global disadvantaged by claiming that it is a developing country. In the 74 years since cutting ties with its ‘Century of Humiliation’, China makes its position clear and stands tall because it remained focused.