As the People’s Republic of China commemorates its 70th anniversary, as many as 80 million Chinese will not be around to observe the festivities. They perished in the first few decades of communist rule in China, victims of the murderous ideological orgies of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.
The astounding number of deaths attributed to Mao, more than the entire populations of all but a few countries in the world, makes him the greatest mass killer in human history.
Some will argue that Mao was an aberration and it is unfair to condemn the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for his excesses in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet it is inconveniently true that his Thought and Teachings are still revered as gospel in communist doctrine today; his embalmed body lies in state in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square; and his portrait dominates that special space at China’s governmental epicenter.
China’s present leader, Xi Jinping, differs from his post-Mao predecessors only in the frequency of his explicit invocations of Maoism, not his adherence to its ruling philosophy.
But there is no greater demonstration of the continuity of Mao’s legacy as innately at the center of communism in China than to recall the rule of that Great Reformer, Deng Xiaoping. Succeeding to power after Mao’s death, Deng charmed the West with his diminutive stature and professed commitment to abandoning Mao’s ways and opening China to the world, seemingly in the way Richard Nixon envisioned when he said, “China must change.”
Deng convinced the international community that a new China was just over the horizon as he encouraged Western investment in the Chinese economy. He also inspired the Chinese people to believe that a new day had dawned and the fever of Mao’s insane rampage was over.
Suddenly, freedom of thought and freedom of expression seemed not only possible but entirely normal under Deng’s reformist rule and, by 1989, the hopefulness blossomed into a peaceful nationwide call for political reform to match the economic relaxation.
Still, with Chinese and world public opinion clearly behind him, eager to support the next phase of China’s return to normalcy, Deng suddenly reverted to true communist form, rejecting any notion that governing legitimacy should be based on popular will and the consent of the governed. He returned with a vengeance to Mao’s doctrine that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," turning the weapons and tanks of the People’s Liberation Army against the Chinese people in Tiananmen Square and hundreds of other Chinese cities.
Deng reasoned that international condemnation was a price the CCP would have to pay to maintain its absolute hold on power. The initial outcry would not last long, given the allure of the Chinese market and the propensity of Western governments and scholars to give China’s communist leaders the benefit of the doubt and explain away even its humanitarian outrages.
Deng was right. Henry Kissinger said Deng had acted like any other world leader who saw its main square occupied by protesters. President George H.W. Bush sent his national security adviser to meet with Deng and assure him that America would conduct business as usual.
But Deng realized that China’s communist system had itself dodged a bullet by perpetrating a massacre before the world’s eyes and getting away with it. The year after Tiananmen, he cautioned his colleagues not to try the same frontal assault on the international system — at least not yet — but to conceal Beijing’s true hostile intentions: “Bide your time, hide your capabilities.”
Of course, for those willing to see, from its very creation, the People’s Republic already had revealed its hostile worldview. In little over a year since Mao said “China has stood up,” it joined North Korea in the invasion of South Korea, and invaded and occupied Tibet and East Turkestan/Xinjiang. Border wars followed against the Soviet Union, India and Vietnam (just a few years after China had helped North Vietnam invade and conquer the South).
Beijing demonstrated its aggressive designs on Taiwan repeatedly over the decades, shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu and firing missiles across the Taiwan Strait, even passing an Anti-Secession Law declaring its intention to attack it.
In recent years, Beijing revealed the full scope of its ambitions by taking a page from the expansionist playbook of Imperialist Japan in the 1930s and ’40s. Even as it constantly stokes the embers of World War II to keep nationalist resentments smoldering, Beijing emulates the last century’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere with its nine-dash-line claim to the entire South China Sea, its land features and its vast natural resources.
Beijing seeks to stir Chinese pride in what the People’s Republic has accomplished on the world stage, but the people of Tiananmen, Tibet, East Turkestan/Xinjiang and now Hong Kong have reason to feel a sense of shame and resentment at the nature of the government that rules them and the international company it keeps with the world’s most repressive and corrupt regimes.
That is particularly true as they become increasingly aware of the Communist Party’s own disgraceful record on human rights, ranging from cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang to forced organ harvesting of political and religious dissidents, all very much redolent of the earlier abuses of the Cultural Revolution and subsequent excesses such as the one-child policy and its practice of infanticide.
China may have made itself an economic and military power by its proclivity to “lie, cheat and steal” its way, as Ronald Reagan said of the Soviet Union. But the Chinese people have demonstrated that, having endured a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, they do not wish to suffer a new century of shame imposed by their own leaders.
They know that before China can achieve world greatness based on respect rather than fear, they will have to aspire to a minimal level of normal decency in the way it behaves in the international community and toward the Chinese people. The People’s Republic continues to fail that basic responsibility because, for the Chinese Communist Party, national honor is simply a slogan meant to manipulate the masses and intimidate the West. Oct. 1 is an unhappy birthday for China and the world.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.