China this week celebrates the 50 years of the People’s Republic. Of course, it is not celebrating all of those years: The Great Leap Forward, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, and the Great Cultural Revolution, the decade of terror that turned the country upside down, will be passed over in silence.
Instead, the nation will commemorate Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms that ushered in an age of unprecedented prosperity and the international status that has followed in their wake. Even with the blank spots of the last half-century, China has much to applaud.
Unfortunately, the celebrations will soon end, and then the Chinese Communist Party will have to turn its attention to the future. Indeed, the progress that has been made in the last two decades only reveals how much more there is to be done.
Economic reform is only beginning. The real work — opening markets, halting corruption, rationalizing state-owned enterprises — promises to be painful, but cannot be put off much longer. Domestic industries will be hard-hit by new competition, but the Chinese economy is straining against inefficiencies created by protection.
Economic reform is only half of the picture. There has been no equivalent opening up in politics. Once, the CCP hoped to buy political legitimacy through economic rewards; that strategy has run its course. The fear that ran through the leadership in the runup to this week’s celebrations — evident in the roundup of possible protesters — is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Political liberalization runs risks of its own. The CCP has not faced up to past mistakes, preferring silence to an acknowledgment of its own fallibility. That, in turn, requires it to repress others who might not be so willing to turn a blind eye to the past. Those dissenting voices are growing, however, and the pressures mounting. The People’s Republic of China has had a tumultuous first half-century, but the ups and downs of the last 50 years are but a prelude to what lies ahead.
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