Yvonne Murray
In Beijing


On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on a balcony overlooking Tiananmen Square and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China.

70 years later, the same communist party is still in charge and it’s preparing a massive military parade to celebrate that moment.

Areas of the city have been in lockdown for weeks as rehearsals for the display of China’s state-of-the-art artillery, missiles and tanks take place.

Tanks on the streets of Beijing evoke an uncomfortable memory of the time they rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush the student protests of 1989.

And today, as another pro-democracy movement continues to rage in Hong Kong, China’s leadership is once again facing a major challenge to its authority.

The enduring one-party-state

But looking back on the past 70 years, China’s Communist Party has displayed remarkable resilience. Its policies under Chairman Mao contributed to mass starvation through enforced collectivised farming; chaos and violence through the dark years of the Cultural Revolution; and then corruption on a widespread scale, as officials skimmed off the country’s growing wealth.

And yet the Party endured, standing strong while similar one-party states were toppled one-by-one at the end of the Cold War. It avoided bankruptcy by opening its economy to the world and reforming its institutions to usher in "socialism with Chinese characteristics" - a hybrid of a state-run economy combined with accelerated market capitalism.

Fastest growth ever

The result was the fastest sustained growth in human history. Millions of Chinese people worked their way out of poverty and the rest of the world couldn’t get enough. International investors, banks, corporations, technology companies, luxury fashion brands and food chains all flocked to China to gobble up a slice of its vast market.

Deals were struck, fortunes were made and China hurtled at breakneck speed towards its place today as the world’s second largest economy. Even in the billionaire stakes, China scores second only to the United States.

As the wheels of economic growth kept turning, western politicians said political reform would inevitably follow. The Chinese middle classes, once they reach a certain standing of living, the argument went, will start demanding greater political freedom and the government would have to give it to them. 

When human rights groups raised concerns about China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics - pointing to repression in Tibet and Xinjiang and the imprisonment of democracy activists - they were told that closer engagement with China would bring change.

So confident was the world that welcomed the one-party authoritarian state into the international fold, that western - namely liberal democratic values - would eventually shape China.

But none of that happened. China instead has developed its own brand of capitalist authoritarianism which will very possibly shape the world.

China’s growing authoritarianism

The Party pointedly eschews western liberalism and rejects democratic safeguards such as judicial independence.

"These are erroneous western notions that threaten the leadership of the ruling Communist Party," China’s Chief Justice, Zhou Qiang once said, "and defame the Chinese socialist path on the rule of law."

"We have to raise our flag and show our sword to struggle against such thoughts," he added. "We must not fall into the trap of western thoughts and judicial independence," he said.

The Party, far from relaxing its hold on power, has tightened its grip ever further. It has used the very tools, that many outside China were sure would force the Party to grant greater freedoms, to instead, cement its control.

In 2000, the then US President Bill Clinton famously quipped that China’s attempts to control the internet would be like "nailing jello to the wall".

But China nailed the jello to the wall and tacked it down firmly on all sides with a particularly sticky mixture of strict censorship and hi-tech surveillance.

China’s social media landscape including the Twitter-like Weibo as well as the ubiquitous chat and lifestyle app, WeChat, serve as useful barometer for the government to keep across what the citizens are thinking. 

However it requires a giant censorship machine to quickly erase anything the government considers sensitive as well as spot the trouble-makers, who could have their social media accounts suspended and/or receive a knock on their door from the secret police.

Internet memes which poke fun at the leadership are wiped clean. A famous one which depicted President Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh saw all mention of the lovable bear removed from the Chinese web.

The cost of surveillance

Monitoring the thoughts and actions of 1.4 billion citizens is an expensive business: the government spends more than $190 billion a year on domestic security. That is more than its annual spend on external defence.

The domestic security budget has soared in recent years as the state invests in cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology. Facial recognition cameras have multiplied at an astonishing rate. It’s estimated that China will have around 600 million AI-powered cameras in the next few years. That’s one for every two citizens.

A disproportionately large chunk of investment has gone towards the ongoing surveillance and incarceration operations in Xinjiang, the northwestern province which has since the founding of the PRC seen sporadic outbreaks of separatist violence and deadly riots.

It is estimated that more than a million people - Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities - are being held in what the Chinese government calls "vocational training centres" designed, it says, to combat terrorism. 

Officials have taken journalists and diplomats on tours of a select number of camps where volunteers, they say, undergo "thought transformation" and are given training to improve their employment prospects. 

Testimony from former detainees and extensive academic research, however, indicate that Muslims are being interned on a mass scale - separated from their families and cut off from their religious and cultural roots, in what a leading researcher on Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz, has called "cultural genocide".

Far from volunteers, former detainees have said they were threatened with being sent to prison if they did not agree to attend the vocational schools. 

Official government documents cross-checked with satellite imagery reveal a dramatic increase in construction of residential camps in Xinjiang since 2017 surrounded by barbed wire fences and watchtowers. They also show a surge in the number of kindergartens built - it is thought they house the children of parents who are in the camps.

The local population has also been subject to enforced DNA and biometric data collection. Citizen’s movements are monitored through a network of thousands of surveillance cameras as well as smartphone tracking technology.

A global leader 

Artificial intelligence technologies of the type being deployed in Xinjiang has found markets beyond China’s borders. 

Chinese-made facial recognition, smart policing technology and "safe-city" tools are being used in dozens of countries worldwide. The telecommunications company, Huawei, is the lead supplier.

AI is a sector, along with robotics and hydrogen energy, in which China plans to become the global leader.

With the vast data-sets at its disposal plus massive state investment, it is on track to do so.

As China prepares for its celebrations on 1 October, Communist Party officials have been making a round of speeches to draw attention to China’s achievements and refute criticism of its political system.

"In the modern times, China had explored and experimented on possible paths toward development and rejuvenation, including by adopting the Western system at one point," China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said at a dinner on the side-lines of the United Nations meeting in New York last week.

"But they all ended in failure because of their incompatibility with China’s national conditions and needs," he said.

"It wasn’t until the Communist Party of China adapted the Marxist theories to Chinese realities that a path toward national rejuvenation and happiness was found," he added.

"We will not be influenced, and even less manipulated," he said. "We will always grasp the future of our country and nation in our own hands and march toward the great renewal of the Chinese nation with an indomitable will," he said.

China’s President Xi Jinping in a politburo meeting, meanwhile, spoke of the inspiration China can offer to other nations.

"The new type of state system founded by the CPC has enabled China to create a miracle of rapid economic growth and long-term stability, and offered a new option for developing nations to realise modernity," he said.

Sleeping lion awakes

Napoleon once said - possibly apocryphally: "let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world."

In the seven decades since the CPC took power it has carved its own path of "socialism with Chinese characteristics." But it’s a system that is at odds with the western liberal values, that have underpinned the US-led international order since the Second World War.

A clash between democratic values and authoritarianism is being fought out today on the narrow streets of Hong Kong. 

And as China’s influence and importance grows, this global systemic rivalry could find other battlegrounds.