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China Changes the Guard

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China's current 18th Party Congress that ended this week may prove even more important that America's just-fought election, whose outcome was perfectly predictable.

On Thursday, China's new supreme leader is expected to be named in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Almost everyone expects top Communist Party secretary Xi Jinping to be named party head and, a bit later, president of China.

China's once-in-a-decade change of Communist Party leadership may prove even more important than the U.S. election: it will determine the course over the next ten years of the world's most populous nation whose economy is set to overtake America's before the decade is over.

While the United States and Europe are in an economic mess and crippled by debt, China's long march out of dire poverty continues apace. During the past ten years of outgoing President Hu Jintao's leadership, China's economy has grown 400 percent. China is well on the way to becoming a modern nation with growing military power and technology.

When I was covering Moscow in the late 1980s, a popular joke making the rounds went: "the East Germans are the only people who can make Communism work." Today, a similar statement could be said about China: it has made capitalism work better than in the capitalist west.

I cannot look at today's China without vividly recalling my first trip there in 1975, a year before the Red Emperor, Chairman Mao, died. China looked like a vast concentration camp. A few gangs of Red Guards still rampaged. Everyone wore dirty green or blue quilted outfits. Hardly any private cars were seen, except for those of party officials. A few bluish fluorescent feeble lights lit the grim scene of fear, poverty and depression. The only more depressing place I ever saw was Stalinist Albania under Enver Hoxha -- who was, in fact, a close ally of Mao.

On my subsequent twice-yearly visits to China, I marveled at the changes I saw: it's as if some wizard waved a magic wand and from the ground sprouted skyscrapers, high-speed trains, new cities and giant factories. Where, I keep wondering, did all the money come from? Maybe Chinese, like East Europeans, buried all their gold in the ground when the Communists took power and only dug it up when the coast was clear.

The wizard, of course, was Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping who was, in my humble view, a greater and certainly more effective revolutionary than Mao. Deng broke the power of China's crackpot leftists and released his nation's vast productive power. Interestingly, the only title Deng held when he was ruling China was "chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association." He didn't need a title, everyone knew who was boss.

Under Dengs' inspired leadership, China finally managed to escape the chain of its past two centuries. Until the early 1800s, China, then with 400 million people, was the world's leading economic power, but a military midget. An increasingly corrupt, feckless Manchu (Qing) Dynasty presided over China's decay.

In 1839, the British pounced on prostrate China, waging two opium wars that caused tens of millions to become drug addicts. Britain seized Hong Kong. France, Russia and Japan fed like wolves on helpless China. Many of the greatest fortunes of today's Britain were based on the narcotics trade.

In 1850, a Chinese farmer declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and launched the frightful Taiping Rebellion that in 14 years led to 20 million deaths. In 1894, Japan seized Korea and Taiwan from China and humiliated the Imperial armies and fleets.

China's calamitous 19th century engendered an even more bloody 20th century: 1920s civil wars; the Japanese invasion of 1937; a fight to the death between Mao's Communist and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. In 1958, Mao's Great Leap Forward, a crazy attempt to modernize the economy, wrecked China and caused 30-60 million peasants to starve. Mao's equally daft Cultural Revolution almost finished off China.

Seen in the retrospective of this grim history, China's rise to become the world's second most important power is even more miraculous. The deep-seated fear of chaos and government weakness, of being surrounded by rapacious foes, underlies much of China's current political thinking and allows acceptance of authoritarian rule and lack of human rights taken for granted in many other nations.

Chairman Mao used to read himself to sleep late at night poring over the history of China's civil wars between rival kingdoms and peasant uprisings.

Nearly all dictatorships make use of this argument; so do too many democracies. There are other choices: look at the way Imperial Japan gave way to a democratic system, however flawed. China can take this same road, but it will take a long time for it to develop democratic confidence and a nation under law. Beijing will probably continue its historic foreign policy of allowing its neighbors complete autonomy provided they acknowledge fealty to the China emperor. China wants to push the U.S. back into the Pacific, but it has no discernible territorial ambitions aside from regaining Taiwan and turning the China Sea into a mare nostrum.

Today's China, however admirable in many aspects, remains one of the world's harshest police states. I've spent my career covering nasty third world despotisms and can say that China remains a leading example of iron-fisted control, both evident and hidden. I've also experienced the wrath of the secret and military police.

But for all its intimidation and occasional scariness, China is clearly well advanced on the long march to modernity and becoming the first or second world power. In fact, China may soon attain the same level of economic development and wealth it enjoyed in the 1700s -- before the outside world fell on it.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012.