Acton Institute Powerblog

Hong Kong protester shot as Chinese Communism turns 70. How fitting.

Today, as Chinese leaders and dignitaries celebrated the 70th anniversary of the triumph of Marxism with parades displaying their military strength, a policeman in Hong Kong shot an 18-year-old protester in the chest at point-blank range; as of this writing, the man is in critical condition. There could be no more fitting emblem of Marxism than these dueling demonstrations.

On October 1, 1949, Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square. Seventy years later, President Xi Jinping visited Mao’s tomb before donning a Mao suit and standing on the same spot, where he promised to “fully and faithfully” follow the One Country, Two Systems model vis-a-vis Hong Kong. Xi then proclaimed that “no force can ever stop the Chinese people and nation from marching forward,” before watching a parade of China’s military might: 160 aircraft, 15,000 soldiers, as many as 100,000 civilians.

For her part Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, extradited herself to Beijing to watch (and be seen watching) the mainland’s National Day parade. If Lam – who has never hesitated to condemn Hong Kong’s protesters – has made a statement about the shooting, it has not been reported as of this writing.

It is fitting that the two nations conspicuous for gunning their down own citizens in the streets are China and Venezuela, and that another act of violence capped off the anniversary of the deadliest regime in human history. The repression of Maoist Communism, the tens of millions killed through famine and firing square, the failure of collectivism that demanded its abandonment, and even news of the bloodied Hong Kong protester had no place in Chinese news today.

It bears revisiting the tragic realities left out of Beijing’s 70th anniversary celebration.

Conceived in iniquity

Mao Tse-tung toppled Chiang Kai-shek, driving the leader of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) to set up a rival government in Taiwan. While military prowess, and luck, played a role, so did the deception of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. Franklin Roosevelt’s adviser Lauchlin Currie, whom Soviet documents would later reveal as a Communist asset, suggested that FDR appoint Owen Lattimore as a special adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Lattimore portrayed Mao’s followers as peasant reformers and wrote in 1945 that the Chinese Communist Party made “the most positive step yet taken in China by any party away from dictatorship and toward democracy.” (A young Congressman named John F. Kennedy personally credited Lattimore as one reason for Marxism’s triumph in a 1949 speech; a congressional subcommittee would later unanimously describe Lattimore as “a conscious, articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy.”) Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White, also named as a Soviet asset in the Venona transcripts, delayed a shipment of $200 million of U.S. aid (in gold) to Chiang Kai-shek’s inflation-wracked government, until the Red Army could win.

Mao soon won the support of Josef Stalin and took part in wars against the United States in Korea (directly) and Vietnam (indirectly).

The most murderous regime in world history

Mao carried out the greatest liquidation of Chinese peasants in history. The Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962), Mao’s effort to collectivize China’s farms and factories, claimed at least 45 million lives.

Historian Frank Dikotter studied the party’s meticulous records and found that the Communists had 2.5 million Chinese “tortured to death or summarily killed.” Of the eight to nine million people jailed in Chinese gulags, three million starved to death and as many as three million more committed suicide. “Coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundations of the Great Leap Forward,” he said. “Victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work – and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason.”

The Great Leap Forward, into socialist agriculture, also destroyed as much as 80 percent of the forests in some regions. And as mainland China faltered, Taiwan became one of the “Asian tigers” with an economy that dwarfed the PRC’s.

As Mao’s cult of personality spiraled out of control, Mao encouraged young people to purge China of the “Four Olds”: old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of mind. The nation’s youth rose up and slaughtered fellow Communists whom they considered insufficiently Maoist. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and would wax-and-wane until 1976, killing another 1.5 million.

As many as 20 million people may have died in China’s gulag system, the laogai. Mao’s total death toll reached an estimated 65 million before he died on September 9, 1976. Deng Xiaoping would succeed him and usher in a true revolution.

The march to leadership

Beginning in the 1970s, the People’s Republic of China would experience a series of economic and diplomatic breakthroughs. The PRC replaced the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the United Nations on October 25, 1971. President Richard Nixon visited China the following year to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet split. Jimmy Carter announced on December 15, 1978, that the United States would recognize the People’s Republic of China in place of Taiwan and move the U.S. Embassy from Taipei to Beijing. “The United States of America recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China,” the document stated, enshrining the One China rule. And on September 19, 1984, Margaret Thatcher agreed to the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the UK to turn Hong Kong over to China on July 1, 1997, provided two systems of rule would be maintained.

But China’s greatest achievement would be its economic miracle.

The making of an economic superpower

In 1978, 18 farmers in the village of Xiaogang signed a secret pact to turn their collective farm into private parcels of land and let each family keep the work of its own hands. They made a binding agreement to raise one another’s children, if the Communist officials executed the new private landholders. Instead, their surging productivity convinced Chinese to adapt Leninist political repression to include a (limited) market economy.

The results have been historic. More than 800 million Chinese have raised themselves out of extreme poverty. To put that in perspective, of every 10 people in the world who climbed out of extreme deprivation, seven of them lived in China. Today’s commemoration of Communism obliquely admits the success of the 1978 counter-revolution. Charts created for the anniversary by China’s People’s Daily Online show income, personal consumption, imports and exports, and freight traffic increasing dramatically beginning in 1978.

China’s rise has come through its cheap labor supply, abundant exports, and rank theft of technology and intellectual property. China joined the World Trade Organization on December 11, 2001, with the bipartisan support of President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Both believed economic prosperity would lead inexorably to political liberalization. By the end of 2010. China had grown to the world’s second-largest economy, and some forecast it will surpass the U.S. as the world’s leading economy by 2032.

True, President Xi called Karl Marx “the greatest thinker in the history of mankind” on Marx’s 200th birthday and proclaimed China’s “firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.” Senator Bernie Sanders would praise China for making “more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they’ve done a lot of things for their people.” But the credit clearly belongs to its decision to jettison full-blown socialism.

The seeds of a repressive superstate

Chinese economic growth fueled dreams of freedom. Chinese students made a small statue of liberty (the Goddess of Democracy) and massed in Tiananmen Square in May 1989, demanding freedom. On June 4, 1989, Chinese tanks rolled into the square, killing 300 people and arresting as many as 10,000 freedom protesters.

The impressive weapons wheeled down Beijing’s streets were intimately related to its economic might. During the first National Day parade in 1949, the nation’s 17 aircraft had to fly over the crowd twice. By the mid-1990s, Chinese Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai could threaten the U.S. assistant secretary of defense with an atomic first strike, warning that “Americans care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.” Today, Beijing’s nuclear arsenal includes hundreds of missiles, both air- and sea-based, capable of striking the continental United States.

However, it is China’s citizens who have paid the greatest price of repression. Facial recognition software tracks Chinese citizens every movement, and its dystopian social credit system restricts their economic life based on their adherence to the party line. In 2017, Beijing reneged on its promise to allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong; this year Carrie Lam tried to impose a law that would extradite citizens of Hong Kong to face trial in China, touching off four months of protests (and counting). It may have claimed its first life today.

China has harshly repressed religion and all forms of belief in a Higher Power. Chinese officials have rounded up as many as one million Uighurs, mostly Muslims, into hellish internment camps. They mercilessly persecute the Falun Gong movement. They demolish unregistered Protestant home churches, arrest faithful Catholic bishops, and say the Sinicization of Christianity demands that the Ten Commandments be replaced with socialist propaganda.

The Chinese Communist Party has repealed limits restricting Xi from staying in office 10 years, and there are signs he is recreating Mao’s cult of personality (today’s parade being one example).

Government policy invades even the most intimate relations of every family. Chinese officials boasted that, by 2011, its recently relaxed One-Child Policy had prevented the birth of 400 million children. And worst of all, government figures place the number of government-mandated abortions at 336 million. (No less than 74 percent of the Communist Party of China’s membership is male.)

China’s economy, though far from free, has rebounded to create tremendous prosperity. Yet the Communist Party uses the money for weapons, international influence, and domestic oppression.

Moral deficit threatens China’s decline

The good news – if one can call it good – is that these very practices threaten China’s economy and the survival of its dictatorship. Xi’s dictatorship “has to divert a great part of its resources to controlling its people,” which “suffocates society’s energy and creativity by impeding the flow of information and ideas,” writes Hong Kong protester Jimmy Lai in the Wall Street Journal. Marion Smith of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation agrees that “China’s tyranny stifles the creativity of its people. While Beijing grants some few a small amount of economic autonomy, it refuses to let the average Chinese citizen fully pursue her dreams, apply her talents, or realize her potential, preventing untold advances across every field of endeavor.” Its demographic implosion already stifles China’s economic growth, and retirees could make up 44 percent of the population by 2050. Should Xi fail to deliver prosperity, Lai and Smith believe, an increasingly complacent China may rise up and throw him out of office.

Technology reflects the ethics of its creator. China’s mixed society reminds us that economic freedom is not enough for human flourishing. The human race must have a higher power guiding its moral behavior. Society’s ethical basis must proceed from the recognition of every human being’s innate dignity. This includes the right to life, freedom of conscience, and the right to support himself or herself through acquiring private property. Perhaps it is no coincidence that China’s secret “Document Number 9,” written in 2013, reveals that the things that most alarm Communist leaders are the notion of “universal values,” civil society, a Western constitutional system, and further economic “neoliberalism.” Until these values are more deeply ingrained in China’s leadership class, the system’s hollow center will continue to bow toward its own implosion.

The brute display of military force – in Beijing and Hong Kong – is the perfect metaphor for economics and power without morality.

(Photo credit: Studio Incendo. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.