In the coming days, the United States and China will be celebrating two big birthdays, light-years apart in their message.
On July 1, Beijing will put on a massive celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at a secret 1921 meeting in Shanghai.
“Follow the Party Forever” is now the CCP’s slogan, as President (for life) Xi Jinping touts China’s swift rise from poverty to great power status. News media and movies are filled with coverage of China’s triumphs, while anyone who dissents is silenced. Xi has made clear he now sees China as equal to a declining United States.
Meantime, on July 4, the United States will celebrate the 245th birthday of the Declaration of Independence with parties and parades, as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic. “America is back” is the slogan of President Joe Biden, who was chosen in a free and fair election.
Biden is committed to reviving America’s crumbling infrastructure, health care, and, most critically, our dwindling lead in the cutting edge technologies that will define the 21st century, which has back footed the country in competition with China.
Chinese leaders make clear they believe the United States is in decline, beset by a paralyzed government and internal divisions, while their centralized government puts them in position to surge past their American rival.
“The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi told Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Alaska in March.
These two commemorations, coming so close together, highlight what’s needed for Biden to prove Yang wrong.
In China, Xi will use the celebrations to celebrate the CCP as overseer of everything from private companies to universities, and beyond. On my last trip to China, in November 2019, Western — and Chinese — businessmen complained party officials were playing a more active role on corporate boards, in contrast to the more open China before Xi took power in 2013. Party officials now also set the tone at universities (where professors must now study Xi Jinping thought).
“Party control permeates every aspect of life,” Wu Qiang, a former professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and prominent party critic, told the Financial Times. “As a result, there are no checks and balances. ... Small mistakes can develop into huge mistakes and endanger the party.”
Of course, this centralization has its rewards. China crushed the pandemic by draconian means, with only 5,000 deaths (if you believe Chinese government figures). The Chinese economy has surged back (despite U.S. sanctions). And China is pouring money into new technologies in order to surpass U.S. efforts and circumvent U.S. economic decoupling.
But tightening party control can also slow economic growth. “Local officials used to have more initiative to innovate, to take risks for economic development,” as Tsinghua professor Wu also warned. “Now they follow higher level officials. The effect of all this is the same: there is no self-correction mechanism in the system.”
And it was probably fear of angering party higher ups that prevented Wuhan officials from reporting initial cases of COVID-19, thus permitting a global pandemic to emerge, whose origins are still opaque as Beijing continues to suppress information.
In other words, in his efforts to emulate (or surpass) Mao Zedong, Xi’s tight controls may actually harm China’s internal progress (and that’s apart from the global consequences of his aggressive political and military moves abroad).
Which brings us to July Fourth in America. There is much to celebrate, but the social and political divides that makes Chinese leaders sneer are still all too real.
Former President Donald Trump is still promoting the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “stolen.” His GOP party refuses to challenge him as he undermines the most critical tenet of democracy — belief in free and fair elections. Republicans try to suppress voting that would favor Democrats, in many states.
This zero-sum politics (sometimes exacerbated by Democratic progressives, whose actions pale next to the GOP’s all-out warfare) plays right into China’s hands.
Chinese officials claim democracy can’t compete with authoritarian power. It is crucial to prove them wrong, starting with bipartisan legislation on infrastructure, and on technology (the House must pass the bipartisan bill to counter the China tech threat that the Senate passed earlier this month).
Yet rebuilding America will be insufficient if Americans lose faith in their basic institutions. Polls show that a majority of Republicans still falsely believe the (fair and secure) 2020 election was stolen. That is because their leaders lie or stay silent.
On July Fourth, GOP legislators who know the truth about the 2020 elections and the Jan. 6 insurrection should consider whether their tolerance of the Big Lie is harming the country — and aiding China.
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” says the Declaration of Independence. The United States can’t compete with Beijing if one of its major parties undermines the basis on which our republic stands.