It’s not everyday you turn 70 – and when you do, it’s a time for celebration. But when a colossus like the People’s Republic of China turns 70, we should also take a moment to reflect and take stock.
70 years may seem like a long time. However, against the backdrop of China’s history, it’s nothing. For 5000 years, the Chinese civilisation has endured, while others have risen and fallen by the wayside. Still, 70 years is enough to influence the direction of the people of China, heading into the future.
A Trading Nation
Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China has grown by leaps and bounds to become the world’s second largest economy. It has astonished the world with its progress in many areas: economic, technological, societal, cultural, and many others. But some would argue that this is China re-assuming its prime position – after all, it was a glorious, leading civilisation for much of recorded human history.
But more than any other, the Chinese people are natural traders and businesspeople. Travelling across continents and oceans, trade in silks and other precious goods was conducted with peoples from Rome, Africa, Arabia, Southeast Asia, and beyond. In modern times, that spirit of commerce is driving the rejuvenation and prosperity of China.
Emerging from the ravages of World War II, the Chinese government was compelled to conduct trade and economic exchanges with the Soviet Union, laying the foundation for China’s subsequent industrialisation. During that period, China also established relations with non-aligned countries in Asia and Africa.
In 1954, premier Zhou Enlai visited India and Myanmar, and signed agreements on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and further promoted the principles at the Bandung Conference (the first large-scale Asian-African conference) in Indonesia in 1955. This is the basis of today’s international relations between Southeast Asia and China.
Opening to the World
When Richard Nixon became US President, he pushed for better relations between China and the United States, despite historical tensions and hostilities. He said, “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Though his move was partly motivated by Cold War politics, President Nixon realised the potential for trade and commerce between the two nations, benefitting both the Chinese and the American people. In 1972, Nixon visited China, marking an historic event which normalised relations between the two superpowers.
In response, China formally opened its doors for trade with the West. From south to north, China gradually promoted opening-up by establishing special economic zones in coastal regions of Shenzhen and Shanghai, before extending it to inland cities. In November 2001, China’s ascension to the WTO allowed it to fully join the global community of trade, entering a new phase of commercial opportunities.
Following this, exports became the main driver of China’s economic growth. Thanks to rising exports, China’s foreign exchange reserves also saw a dramatic increase. This facilitated industrial upgrading, which contributed to further economic growth, and increased both imports and exports. This virtuous cycle helped China to further develop its economy and boost growth through foreign trade.
China is now the largest trading partner for more than 130 countries and a major driving force for world economic growth, contributing 30 per cent to global growth annually for more than 10 years.
Advances in Science and Technology
Significant advancements in science and technology also followed the increase in trade. With the active promotion of innovation by the Chinese government, the nation has notched several milestones in scientific achievement. For example, China is the third nation (after the Soviet Union and the United States) to send a man into space and return him safely. Closer to home, China leads the world in various aspects of industrial technology. From 5G and AI to aerospace, it is beyond any doubt that China’s technological development has reached parity with the West.
Such technological strides have been made partly due to China’s open exchange of ideas with the world, as well as investment into Chinese industry and enterprise. Now, China is becoming a source of investment in its own right. The Belt and Road initiative, proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, seeks to emulate the ties of the old Silk Road between East and West. It is now the world’s largest infrastructure development initiative, boasting US$1 trillion in investment, rallying support from more than 160 countries, regions, and international organisations.
The Next 70 Years
China’s achievements over the past 70 years have been conducted openly and peacefully. But the world is undergoing grand changes at the same time. Teleport someone alive in 1949 to 2019, and he would scarcely recognise this brave new world. But what will the next 70 years hold?
From new drivers in the world economy, to shifting political winds, no one knows for sure in this uncertain age. But there are trends that we can observe. Automation of jobs, rising nationalism, climate change, and income inequality are all drivers toward conflict in trade. But at the same time, there are portions of humanity hard at work making our future a harmonious one.
For better or worse, China will play centre stage in driving these changes. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: the spirit of commerce that drove the Silk Road traders all those years ago will be kept alive and well by the Chinese civilisation.