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The People’s Republic of China at 70; or, the Rectification of Names

Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army in front of a banner marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, October 1, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
The word ‘People’s’ is quite the misnomer.

In the Analects of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher points out that “the failure to assign things their proper names can lead to social disorder.” His remedy was “the rectification of names,” so that words matched reality. It would be hard to come up with a more apt criticism of the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.

Let us engage in the rectification of names.

What about “the People”? Should we consider the Muslim-minority Uighurs? Last week in Geneva, as world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York, the U.N. Human Rights Council heard from the China Tribunal, an independent human-rights monitor, which laid out its findings in a report on mass organ harvesting of Uighur prisoners. The government denies that it engages in the practice, but the government denies the mass concentration/detainment of Uighurs in the China far west, about which there has been ample reporting by credible international sources and journalists. According to a report by Reuters, the government does acknowledge organ harvesting of certain prisoners but says it stopped — in 2015.

Were the “people” considered in the disastrous one-child policy, which led to the mass abandonment and infanticide of baby girls for decades? And to demographic challenges that include what the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences itself calls an “unstoppable” decline of the population to 1990 levels by the middle of this century? What can be said for the 400 million “people” in China living on an income below $5 a day? According to the World Bank, China is in the top quartile of income inequality of 148 countries ranked, as the urban coastal elite, including billionaires and millionaires who, cozy with the government, live a life that cannot even be imagined by those millions.

The rectification of names calls into account the Communist Party itself, which has long abandoned its Marxist-Leninist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” The Party itself is an elite, focused on its own preservation, which increasingly is possible only through authoritarian methods. Xi Jinping, Communist Party general secretary, also serves as president of China and as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and he has no legal or constitutional restrictions from continuing to serve in those capacities for the rest of his life. On October 1, Xi addressed his fellow Beijing elites in a Mao suit from the Forbidden City at a military parade to honor, in effect, 70 years of failing to “assign things their proper names.” “No power can shake the status of our great motherland, no force can stop the progress of the Chinese people and nation,” the leader declared.

In the spirit of rectification, it will be the Chinese people themselves, it seems likely, who will stop this eventually. There are too many internal inconsistencies. A falling population. Massive human-rights abuses. Poverty so intense that Western scholars believe a generation of rural children will lack education and intellectual development past the eighth-grade level.

In the long arc of history, Confucius will be proven right. Authoritarian leaders calling themselves “Communists” will be the authors of their own demise at the hands of “the people.”

Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was the chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2004.

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