President Xi Jinping warned on Tuesday that no one can “dictate” China’s economic development path as the Communist Party marked 40 years of its historic “reform and opening up” policy amid a stern challenge from the United States.
In a speech at the grandiose Great Hall of the People, Xi vowed to press ahead with economic reforms but made clear that Beijing will not deviate from its one-party system or take orders from any other country. “The great banner of socialism has always been flying high over the Chinese land,” Xi told the party faithful. “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the greatest advantage of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics,” he said.
The commemoration of the reforms enacted under late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on Dec. 18, 1978, came as China is locked in diplomatic spats and a bruising trade war with the United States. The rivals have agreed to a 90-day truce as they seek to negotiate a solution, with the United States seeking a reduction in its massive trade deficit as well as deeper reforms in China to stop the alleged theft of intellectual property.
Without directly referring to the United States, Xi said China “poses no threat” to any country but warned that it would not be pushed around. “No one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done,” Xi said. “We must resolutely reform what should and can be changed, we must resolutely not reform what shouldn’t and can’t be changed.”
While Xi promised more reforms, he did not offer any specifics. The United States and Europe have long complained of lingering obstacles to fully entering China’s massive market while Chinese companies enjoy the benefits of open Western economies abroad.
The reforms pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and turned China into the world’s second biggest economy. But it is currently facing a debt mountain and a slowing economy, which grew by 6.9 percent last year and is expected by the government to slow to around 6.5 percent this year.
Deng’s reforms broke with the chaotic policies of his predecessor, Chairman Mao Zedong.
Tuesday’s ceremony included the awarding of medals to more than 100 individuals whom the party recognized as key contributors to the country’s development, from people involved in rural reform and poverty alleviation to China’s richest man, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, and retired NBA legend Yao Ming.
China now boasts the most dollar billionaires in the world with 620, according to Shanghai-based magazine publisher Hurun Report. But the economic transformation has not brought changes to the Communist Party-controlled political system, with authorities harshly cracking down on the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and activists complaining of a deterioration of human rights in recent years.
“Reform and opening up let the Communist Party maintain its dictatorship and let it keep its rule from collapsing after the Cold War and survive,” said Beijing-based political analyst Wu Qiang. “I think China now is state capitalism under a one-party dictatorship, or party-run capitalism,” he said.
Wu said the trade war could be a chance for China to enact more changes. “If the Communist Party is smart enough, it may transform it into the starting point of a second reform and opening up and change the role of the party and the state,” Wu said.
When the party enacted the reforms under Deng, China was still suffering from famine and was emerging from the Cultural Revolution, a period of intense social and political upheaval launched by Mao. This new “revolution” started in the countryside, where authorities began to de-collectivize land and dismantle communes, but it quickly spread to cities.
Wary of an opposing power base in economically powerful Shanghai, Deng chose the extreme south of the country as the guinea pig for his reforms. Southern cities including Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong and was still a fishing village, were designated China’s first Special Economic Zones that became powerhouses and models for the rest of the country.
Shenzhen has become a global technological hub, with China’s internet giant Tencent and telecom titan Huawei choosing the city for their headquarters.
The poverty rate among the rural population dropped to 3.1 percent last year from 97.5 percent 40 years ago.