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Thu, Sep 24, 2009
AFP
China at age 60: from pariah to world power

By Joelle Garrus

BEIJING, CHINA - Sixty years ago, as Mao Zedong declared the founding of a new communist nation, China was backward and isolated.

Today, it is a world power with sweeping influence - it is financing America's debt, snapping up access to natural resources in Africa and Latin America, and making its voice heard on major diplomatic issues.

This remarkable transformation - to be celebrated on October 1, communist China's 60th birthday - occurred thanks to a radical change in tactics at the midway point in the PRC's history, after three turbulent decades of Maoism.

'A big part of the first 30-year period can be regarded as lost decades for China,' explained Ren Xianfang, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in Beijing.

But then as the rest of the world was in 'great transition', moving towards market-based economies and privatisation, Beijing embraced a 'policy shift to economic and political pragmatism', Ren said - and everything changed.

A country that was once seen as a pariah, stuck between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and which barely gained United Nations membership in 1971, slowly emerged from its isolation.

In 1978, Beijing agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Washington. Then, under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, it launched a programme of economic reforms that opened up the country to foreign investment.

Francoise Lemoine, a China expert at the Research Centre for International Economics (CEPII) in Paris, says the country's authorities quickly understood how to reap the benefits of the new world order.

'China is opening up at a time when other countries are ready to move their intensive manual labour activities offshore,' the French economist told AFP.

'China knows how to take advantage of this new globalisation, of the worldwide movement of capital and goods, and is claiming its rightful place in this new global division of labour.'

When Mao and his communists took power in October 1949, China was emerging from the ravages of civil war with the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan, and Japanese occupation.

The country's gross domestic product had sunk to levels not seen since 1890 - its 500 million people were largely poor, illiterate and working the land to survive.

Lemoine said the first 30 years in the history of communist China - typified by the devastating fallout of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution - were nevertheless not a total waste.

The country made 'progress in terms of hygiene, health and education - most young people now have access to a basic education,' she said.

Today, China is the world's third-largest economy, the biggest exporter on the planet and has the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, at a whopping 2.13 trillion dollars, 800 billion of which is held in US Treasury bonds.

Beijing is one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, participates in key international negotiations on Iran's disputed nuclear programme, and hosts the six-party talks on North Korea's atomic drive.

The country is seen as key to resolving the deadly conflict in the western Darfur region of Sudan, where China has major oil interests, and its stance on climate change is considered an essential piece of the global warming puzzle.

Its military is catching up with the West in leaps and bounds, and China is only one of three countries, along with the United States and the former Soviet Union, to have ever put a man in space.

The so-called 'workshop of the world' is a global leader in research and development - China, Japan and the United States accounted for nearly 60 percent of all patent requests filed in 2007.

It is the world's most populous nation, at 1.3 billion people, but barely eight percent remain illiterate. While the rich-poor divide is still of great concern, far fewer people are considered destitute.

Some experts say China has, 60 years on, finally acquired power and influence commensurate with its size, but others caution that it has not yet achieved 'superpower' status, in part due to the Communists' iron grip.

'The country is just an emerging power that is still facing lots of uncertainties in its ascent,' Ren noted.

'One major obstacle... is that China has yet to be accepted by the world as a leadership charting world values and ideology, which will require drastic political reforms in the country - and that is unlikely to come to pass soon.'

Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, agreed, saying such reforms were needed to eliminate any fears about a 'China threat'.

'The doubts about China will only fade with the development of a democratic, constitutional political system, and once it adopts the values of mainstream civilisation,' Hu said.

 
 
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