- - Monday, September 30, 2019

Birthdays are occasions to celebrate, and also reflect. As the People’s Republic of China turns 70, the nations of the world join China in awe-filled recognition of its rapid rise from an agrarian to a cutting-edge culture. Amid the fanfare, the cost of its historic reliance on repression must not be forgotten.

The Asian giant, unmatched in population with more than 1.4 billion souls, erupts in splendor this week, with a military display on the streets of Beijing worthy of its self-proclaimed status as the unequaled colossus of the continent. Tuesday’s parade is slated to feature columns of marchers composed of 60,000 Chinese citizens as well as 15,000 members of the nation’s armed forces.

Security is the watchword, and Beijing residents have been told balloons, kites and especially drones are most unwelcome. Devices like walkie-talkies that use radio waves are banned, and traffic — both vehicular and Internet — is severely restricted. No sour notes are to escape the orchestrated civic harmony that could hint the “Middle Kingdom” is faltering along the pathway to perfection. The persistent din from Hong Kong’s repression resisters, though, is a reminder that in contrast to utopian ideals, freedom is real.

President Xi Jinping is saddled with the contradictory task of hanging onto special treatment in matters of trade owing to China’s impoverished past while presiding over a $14 trillion economy that has grown to be the world’s second-largest. President Trump has called the bluff, challenging Beijing to level the trade playing field tilted heavily against the United States. Mr. Xi has never come up against a global competitor of Mr. Trump’s caliber, one who values fairness above face.

The man who Mr. Trump calls his “friend” presides over a massive intelligence-gathering enterprise targeting American secrets. The ongoing thievery, which national security reporter Bill Gertz details in his just-released book “Deceiving the Sky,” has been particularly successful at penetrating U.S. defense contractors and pilfering plans for the nation’s most advanced military hardware. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is said. Among the missiles and rockets featured on parade day, and the fighters and bombers roaring overhead, are sleek designs bearing striking resemblance to those in the U.S. arsenal.

At 70, China models the modernity of the world’s leading democracies, except for its dearth of democratic institutions. It still is, after all, a socialist state. Like the now-defunct Soviet Union, it underwent a convulsive 20th century revolution based on Marxist-Leninist political philosophy that welcomed human conflict as a necessary condition for social progress. Through the rough-handed ministrations of a dictatorship of the proletariat, it was promised, a new, egalitarian society would emerge from the smoke.

Such is the stuff of fantasy. While dragging a backward society toward the socialist vision via his “Great Leap Forward,” China’s founding father Mao Zedong aped an idiom often attributed to Russian revolutionary Josef Stalin: “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” The ominous metaphor covered a horrific reality: The death toll from Stalin’s brutal regime reached 20 million, but Mao outdid him with as many as 56 million victims.

History’s largest extermination of human life is now all but forgotten amid the vastness of China’s gleaming cities. While other communist nations have imploded, China has managed to survive by tweaking its communal principles. The dominant Communist Party Politburo tolerates capitalist practices, resulting in a wealthy elite and prosperous middle class.

Repression is more subtle, except when applied to certain undesirables, like the estimated 1 million Muslim Uighurs of western China held in concentrations camps. For other Chinese, the unblinking eye of authority effectuates proper conduct without the need for old-fashioned show trials and induced famine.

Instead, citizens are monitored online and in the streets. Those who fail to exercise their best behavior are subject to demerits on their social credit scorecard, which can lead to exclusion from choice jobs and from public transportation. ABC News reports a new device soon to join a vast network of cameras in public places: a 500 megapixel cloud “super-camera” that can pick a face out of a crowd of tens of thousands.

China has managed to outlive its socialist cousin, the USSR, which collapsed just shy of its 70th anniversary in 1991. Longevity is certainly a measure of success, but China has yet to prove that a socialist system which has evolved from killing its citizens to controlling them can outlast the fundamental yearning to live free of relentless repression.

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