China turns 70 and asks: “Maybe I’m getting too old for this?”

China turns 70. It has been some eventful seven decades.

China celebrates its 70 year anniversary on October 1st. Reflecting on a life of teenage rebellion, mid-life crises, and stormy relationships, all it wants for its birthday is a little peace and quiet.

The People’s Republic of China (“China” to its friends) was born on October 1st, 1949. According to people who were present when it happened, it “stood up” immediately (though not everyone agrees). The newly born nation then entered the world red and screaming, and set to exploring and experimenting. Its early childhood years were largely happy and filled with great wonder and excitement of the kind that is only seen in children. Its favorite toy was called “Socialism” and China treasured it dearly because it had been a gift from its uncle, the Soviet Union.

As it grew older, China took a Great Leap into its teenage years and almost stumbled, but survived famine and disaster that surely would have broken a weaker country. Through an act of teenage rebellion (though it preferred the term “revolution”) it formed an identity that would stay with it for a lifetime, like so many teenagers do.

Decades later it would look back at that time with fondness, nursing those memories that it found precious, and trying to forget the more embarrassing ones. “Seventy good; thirty bad,” the country would answer if anyone asked it to sum up those wild and crazy years of its youth.

“I can’t find any note about this nation’s gender on this birth certificate, so I guess we’re using neutral pronouns in this text.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Then in 1976, the country was suddenly afflicted with a serious identity crisis. Was it really suitable for a grown up, sovereign nation to still play around with toys? Sure, Socialism had given it a sense of purpose, but perhaps it was time to let go of it? On the other hand, perhaps sticking with what was familiar would be better? Maybe it should revitalize the momentum of that teenage rebellion whose fire had begun to falter, as is often the case when youthful audacity slowly begins to shift into a middle-aged search for safety and stability. 

It had heard of something called Capitalism. China didn’t exactly know what that was; maybe it was some kind of toy for adults? Anyway, it sounded exciting, so China decided to try it.

But by 1989, a 40-year old China was going through a serious mid-life crisis. It had spent its 30s playing around with Capitalism, and experimented with foreign cures labeled “market economy” and “special economic zones” and while it provided some momentary enjoyment and excitement, it didn’t quite scratch the itch. 

Always a sucker for poetry, China called this process “crossing the river while feeling the stones” When it finally stepped on to the proverbial opposite shore, it was met by many willing suitors who saw great potential in China. China was initially flattered by their praise, but as time went by, many proved most demanding, spending their days waxing poetic about esoteric ideas like “freedom of expression” and “democracy.” The suitors categorically demanded China to finally get rid of Socialism, which was still placed at a preeminent place in its house. For a moment, China felt like it could hear a little voice from within that echoed the demands of the suitors. And for a moment, China was tempted.

“Smile fellas, you just became everyone’s visual shorthand for oppression!”

But then, China recalled again its rebellious youth, and was taken by sudden anger. It still shudders at the thought of July 4th, 1989, when it violently suppressed that little voice within, lashing out at itself in a spree of self-harm that it would later deny happened if anyone asked. Members of international society were abhorred. 

“Who would do such a thing against themselves?” the suitors whispered to each other as they pulled away from the country that was starting to look rather unpleasant. For the next four years, China became a pariah.

Yet China had a strange effect on the international society of which it had inevitably become a part of. Making promises that this time it was really going to learn how to properly use Capitalism, China appealed to its suitors to take it back.

Fortunately, China’s mysterious allure was such that did not take long before the suitors did return, and this time there was a lot more talk of wealth and profit, and a lot less about democracy. They pretended to not see the scars where China had hurt itself, or they dismissed it as a phase that it would eventually grow out of by itself. “That’s your business, not ours. Anyway, let’s talk trade!” said its biggest suitor, the United States.

Secretly, the suitors would often say to each other that if only China would accept all that wealth and profit, the democracy part would soon follow. With this hope, they even invited China to become a full member of their worldwide trade club, special privileges and all.

China signs the adoption papers for Hong Kong, 1997.

And China did indeed embrace wealth and profit. Its economy grew at an immense rate. Two years before its 50th birthday, it even felt financially secure enough to adopt two little cities which it kept on proud display on its southeastern seaboard. One of them, whose name was Macau, became a most obedient protégé, but its sibling, Hong Kong, proved to be more obtrusive and was not happy at all with the new arrangements.

“Let’s call it one country, two systems,” China said graciously, in an effort to calm things down, and hoping it would settle the matter. Of course, in doing so, China committed the age-old mistake of parents everywhere: it forgot what it was like to be young. It pushed its problems into the future, hoping they would disappear by themselves. Anyway, in the future that China envisioned, everything would be harmonious. Yes, China had great plans for the future. It just needed the right opportunity.

Its chance came in 2009, like a gift just in time for its 60th birthday. Suddenly all those suitors changed their tune. They, whose arrogance China had spent the past decades putting up with, were now coming to China asking for money. China obliged them, barely concealing its smugness.

It recalled again, those fond memories of its youth, not troubling itself too much with the more embarrassing ones. It reached into the closet, pushed a few skeletons aside and found its old toy Socialism tucked away behind a box of pirate-copied DVDs. 

China brushed the dust off of it, considered the old ideology while twisting and turning it around a few times. Then it declared that this was not just Socialism, it was Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, and that was a perfectly fine toy for a proud sovereign country like itself.

But just as China was finally beginning to feel good and confident about itself, something strange happened. The United States, one of its most long standing suitors started making a fuss about some kind of money issue involving debt. Smaller suitors whom China had granted generous loans were starting to act up, and China began to suspect that they had only ever been in it for the money. Its neighbors suddenly decided that they were not comfortable with China’s plans for expanding its backyard. One neighbor even took the whole issue to court, but a petulant China never showed up for the hearing.

China was at loss. It was just trying to assume a place in the world that it had rightfully earned, why was everyone suddenly acting so combative?

Teenage rebellion then and now.

To top it all off, just months before China’s 70th birthday, Hong Kong, that little adoptee, was having a teenage rebellion of its own. It was a rebellion that China did not understand, because it had no reference point. Socialism had been a perfectly fine toy to play with during its own teenage years, why was it not good enough for Hong Kong?

“Why can’t you be more like your sibling?” China asked and pointed to Macau, who was sitting across Guangzhou Bay playing high-stakes poker in a glitzy casino.

“You will never understand! And you are not my real parent!” Hong Kong yelled back and launched into a rant about “universal suffrage,” “freedom of expression,” “rule of law” and other things that China vaguely remembered somebody had talked to it about a long while back.

“I hope Hong Kong won’t throw a tantrum and embarrass me in front of my guests,” China thought sourly to itself as it carefully adjusted a column of tanks and strategic cruise missiles that was going to be the centerpiece of its birthday party-parade.

The septuagenarian autocracy scratched its western regions (which had been itching a lot lately) and belched, letting out a cloud of greenhouse gasses equivalent to the yearly consumption of a medium-sized South American country. It thought of that old uncle who had given it Socialism, and then lived to about the same age before it met an untimely fate. Apparently, it was unusual for authoritarian countries to live this long.

“Maybe I am getting too old for this,” China thought, absentmindedly poking at its exchange rate.

About Joel Ivre 14 Articles
Joel Petersson Ivre is a masters student at Yonsei GSIS. His hometown is Stockholm, Sweden and although he considers it the most beautiful place in the world, he has left it several times to study abroad in China and Korea. Joel is a Young Leader at Pacific forum and and intern at East Asia Institute. He is mainly interested in the implications of China's rise for East Asia and the world.