Maybe my grandfather is right: China’s rise to power continues — with or without America’s support

March 19, 2021 — by Kyle Wang

When I was 8 years old, my grandfather tried to convince me to become a Communist. I was visiting him as he recovered from his chemotherapy when he turned on CCTV (China Central Television) and began explaining to me — in words that I mostly couldn’t understand — why China’s totalitarian, nominally Communist system of government was infinitely superior to American democracy.

“Look at your Congress,” he said, jabbing one trembling finger at the TV. “So inefficient. At least we can get things done.” 

I will admit I judged him at the time. I thought it was ridiculous for anybody to so wholeheartedly accept a system that had thrown so many into poverty. How could he worship and glorify dictators who had caused so much suffering? 

Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping abolished the term limits on his office. China had never been a democracy to begin with, but to many — my parents included — this flagrant power grab came as a shock. I don’t know what my grandfather had to say about this, but in the weeks after he was oddly quiet whenever we Facetimed. 

I didn’t bother to ask. 

I will admit now that I will never support China and its political system. Any government that so systematically crushes dissent — to the point where my own parents hesitated to speak about their own experiences as students during Tiananmen in 1989 — is deeply flawed. 

But I will say that my own beliefs about China and its politics have changed radically over time, thanks in no small part to my grandfather. No longer do I think it necessary or even intelligent to attempt to coerce or persuade China’s government to change. Even containment, through mechanisms like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is a flawed strategy, premised on the assumption that China’s rise can somehow be constrained. 

I will admit that I once believed that containment was the best solution, but my grandfather, who had served in China’s military, had warned me long before I formed any conclusions of my own. He told me, even when I was 8, that China’s military might would soon surpass America’s. He told me this as grainy footage of Chinese aircraft carriers slid across his 30-inch TV screen.  

In spite of this, I would spend the next eight years dreaming that my grandfather would someday live to see democracy. 

The irony I did not realize at the time is that he already had — albeit a bastardized, twisted form of it. I found this out when I was a rising sophomore, late one night during the summer of 2015 as I sat in my grandfather’s living room. 

He told me he once lived on a farm, with a younger sister and younger brother who worked alongside the rest of the family in the rice paddies of South China. They were poor, he told me, because China’s failed experimentations with democracy on the eve of the second Sino-Japanese War had seized his father’s assets. 

When he was 4 or 5 years old, they arranged an early marriage for his sister. They needed the money. 

“You couldn’t imagine how poor we were,” my grandfather said. 

He was crying. 

My grandfather had seemed destined for a life of poverty, of toiling in rice paddies until his feet blistered. 

But then Mao’s revolution began. 

At age 9, my grandfather began his schooling. Though he still trekked miles each day to sit in the cramped, one-room schoolhouse, he was infinitely grateful for the opportunity to study. With a government-sponsored scholarship, he attended medical school and then was conscripted into the military as a doctor. 

Years later, my father — the man who would survive my grandfather’s childhood dreams of someday having a life beyond those rice paddies — would make his way to America. In 2000, I was born. 

So, ironically, Chairman Mao and his violent revolution was in no small part responsible for my own existence today. As much as my love of America abstractly compels me to despise the oppression of the Chinese government, I do ultimately respect the system which gave my grandfather an opportunity that — even today — is far more equal than the American dream.  

Nevertheless, much of the world in which I’ve grown up still hopes for China’s eventual collapse. In 2016, The Economist published an article detailing the intricacies of China’s fraudulent shadow banking system. Its tone was ominous, and though it did not explicitly state its hopes for collapse, it foreshadowed a distant but eventual economic collapse from financial insecurity. 

Two years after, China’s economy remains as strong as ever. Its apparent slide into authoritarian rule has done little to impede its rise as a global superpower. 

My conversations with my grandfather are ultimately insignificant from a foreign policy standpoint, but they do, at minimum, offer some perspective. 

Just as America’s citizens today hail democracy as the savior of their country, so, too, do China’s citizens embrace their government. Millions of farm boys like my grandfather found opportunity and hope in a changing system that stifled their free speech. But China is not “backward” or “developing” any more than America is wholly poor or misinformed. 

China’s rise as a global power will inevitably continue, even as the country’s government slides further into totalitarian rule. 

My grandfather told me once, long ago, that Communism was the smarter solution. But I understand better now that he was not trying to proselytize me any more than I could convince him that democracy was the ideal government. 

All he wanted for me was to understand that, flawed as it may have been, China’s politicians did follow their own logic — a logic that had given rise to a power rivaling America’s own global supremacy. 

On his TV, two fighter jets soared higher into the sky, tracing diverging paths on the blue screen.

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