Deep cuts of extraordinary rise in China

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The Deep cuts of China’s extraordinary rise was a defining story of the 20th Century, but as it prepares to mark its 70th anniversary, the question of who has really won under the Communist Party’s rule is being asked.

Sitting at his desk in the Chinese city of Tianjin, Zhao Jingjia’s knife is tracing the contours of a face.

Cut by delicate cut, the form emerges the unmistakable image of Mao Zedong, founder of modern China.

The retired oil engineer discovered his skill with a blade only in later life and now spends his days using the ancient art of paper cutting to glorify leaders and events from China’s communist history.

“I’m the same age as the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” he says. “I have deep feelings for my motherland, my people and my party.”

Born a few days before 1 October 1949 – the day the PRC was declared by Mao – Mr Zhao’s life has followed the dramatic contours of China’s development, through poverty, repression and the rise to prosperity.

Now, in his modest but comfortable apartment, his art is helping him make sense of one of the most tumultuous periods of human history.

“Wasn’t Mao a monster,” I ask, “responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his countrymen?”

“I lived through it,” he replies. “I can tell you that Chairman Mao did make some mistakes but they weren’t his alone.”

“I respect him from my heart. He achieved our nation’s liberation. Ordinary people cannot do such things.”

On Tuesday, China will present a similar, glorious rendering of its record to the world.

The country is staging one of its biggest ever military parades, a celebration of 70 years of Communist Party rule as pure, political triumph.

Beijing will tremble to the thunder of tanks, missile launchers and 15,000 marching soldiers, a projection of national power, wealth and status watched over by the current Communist Party leader, President Xi Jinping, in Tiananmen Square.

Progress

Like Mr Zhao’s paper-cut portraits, we’re not meant to focus on the many individual scars made in the course of China’s modern history.

It is the end result that matters. And, on face value, the transformation has been extraordinary.

On 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao stood in Tiananmen Square urging a war-ravaged, semi-feudal state into a new era with a founding speech and a somewhat plodding parade that could muster only 17 planes for the flyby.

This week’s parade, in contrast, will reportedly feature the world’s longest range intercontinental nuclear missile and a supersonic spy-drone – the trophies of a prosperous, rising authoritarian superpower with a 400 million strong middle class.

New visitors to China are often, rightly, awe-struck by the skyscraper-festooned, hi-tech megacities connected by brand new highways and the world’s largest high speed rail network.

They see a rampant consumer society with the inhabitants enjoying the freedom and free time to shop for designer goods, to dine out and to surf the internet.

“How bad can it really be?” the onlookers ask, reflecting on the negative headlines they’ve read about China back home.

The answer, as in all societies, is that it depends very much on who you are.

Many of those in China’s major cities, for example, who have benefited from this explosion of material wealth and opportunity, are genuinely grateful and loyal.

In exchange for stability and growth, they may well accept or at least tolerate the lack of political freedom and the censorship that feature so often in the foreign media.

For them the parade could be viewed as a fitting tribute to a national success story that mirrors their own.

But in the carving out of a new China, the knife has cut long and deep.

“As for the 70 years of China, it’s extraordinary,” he says. “It can be seen by all. Yesterday we sent two navigation satellites into space – all citizens can enjoy the convenience that these things bring us.”

Olusola Akintonde