A Centennial Dragon

Luis Fernández-Galiano 

Millenary China celebrates a centenary. Founded in Shanghai on 1 July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party reaches the anniversary after having led a historic transformation that has turned the country into a political, economic, and technological superpower. Its white autocracy has maintained social order in a territory of 1,400 million, its state capitalism has brought prosperity, and its advances in science go from artificial intelligence to space exploration. These amazing achievements do not exclude restrictions on individual freedom and the control of populations using techniques like facial recognition; but contrary to what many had forecasted, absence of democracy has not been incompatible with innovation and growth, the new middle class has not called for the end of the one-party state, and Wuhan has not been China’s Chernobyl: the country has faced the health challenge with the same authority used to fight corruption, a task that has kept it from becoming a cleptocracy.

President Xi Jinping concentrates in his hands a power only equivalent to that of Mao Zedong in his day, and in fact has impulsed a nationalist neo-Maoism, determined to reunite with Taiwan, and that promotes self-sufficiency while creating economic ties through the New Silk Route. The growth of collective self-esteem and patriotic pride is boosted by the popularity of communist theme parks in the revolution’s cradles, ‘red tourism’ destinations for all, but also by the achievements of its technological companies and the success of its space missions, showing the world how far they have made it in research and avant-garde engineering. Already in 2019 the Chang’e probe landed for the first time on the far side of the Moon, and this year 2021, we witnessed in April the launch of the first module of China’s space station, and in May the Mars landing of the Tianwen-1 probe, consisting of orbiter, lander, and the Zhurong rover, which sent back a selfie after reaching Utopia Planitia.

The Chinese model is admired by many, but the balance of the party that has steered the return of the Middle Kingdom to the place deserved by its size and history cannot omit the shadows of the past – from the famine of the Great Leap Forward to the tragic chaos of the Cultural Revolution – or those of the present on Hong Kong or Xinjiang. But it also cannot ignore the brightness of a panorama that combines urban sophistication with rural mutation, intelligent cities with the protection of nature, and architectural innovation with artistic creativity, these two driven by a fertilization of the contemporary with the ancestral. That is the eternal China Hergé paid tribute to in The Blue Lotus, and the recent sale – at a record price of 3.1 million euros – of the 1936 drawing prepared for the cover prompts to use that friendly and menacing dragon to illustrate the fearful fascination of the West for the economic, technical and cultural feats of a giant that, celebrating a centennial, recovers its millenary stature.

Included Tags: