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China after 65 years

BEIJING—“Tonight, Chang’an Boulevard is brightly lit and flowers are in full bloom in front of the Tiananmen Rostrum,” Chinese President Xi Jinping opened his address at the reception marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

And indeed, the flowers—a gigantic arrangement lit by multicolored lights that have traditionally marked every observance of National Day—were in full bloom at one end of Tiananmen Square as we alighted from our bus to enter the Great Hall of the People. All around us were hundreds of other guests—representatives of the diplomatic corps, some of them in their native dress; members of China’s indigenous communities in their colorful garb, some topped by metal headdresses; veterans in military uniforms or in the traditional “Mao” jacket and pants; and a few foreigners with medals hanging from their necks, who had been recognized a day earlier for their scientific and academic achievements and their charity work.

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Among the last group were Chinese-Filipino businessmen honored for their contributions to the relief effort post-“Yolanda” and other disasters. “Kapitan” Lucio Tan approached our table, smiling shyly at our congratulations, steered our way by Robin Siy, the honorary president of the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Siy was himself an awardee, having helped in the immediate recovery effort by lending his heavy equipment to the rescue effort. Earlier I spotted Liwayway Gawgaw’s Carlos Chan, who had raised funds and donated his personal money to the survivors.

Also present at the reception were two former presidents—Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—as well as the cream of Chinese officialdom.

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“Sixty-five years is but a fleeting moment in the history of human development,” President Xi acknowledged. “Yet in the short space of 65 years, the Chinese people have made spectacular and earth-shaking changes.”

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INDEED, from our vantage point in the huge reception hall, it was hard to believe that “just” 65 years had passed since Chairman Mao proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China, hoisting the “five-star red flag” for the first time in Beijing.

Xi Jinping’s remarks pointed to how far indeed his country and people have come—giving “top priority” to development, and marking “economic development as our central task” and adhering to “reform and innovation,” deepening reform.

And yet, the Chinese president laid equal emphasis on the need “to make sure that we build the Communist Party of China well,” holding high “the banner of unity,” while warning that in the future China must “remain modest and cautious and guard against arrogance and rashness.”

President Xi also had pointed messages to Chinese elsewhere. To Chinese in Hong Kong and Macau, he declared the government’s determination to hold fast to the “one country, two systems” guideline, while warning that the government would “steadfastly safeguard the long-term prosperity and stability” of both territories. Was he sending a message to the crowds gathered on a Hong Kong highway?

And to Taiwan, he sent a pointed analogy: “When brothers are of the same mind, they have the power to cut through metal.” The “complete reunification” of the Chinese mainland and compatriots on the island of Taiwan is the “shared dream of all Chinese both at home and overseas,” he said.

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REVEALING, too, was Xi Jinping’s riff on the theme of “staying committed to the path of peaceful development.” China believes in peace, he said, adding that “a bellicose country, no matter how big, is doomed to failure.” Which is why his government, he said, “will stay committed to the path of peaceful development and to an opening-up strategy of win-win cooperation.”

Then he added: “China will uphold international justice and fairness and promote peace and development of the world. It will also unswervingly uphold its sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

Was this an olive branch offered to the countries of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, as well as Japan, in the light of simmering conflicts over disputed borders and clashing claims?

Perhaps the test of Xi Jinping’s sincerity and will behind these conciliatory words will come in the next few months and years in dealing with China’s restless neighbors. China has consistently resisted international arbitration over competing claims on portions of the Pacific and the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea, to Filipinos). The alternatives offered are bilateral negotiations, with no “third party” interests involved or interfering in the talks. Is it time to test this approach?

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OUR guides apologized for what they called the “humble” fare served at the reception, saying that in the wake of recent corruption scandals, officials had decided to make the annual celebration more austere and simple.

But a six-course feast was not our idea of austere, although I much admit it was a far cry from the lauriat dinners that marked most Chinese festivities of old.

Still, the bright, colorful lights glowing from the gigantic flower arrangements on chilly Tiananmen Square were a cheery symbol of just how far China has progressed on the road of a vast social experiment—raising millions of people from poverty, creating a dynamic class of entrepreneurs, while under the firm hand of a central government.

The massed crowds in Hong Kong, and how this crisis in governance will be resolved, should tell us if this social experiment will last another 65 years.

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TAGS: “Kapitan” Lucio Tan, Chang’an Boulevard, China, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese-Filipino businessmen, Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Great Hall of the People, People’s Republic of China, Robin Siy, Tiananmen Square
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