- A new exhibition at the Beijing Exhibition Centre carefully narrates China's economic transformation from backwater to global power
- But the show glosses over historical moments like Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward or China's public debt problems
China's economic transformation that built the foundation for its growing assertiveness on the world stage has been showcased in a carefully curated exhibition in the capital Beijing.
The country's embrace of market-oriented reforms has seen it transformed from an economic backwater to a global powerhouse under the Communist Party's seven-decade rule.
The show at the Beijing Exhibition Centre, curated by several government agencies, charts the evolution, placing careful emphasis on the country's socialist roots and the importance of the party in ushering in reforms that have helped it become a powerhouse in manufacturing, science and technology, diplomacy and military matters.
Inevitably, the exhibits focus on positive aspects of China's economic progress, outlining the many firsts for the country such as setting up the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 1990 and amassing the world's largest pool of foreign reserves in 2012, a record it still has today.
In contrast, it glosses over the consequences of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward policy, which was intended to boost economic output but led to social and economic disaster, and China's public debt problems emanating from a 4 trillion yuan (US$570.8 billion) spending spree to prop up growth following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.
An exhibit titled "Successfully Responding to Global Financial Crisis" commends the government's "sound judgment and decisive policy" " including implementing a series of important measures " that led to economic stabilisation and rebound in China, which in turn "greatly" contributed to the recovery of the global economy.
China's stimulus package helped revive growth at home and abroad, but led to a surge in Chinese debt that stood at nearly 304 per cent of its gross domestic product in the first three months of this year, some 15 per cent of overall global debt, according to the Institute of International Finance. A government deleveraging campaign started in 2015 to rein in risky lending had marginal success in controlling debt growth.
While questions remain over China's commitment to reform and opening up its markets, the participation of foreign firms in the economy is acknowledged throughout the exhibition. Special attention is paid to Deng Xiaoping's assertion that China needs more foreign investment; a display marks when foreign direct investment broke US$100 billion for the first time in 2008; while another mentions the approval of a new foreign investment law this year aimed at levelling the playing field for overseas investors.
Many of President Xi Jinping's signature projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, are given ample room at the show to reinforce Xi's vision of China as a dominant world power alongside the United States.
One exhibit marks a meeting in June 2013 between former US president Barack Obama and Xi in California, noting the exchange of ideas on bilateral, international and regional affairs and that "the two great countries will construct a new relationship".
Fast forward to today and the narrative has changed drastically, following a breakdown in relations due to a 17-month trade war that has seen the two sides slap billions of dollars worth of tariffs on each others products.
The US has complained about China's treatment of American businesses, including forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft and market-distorting subsidies. Beijing has by and large dismissed the claims and accused Washington of trying to contain China's rise.
Despite China's reforms over the past 40 years, the country has in some ways "become more inward looking, very much proud and nationalistic … (while) at the same time China is interacting with the world more than before," said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney. "These trends appear to be very much contrasting with each other."
China's "one country, two systems" constitutional principle formulated by Deng in the 1980s, under which there would be only one China, but Hong Kong and Macau could retain their own capitalist economic and political systems, is also celebrated in the exhibition.
However, there is no mention of the five months of protests that have roiled Hong Kong this year, stoked by allegations of police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the system.
Ni said the events in Hong Kong had highlighted the "irreconcilable" narrative the Communist Party was trying to push.
"On the one hand its trying to reconcile the idea of absolute political control," he said. "On the other hand giving these entities (Hong Kong and Macau) high agree of autonomy."
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