China At 50: Friend Or Foe?

China is having a birthday on Friday. A 50th - always a big event, but for China the biggest in a while.

The Chinese are celebrating Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao Zedong stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace in BeijingÂ's Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the PeopleÂ's Republic of China. Communism had come to the worldÂ's most populous country.

Fifty years later, Mao might be surprised at what China is turning out to be. The Communist Party, once the only way to success, is fast losing members. As one member told CBS News, he is too busy running his new company to take (or waste) the time with party meetings.

 Celebrating 50 Years
of the People's Republic of China
Photo Essay · Video · Timeline

We have all heard of the country's economic boom. Look around your house, and youÂ'll find any number of items made in China.

But for some, ChinaÂ's embrace of a mrket economy has been an economic bust, especially for rust-belt industries struggling and shutting down. Many jobs that paid little, but at least paid something, are disappearing.

The young find it exciting, and talk of new opportunities. The old feel left behind, slowly realizing that life, for them, will get increasingly hard.

The West saw, when pro-democracy students were gunned down in Tiananmen Square 10 years ago, how ChinaÂ's leaders handle any effort at opening the political system.

More recently, dissidents trying to start a new Democracy Party have ended up in prison with 10-year jail terms.

Moscow's Legacy
What are the Chinese leaders afraid of? Look no further than the old Soviet Union, which put political reform first and assumed that economic reform would follow naturally. Instead, the country spun apart.

CBS News Correspondent Barry
MoscowÂ's political reform is in disarray and economic reform appears to have benefited organized crime more than anyone else. The Soviet Union was one of the worldÂ's most controlled societies. Its Russian offspring is more like an American frontier town, with too many gunslingers for anyoneÂ's health.

Chinese communist officials talk openly of making political changes, but the words Â"some dayÂ" almost invariably creep into the sentence somewhere, right beside a pledge that the political system will retain its Â"Chinese characteristics.Â"

Translation: When we feel like it. When the country is ready. When we can guarantee that the people wonÂ't, or canÂ't, toss us out of power like the Russians did to their once-supreme Communist Party.

Defying Containment

Soldiers march past
a portrait of Mao
Zedong as they
prepare for a parade.
China has every intention of being a world superpower in the next few decades, both economically and militarily. Some find that prospect frightening and feel that America and the rest of the world should work to keep China "contained."

But that is what Mao stood against that day in October. He told his people he had put an end to foreign domination - by the Japanese in World War II, the West a century before and by the Manchurians, who made up the last dynasty.

China hears the word "contained" and, to them, it comes out "dominated."

It is a hopeless effort by outsiders to believe they can keep China down. Cooler heads suggest a place for China in the orld - a big place, for a huge country with giant dreams. Even Mao realized that he could not live in isolation. Even Mao shook the hand of President Richard Nixon in Beijing.

China may never be WashingtonÂ's friend or close ally. But as Americans contemplate 50 years of Communism and the influence of Mao, they should realize that China need not be AmericaÂ's enemy, either.
Written by Barry Petersen
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