China has come a long, long way. With the Communist Party meeting in Beijing to choose the next generation of leaders that will guide the country into the future, it would be proper to recall the past.
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, much of the rest of the world cheered. In the West, it was concern over the rise of communism -- and, remember, there was Stalin's Soviet Union already in place as a force to reckon with -- that defined responses to the phenomenon. Led by the United States in a soon to be Cold War era, the West saw People's China as a grave threat to global stability.
The truth was somewhere else: the West was not happy that Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang had lost the struggle and had taken refuge on the island of Formosa.
As Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang prepare to take over from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, it is well to remember the contempt with which US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles turned away, in 1954, from China's scholarly premier Chou En-lai who, hand outstretched, thought he would shake the American's hand as a gesture of goodwill. And that was how the 1950s spent themselves out. As the Chinese went through the disaster of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and then a chaotic Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, worries arose about the future of a system which seemed to be stumbling from problem to bigger problem.
And yet the Chinese leadership went about building bridges all over Asia and Africa. Chou En-lai toured Africa, lecturing the continent's newly independent nations on the evils of US imperialism and Soviet revisionism. Along the way, Beijing made some bad moves, such as the war in 1962 with Nehru's India and then, at the height of the Bangladesh war in 1971, its support for Pakistan. Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, the Cultural Revolution disrupted Chinese aspirations. Perceived capitalist roaders were purged, carted off to prison. Liu Shaoqi, Mao's comrade and the country's president, died in prison in 1969.
The revolution, the message was loud and clear, had continued to be an on-going process. The struggle within the Communist Party continued even as triumphs began to come at the international level. In 1964, China exploded an atomic bomb and so joined the exclusive club of the world's nuclear powers.
In the same year, French President Charles de Gaulle's decision to recognise People's China clearly was the first big dent in the hardline stance of the West toward Mao and his country. The country's entry into the United Nations in 1971 was the ultimate sign that the sleeping giant was fully and finally awake. Richard Nixon went all the way to Beijing in 1972, to shake the hand that Dulles had spurned.
At this point in time, as China prepares for what has become a once-in-a-decade change of leadership, it is easy to recall the chaos that followed the deaths of Mao and Chou in 1976. Hua Guofeng, the Gang of Four, the two-time purging of Deng Xiaoping are now memory. Today, as China strides to take its place in the world -- it is the world's second largest economy, its businesses are claiming increasingly larger swathes of the world's geography, its politicians are heard with respect around the globe -- it is Deng's economic liberalisation that is remembered. Deng died in 1997, but left behind an enduring legacy of a proper, orderly transition to new leadership at regular intervals in the country.
And yet China is not a perfect place. No country ever is. In recent times, corruption has turned out to be a menace that has its leaders worried. Corruption is the enemy, as the Bo Xilai episode shows up all too well. The economy, having slowed down, needs to gather new speed. In its dealings with the outside world, China will be called upon to be pragmatic in policy and cognisant of the sensitivities of other nations.
The next ten years will change the world. More than any other nation -- and that includes the United States and the European Community -- it will be the quality of China's political leadership that will be the key factor in a shaping of the global future.