As China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party's rule, China's ambassador to the U.S. says that it's thanks to that very system that his country has climbed the ranks of global leadership.
"We have had our own setbacks over the years," Cui Tiankai tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "But generally speaking, as a whole, we have gradually found a path for China's development that works for China."
"China has grown into the second largest economy in the world from a very low base. We have lifted something between 700 million to 800 million people out of poverty," he adds.
The celebration of the Communist Party's seven decades of power comes at a time when China is facing immense challenges both at home and abroad. The country recently recorded its slowest economic growth in nearly 30 years, which has been aggravated by a prolonged trade war with the United States.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, protests have endured for 17 weeks. Demonstrators who had been protesting a controversial extradition bill that has since been pulled are now calling for universal suffrage. Cui denies that Beijing influences the leaders available to the voters of Hong Kong to choose from — even though Beijing signs off on anyone who runs for elections in Hong Kong — but he says, "No one should try to challenge China's sovereignty over Hong Kong."
China also continues to contend with a U.S. military-bolstered Taiwan just off its shores and faces great criticism from the international community for its treatment of ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs and Hui — all while continuing to implement their lofty Belt and Road Initiative across the globe.
Cui believes both the U.S. and China could make greater efforts to understand one another.
"Our strategic intention is very simple: We want our people to have a better life," he says. "We are not here to challenge or try to replace any other country. We have no interest in global dominance or hegemony; we just want our people to have a better life."
On China's domestic security apparatus
I don't think that we are doing more in China than what you are doing in the United States. You have so powerful [sic] security agencies protecting Americans. We have to protect our Chinese people. I think that both are legitimate. Today's world is not that safe. We still have terrorism, you have so many shooting incidents here. So what is the responsibility of the government?
On President Xi's move to do away with presidential term limits
The change of the constitution just removed the term limit for the president. But actually for the leader of the party, the Party General Secretary of the party's Central Committee, there was no term limit. And this is just to coordinate the two because normally one person would take up both posts.
So it's just a kind of coordination. It does not mean that we have in the constitution any life term [of the presidency] for anybody.
On a resolution for the Hong Kong protests
People in Hong Kong may have different views, they have to solve these problems themselves. But the bottom line is that nobody should challenge China's sovereignty, nobody should resort to violence.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Seventy years ago, communist rebels in China became the government. After a long civil war, they proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949. Part of their ideology was resistance to Western powers. Today China is a power itself, the world's second-largest economy. Its ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, visited our studios on the eve of the anniversary.
CUI TIANKAI: We have had our own setbacks over the years. The Cultural Revolution is one of them. But generally speaking, on the whole, we have gradually found a path for China's development that works for China. We have lifted something between 700 million to 800 million people out of poverty.
INSKEEP: Now, the Cultural Revolution was a period of government-inspired chaos, when intellectuals were targeted and universities closed. It's a cautionary tale about the dangers of one-party rule. Yet China's economic success has posed a challenge to Western democracies. And in our talk, I asked the ambassador about China's one-party state, including its close surveillance of minorities and dissidents.
CUI: I don't think that we are doing more in China than you are - what you are doing in the United States. You have so powerful security agencies protecting Americans. We have to protect our Chinese people. I think both are legitimate. Today's world is not that safe. We still have terrorism. You see you have so many - I'm sorry to say - so many shooting incidents here. So what is the responsibility of the government?
INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about that. There's actually quite low crimes, so far as I know, in China. And yet there are...
CUI: Yeah, yeah.
INSKEEP: ...Hundreds of thousands, perhaps more, Uighurs who've been sent to detention...
CUI: No. You see...
INSKEEP: ...Camps for reeducation, for example.
CUI: You see, China has 56 ethnic groups; all of them are equal. Whatever secretive measures we are taking is not against any particular ethnic group. What we are doing in Xinjiang is to protect people from the threat of terrorism.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, you alluded to a historic misstep. You said the Cultural Revolution might fit into that category. After that violent and difficult experience, China's system changed. Under the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, new customs were put in place in which there would not be a lifetime leader. It was presumed that any leader would only last for two terms in office, which is the same as the United States, incidentally - two five-year terms in China's case. Now your current president has changed that. Why?
CUI: Well, the change of constitution just removed the term limit for the president. But actually, for the leader of the party, the general secretary of the party's Central Committee, there was no term limit. And this is just to coordinate the two because, normally, one person would take up both posts.
INSKEEP: The leader of the party is also the president.
CUI: Yeah. So it does not mean that we have in the constitution any life term for anybody.
INSKEEP: But it was presumed that that limitation was there as a check on one-man rule, and now that check has gone away.
CUI: There are a lot of checks on any person in the Chinese system. Nobody is above the law.
INSKEEP: I'm going to accept that with the stipulation that, isn't it true that the person on the top can change the law so that whatever he does is always legal?
CUI: No individual, whether at the top or not, can changes the law by himself or herself. Any change of the law has to go through the legal process.
INSKEEP: Yes. But again, one-party state, one-party legislature - rubber stamp.
CUI: No, no. If you talk to our National People's Congress, this is a very strict legal process.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about another issue that is very much in the news, and that is Hong Kong.
INSKEEP: As you know, there was a 17th weekend of protest in recent days in Hong Kong. The protesters first objected to an extradition law but have since broadened their demands, and they speak of wanting universal suffrage, more power to choose their own leaders. And there is a Basic Law in Hong Kong that's been approved by the central government that assures that that is the goal. The goal is the selection of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage. When will that happen?
CUI: The situation in Hong Kong, first of all, is a domestic issue in China. There are two things people have to be clear about. First, no one should try to challenge China's sovereignty over Hong Kong. No. 2, violence has to stop. Order has to be restored before people are able to do anything else.
And actually, just a few years ago, there was a proposal that would lead to what you call universal suffrage. But this was rejected by the opposition people in Hong Kong.
INSKEEP: They felt it didn't go far enough.
CUI: Well, if you don't move forward, you never go far. You have to take step by step. And what is happening in Hong Kong is that these violent demonstrators, they are challenging China's sovereignty in Hong Kong. They are challenging the Basic Law itself. Some of them have raised American flags, British flags. They are challenging China's sovereignty in Hong Kong.
INSKEEP: If they're inspired by American ideas of democracy, is that really challenging China's sovereignty?
CUI: We have seen how export of these, what you call American ideas, worked elsewhere in the world. Libya, Syria, Iraq - we have seen all of this.
INSKEEP: You're criticizing the United States for its military invention - interventions in various places.
CUI: I'm not criticizing anything.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) Because you're a diplomat...
CUI: I'm just telling you...
INSKEEP: ...And you're being very gracious.
CUI: I'm just telling you the facts.
INSKEEP: But in this case, we're talking about...
CUI: Such a regime change...
INSKEEP: But we're talking about democracy here. We're not actually talking about some kind of airstrike.
CUI: Yeah. When - some years ago, when the United States started the war in Iraq, democracy was also mentioned as a justification. So now over a dozen years have passed; you see what has happened.
INSKEEP: President Bush's administration did talk of democratizing Iraq. And there is now an elected government, flawed though it may be. But there was also a very costly war. However, is this not a different situation, where you have millions of people who are citizens of Hong Kong...
INSKEEP: ...Who are saying they want the rights that they're allotted in the Basic Law - China's own law?
CUI: Yeah. But they are challenging the Basic Law itself. We want have one country, two systems. We still want see both systems work. But they are challenging the Hong Kong system themselves. That's their problem.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for coming by.
CUI: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.