How the rest of the world responds to what is happening in the People’s Republic of China, is the critical question of our time. How we do so, will determine the future of liberal democracy, of independent legal systems, of free-thinking writers and free-spirited artists, of religious institutions.
Its longtime former foreign minister Qian Qichen said that “diplomacy is the extension of domestic policy”. In order to learn why China is behaving as it is internationally, it is essential to understand what drives the communist party that has ruled it for 72 years – which is today effectively the sole institution in China. No organisation exists, from a football team to a church to a university to a private business, that is not guided by a party representative or branch within it. The party’s general secretary Xi Jinping famously says: East west north south and the centre, the party leads all.
Xi is today the most powerful person in the world, aged 67 now constitutionally able to govern for life without a single constraint except the underlying requirement to maintain the confidence of influential members of the party. He is a risk-taker, a dice-roller. He keeps pressing on because of course he believes in historical determinism, in communism’s ultimate victory, and also because of his personal experience of political success – although this naturally involves struggle. In a recent speech Xi used the word for struggle, douzheng, 60 times. One of the earliest and most important instructions issued by the party under Xi’s leadership, Document Number 9, requires party members and all officials to guard against and vigorously oppose seven threats: universal values, press freedom, civil society, citizens’ rights, reviewing the party’s version of history, and endorsing either the “capitalistic class” or the independence of the judiciary.
Xi bears little resemblance to other political leaders anywhere. He is neither a pragmatic factional player nor a cynical tyrant like the side-kick he has called “my best, most intimate friend,” Vladimir Putin. He is a true believer, an evangelist, and his party that he leads for life contains all truth and is his religion. For Xi, China is the greatest, most ancient of civilisations; the party has wrapped itself around everything to do with “China” that it views positively; and the party itself is encapsulated by the figure it has made, however reluctantly and accidentally, its leader for life – himself. His Thought On Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is now enshrined in both party and state constitutions.
Both the party and Xi are today pervasive, they are able to observe every online message or phone call sent or received by every Chinese person, and to watch through the grid management system every step people take in the real world too. Xi has centralised, restructured and personalised governance through a form of counter-reformation, refocusing on ideology and on the party’s control over China’s understanding of history. Accountability, in this structure, always operates upwards and not downwards.
The party takes the view that the “masses” are unable to think coherently, only to feel. Hence, Chinese people cannot be trusted to vote – but one can very readily “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
While the Soviet Party thought 30 years ago that its problems lay in ideology and party orthodoxy, the CCP came to the opposite conclusion, which Xi underlined in asking: “Why did the communist party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces? Because in the ideological domain, competition is fierce! To completely repudiate the history of the party, to repudiate Lenin and Stalin, was to wreak chaos.”
Xi’s top priority has been to purify the party which he saw lapsing into slackness and corruption, insisting on personal loyalty, and on the party’s absolute centrality. Networks used to comprise the greatest asset for those within the Chinese hierarchy, as well as for foreigners dealing with the PRC, opening space for much to be negotiated. Now there are rules, which spring from the grand narrative of party ideological primacy.
Xi has faced three especially big challenges over the past year: how to resolve the persisting protests in Hong Kong, how to survive the initial gross mishandling of the Covid pandemic, and, less troubling – how to cope with a weird American president.
For Hong Kong, he applied tactics he had already used to subjugate China’s vast western hinterland. Wear down critics, isolate them, punish them, and install devout personal loyalists to key supervisory roles. The arrangement of one country two systems agreed for Hong Kong between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher never appealed to Xi, and has been abandoned. Xi’s New Era governance insists on one country, one system.
After an initial period of almost-panic when many in China turned critical over the party’s attempts to silence whistleblower doctors over the emergence of Covid, Xi regained his firm footing through a classic propaganda coup - being newly dubbed the People’s Leader winning the People’s War against Covid, while the capitalist nations wilted.
Having faced such challenges over the last year, Xi looks to be on much surer ground in this new Year of the Ox.
Taiwan, a lively and prosperous democracy with a population greater than Chile, and now also the world’s exemplar in combatting Covid, is Xi’s next and most important target, his final big borderland challenge. Invading and holding down Taiwan is the most assured route into the communist hall of fame for Xi, who next July 23 presides over the party’s centenary.
Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, to which Chile signed up in 2018, comprises a highway down which all roads and tech platforms lead to Beijing as they once did to Rome, fuelled and powered by the weaponization of China’s economic heft. The BRI updates the old tribute-state structure through which Chinese emperors received from regional rulers formal acknowledgment of their dominance, and were in return accorded trading rights and a degree of strategic shelter.
In broad terms, the goals of Xi comprise, in this order: Keep the party in power at all costs. Maintain national territorial integrity. Grow the national economy fast enough to break out of the middle-income trap, to grow rich before growing old. Gain sufficient military might to deter the US and its allies from intervention over Taiwan, the South China Sea or the East China Sea. Become the world’s top tech power and thus leading economy. Undermine US credibility sufficiently to attract its partners into Chinese association instead. Deepen the relationship with Russia to guard against Western pressure. Diminish the US dollar’s status as the global reserve currency. Consolidate the Belt & Road Initiative into a dependable geopolitical bloc. Construct a new international order that reflects PRC thinking.
China is no longer a status quo power. It has become a revisionist power, seeking to reshape the world. The former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, says: “China doesn’t just want you to comply with its wishes, it wants you to do what it wants, without being told.”
Weaponising its economy – the PRC’s most important strategy of recent years – requires people at home and abroad to stay convinced it will thrive and drive world growth. But what if China’s economy loses its edge, its vitality, its mojo? China’s three chief drivers of growth – credit, internal migration and exports – are becoming over time increasingly constrained, while in the longer time its demographics – with the former one-child policy causing it to age very rapidly – will also create big headaches.
But Xi is determined. He has suffered no serious set-back at home or abroad. He will press on. We must pay attention.