President Xi Jinping’s vision of a glorious China has struck a great wall. Economic and Diplomatic Supremacy was supposed to open up New Silk Roads. Instead, he’s overreached. Now everything he says or does is met with suspicion. President Xi may well be proud of his nation’s resurgent economic and military strength. He may well wish to shrug off what he defines as a ‘century of humiliation’.
But the University of London’s China Institute says Xi’s aggressive foreign policy has produced what is, for him, an unexpected backlash. And that presents a dangerous problem.
“Xi Jinping has changed the politics in China. He cannot afford to, or would prefer not to show, any signs of weakness,” Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute.
Belt & Road Unravels
President Xi has copped an international bruising. Even Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post itself increasingly feeling the intense pressure to conform with China’s Communist Party thought; dares to admit this.
It’s just published a series of articles cross-examining their supreme leader’s performance.
“There we were, all ready for Donald Trump to cede global leadership but China’s heavy-handedness has left its neighbours happy to see the local thug beaten up by the bigger, global bully,” criticises commentator Karim Raslan.
And Beijing has brought this upon itself, through its own actions.
“It is only very recently that the US has begun to feel China’s rise poses a threat,” writes commentator Zamir Ahmed Awan. “Now, the Western world’s focus has changed: to monitoring China. With China on the radar, every move it makes is subject to scrutiny.”
The election of Donald Trump to the role of US President appears to have filled Xi with confidence and ambition
Here was the opportunity to ram home China’s new found global influence. Trump is a nationalist. Globalism isn’t his thing. And he seems more happy dissing his nation’s long-term allies than the dictators threatening his security.
President Xi sensed an opportunity. With the US in retreat on the global stage, China could step in to fill the void.
And he had the relevant policies in place: a rapidly expanding military, and an economic masterplan ‘The Belt and Road Initiative’ designed to exert influence across the world. But, according to Raslan, Xi appears to have made his move too soon. Beijing’s not yet up to the task. “A compelling portrait of an embattled leader is beginning to emerge,” he writes.
Strongman with Clay Feet
Amid a flurry of turmoils, Xi, who was declared President without term limits by his own Communist Party just last year is looking less secure. “Dissent among Chinese policymakers is growing,” the Raslan’s South China Morning Post piece reads. “With the fortieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s dramatic reforms just around the corner, many observers are assessing both men and Xi, despite his undoubted political muscle, is by no means winning the contest.”
Commentator Awan is more optimistic in his article about China’s and therefore Xi’s future. “China has what it takes to weather the storm. As an old civilisation, China has gone through many ups and downs in its history and learned many bitter lessons. Now it is mature enough to face any situation and navigate through these difficult times.” A third commentator adds a more ominous tone to this view.
“At a time when a rapidly modernising China is a leading global player, it is tempting to dismiss this doctrine (Xi Jinping Thought) as anachronistic party-speak from a bygone era. We succumb to this temptation at our peril,” writes Steve Tsang. And he reminds us what that thought is.
“Xi sees no place for political experimentation or liberal values in China, and regards democratisation, civil society and universal human rights as anathema.”
But this clash of international cultures is rapidly taking a back seat. Money talks. And nobody likes a bully.
“Faced with reversals abroad and a slowdown internally, Xi must be careful to play his cards right,” Raslan writes. “Although the rest of the world was initially dismissive of Trump, it’s clear to all that, with China at least, he means business. “As long as China is heavy-handed with its neighbours in Asia, the rest of the region will be more than happy to see the local thug beaten up by the bigger, global bully. “We don’t like Trump, but it is arguable that we like Xi even less.”
Economic Power Glitch
Economically, China’s power is Enormous. It has loaned billions of dollars to risky nations knowing they may not meet repayments. This provides the opportunity to seize key assets, such as deepwater ports, throughout the Indo-Pacific. Faced with such accusations, the Chinese Communist Party has labelled them “ridiculous and absurd”.
“Unlike the United States, China has absolutely no interest in controlling other nations’ politics. The global community is very clear about that,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said as recently as last week.
But Beijing has an image problem. “Peaceful relations must be built on understanding,” South China Morning Post commentator Awan warns. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched to foster connectivity, improve infrastructure, and boost regional development. The initiative should also enhance people-to-people contacts, which would eventually promote understanding among nations.” But the reality remains.
Nations such as New Zealand, the Maldives, the Philippines and even Australia face an open backlash every time they act on, or even express, concerns over Beijing’s undue influence over everything ranging from Huawei’s 5G networks to political donations.
But Xi may have spent too much time yearning for the green grass on the other side of the fence. He now has serious problems in his own backyard. “Cracks are emerging in China’s economy and the superpower is looking less invincible,” writes Raslan.