Sorry about the long absence.
- My back was giving me a heck of a time – but better now. Great to be back.
- Thanks to all of you who inquired about my absence.
Away from being on the computer every day, I had more time to muse about China.
- And about Xi Jinping.
I’ll cover three of those musings today.
- Mr. Xi has global ambitions but scant resources to achieve them; he may be counting on his worldview, ‘the East is rising, the West is declining,’ to compensate for the resources he lacks.
- Mr. Xi is an autocrat, not just because he hails from a Leninist party, but because autocracy has been in the Chinese political DNA for more than 2,000 years; faced with foreign challenges to autocracy Chinese emperors never faced, he is working to make the ‘world safe for autocracy’ - especially China's.
- Mr. Xi is painfully aware of China’s frustration and prior humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan and sees himself as the restorer of the Middle Kingdom, putting China again atop the world order.
PART ONE | XI JINPING’S GLOBAL AMBITIONS & RESOURCES
[.cmrred]1 | ‘Change unseen in 100 years is coming.’
Among the many events during my absence, I was struck by Mr. Xi’s comment as he was leaving Moscow after his 40th meeting with Vladimir Putin:
- ‘Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years. And we’re driving this change together.’
What change does Mr. Xi have in mind?
- A broad outline can be found in the March 30 speech on EU-China relations by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
- Besides defining the change, she presented the most concise – and in my view, most clear-eyed – assessment of China and its objectives and actions. I cannot encourage you more to read it.
- She noted, as I did above:
‘Most telling were President Xi's parting words to Putin on the steps outside the Kremlin when he said:’
- ‘Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we have not seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.'
Throughout her speech, she outlined what change Mr. Xi seeks to accomplish and how:
1. ‘We heard that last October when President Xi told the Communist Party Congress that by 2049 he wanted China to become a world leader in ‘composite national strength and international influence'.’
- ‘Or to put it in simpler terms: He essentially wants China to become the world's most powerful nation.’
2. ‘In his report to the recent Party Congress, President Xi told the Chinese people to prepare for struggle.’
- ‘It is no coincidence that he used in his opening speech the words ‘douzheng' and ‘fendou' repeatedly – which both can be translated as struggle.’
‘This is indicative of a world view shaped by a sense of mission for the Chinese nation.’
3. ‘[T]he Chinese Communist Party's clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its centre.’
- ‘We have seen it with China's positions in multilateral bodies which show its determination to promote an alternative vision of the world order.’
- ‘One, where individual rights are subordinated to national security.’
- ‘Where security and economy take prominence over political and civil rights.’
[.cmrred]2 | But will they have China’s back in a fight?
Do Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin and their friends have the economic, political, and military firepower to drive such change against the array of advanced democracies?
No doubt Mr. Xi has thrown in with Mr. Putin for the long run.
- But, given the showing in Ukraine, Russia is proving to be, as someone put it, ‘a gas station with nukes’ – still, we can’t ignore the nukes.
Mr. Xi has one ally, North Korea, and a number of friends, including Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and others.
- Even accounting for China’s economic and growing military might, taken together, Mr. Xi and his friends are no match for the U.S. and its array of allies: NATO, Japan, Korea, and Australia, along with other nations fearful of China’s aggression.
- If it came to a fight, I ask myself, how many of Mr. Xi’s friends would join him versus how of the U.S. allies would join America – and if all of Mr. Xi's did, would it make a difference?
[.cmrred]3 | Marxist history to the rescue
Given this relative weakness, Mr. Xi, as a dedicated Marxist, may be counting on history to make up the difference.
- Ever since the Bolsheviks succeeded in Russia (and before, in theory), Marxists have had faith that capitalism will author its own demise – and they are still waiting.
Corollary to this is Mr. Xi’s faith - against all evidence – expressed in his oft-repeated slogan:
- ‘The East is rising, and the West is declining.’
As Peking University’s Wang Jisi notes in ‘Wang Jisi: Has America declined? Chinese people should have a clear understanding’ [‘王缉思: 美国到底有没有衰落? 中国人应有清醒认识’]:
- ‘Chairman Mao emphasized in 1957 that “the east wind overcomes the west wind”. At that time, China’s view was “the enemy is declining day by day, and we are getting better day by day”.’
- ‘Now we say, “the East is rising, and the West is falling,” which is from the same lineage.’
Speaking of Mao, this reminds me of the song, a paeon to the Chairman and often referred to as China’s unofficial national anthem, ‘The East is Red,’ which begins:
- ‘The east is red, the sun is rising.’
The song is aspirational.
- The East was not Red when the current lyrics were first heard in 1942.
- And, with a couple of exceptions, it is not Red today.
Likewise, the idea of rise and decline goes back to Mao.
- Just as Mao got it wrong, so has Mr. Xi.
For Mr. Xi, ‘The east is rising, and the west is declining’ encapsulates a two-prong approach to that will allow him to make change not seen 100 years. If this is broadly right, he is basing his success on two faulty premises –
- The East is rising.
- The West is declining.
Taking the second prong - ‘the West is declining’ - first, I couldn’t disagree more.
- Among those arguing against the West’s decline is John Ikenberry, who notes in ‘Why American Power Endures: The U.S.-Led Order Isn’t in Decline’:
‘The storyline is the same.’
- ‘The United States is slowly losing its commanding position in the global distribution of power.’
- ‘The East now rivals the West in economic might and geopolitical heft, and countries in the global South are growing quickly and taking a larger role on the international stage.’
‘But in truth, the United States is not foundering.’
- ‘The stark narrative of decline ignores deeper world-historical influences and circumstances that will continue to make the United States the dominant presence and organizer of world politics in the twenty-first century.’
- ‘The deep sources of American power and influence in the world persist.’
As for the second prong – ‘the East is rising’ – I couldn’t agree more. But why Mr. Xi is encouraged by this is beyond me.
- The East is rising, all right – rising against China.
In the lead to his essay, ‘How China Lost Asia,’ former South Korean foreign minister, Yoon Young-Kwan, notes:
- ‘China’s efforts to bully its neighbors into acquiescing to its demands and preferences have failed.’
- ‘They have led Asia's democracies to deepen security cooperation with the United States.’
This East is rising, but it’s rising in tacit or direct opposition to China – from just plain fear generated by Mr. Xi himself. As a result,
- Japan is toughening its defenses; Australia’s formally put in with the U.S. and the UK; the Philippines is granting the U.S. more bases; even South Korea and Japan are trying to reconcile in a ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ sort of way - and much more.
A rising East is an obstacle, not an asset, in attaining the change Mr. Xi aspires to make.
- If the East had become Red, China would no doubt have a slew of Asian comrade nations allies. But it didn’t, and he doesn’t.
The East is not rising (at least not in the way Mr. Xi wishes), and the West is not declining.
- If Mr. Xi is indeed waiting for a Marxist history to vindicate his vision and deliver change unseen in 100 years, he will have a long wait – history is not coming.
PART TWO | XI JINPING, AUTOCRAT
Xi Jinping, autocrat and friend of autocrats.
- His reported mission: Make the world safe for autocracy.
- Foe of Joe Biden in Mr. Biden’s Manichean struggle between democracy and autocracy.
There are upstart autocrats who gain power through revolution, coups, subverting democracies, and the like.
- Not Mr. Xi.
He is an autocrat, first, as a believer in the Leninist Chinese Communist Party doctrine.
- And second, as heir to a 2,000-year-old tradition of autocracy - since the Qin Dynasty, 221 B.C., China has had, with few exceptions, a top-down government, headed by a supreme leader, and governed by an all-encompassing bureaucracy.
[.cmrred]1 | The latest in a long line of Chinese autocrats
Decades ago, I read an essay by John King Fairbank that posited that the Chinese Communist Party was really just the latest Chinese dynasty. While I can’t put my hands on the essay, I found the same idea in Dr. Fairbank’s 1989 essay, ‘Keeping up with the New China’:
- ‘The Chinese Communist party dictatorship is historically the successor to two thousand years of sweet-talking despotism by dynastic ruling families.’
More from Dr. Fairbank in his 1989 ‘Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy’:
- ‘In the twentieth century the institutional successor to family dynasties proved to be Party dictatorship, first as attempted rather loosely under Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang and second as achieved more tightly under Mao Zedong and the CCP.’
And Dr. Fairbank again from ‘From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping’:
- ‘The imperial autocracy, an institution persisting through the Ming, Ch’ing, Republican, and People’s Republic eras….’
‘This autocracy as a point of Chinese cultural distinctiveness is of course surrounded by a host of interconnected characteristics of social structure and values—like the bureaucrat’s need for a superior authority, the patriot’s search for a personal object of loyalty, or the common people’s acquiescence in the ruler’s violence in support of order.’
- ‘China’s culture of today, despite the inflow of foreign influences, retains its identifiable shape and interacting elements.’
Making Xi Jinping the latest in a long line of autocrats - and proud of it.
[.cmrred]2 | ‘Making the world safe for autocracy’
Mr. Xi seems increasingly like an autocrat in the imperial mode (without familial succession)
- But unlike the time when an emperor ruled over the Middle Kingdom, he is faced with adversaries who challenge his autocracy, and he is acting to counter them.
Michael Beckley and Hal Brands highlight both in their essay, ‘China’s Threat to Global Democracy.’
- For the Chinese Communist Party, ‘autocracy is not simply a means of political control or a ticket to self-enrichment.'
- It is ‘a set of deeply held ideas about the proper relationship between rulers and the masses.’
‘This belief in the superiority of an autocratic Chinese model coexists with deep insecurity:’
- ‘The PRC is a brutally illiberal regime in a world led by a liberal hegemon, a circumstance from which the CCP draws a sense of pervasive danger and a strong desire to refashion the world order so that the PRC’s particular form of government is not just protected but privileged.’
‘Chinese leaders feel a compulsion to make international norms and institutions friendlier to illiberal rule.’
- ‘That is why a powerful but anxious Chinese regime is now engaged in an aggressive effort to make the world safe for autocracy and to corrupt and destabilize democracies.’
‘The rulers in Beijing feel that they must wrest international authority away from a democratic superpower with a long history of bringing autocracies to ruin.’
- ‘And as an authoritarian China becomes powerful, it inevitably looks to strengthen the forces of illiberalism—and to weaken those of democracy—as a way to enhance its influence and bolster its own model.’
In a modern world where China has re-emerged with the power to try to reshape the international order, it makes sense that Mr. Xi would do what he can to make the world safe for China’s autocracy.
- And to weaken the opponents who oppose him.
PART THREE | XI JINPING, RESTORER OF THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
Thinking of Xi Jinping, I think of two parts of a line from Hamlet:
- ‘The time is out of joint,’ and
- ‘I was born to set it right.’
Time went of joint in the mid-1800s when China began its ‘Century of Humiliation.’
- And Mr. Xi, with a sense of destiny, seems to feel he was born to set it right.
- (I very much doubt that Mr. Xi would add: ‘O cursed spite’ – he seems to relish his role and the shot it gives him to go down in history as China’s greatest ruler.)
[.cmrred]1 | ‘The time is out of joint.’
John King Fairbank wrote in his 1966 ‘New Thinking About China’:
- ‘Down to the nineteenth century, China was its own world, an enormous, ancient, isolated, unified, and self-sufficient.’
- ‘It preserved a continuity of development in the same area over some three or four thousand years, and had a strong tendency to look inward.’
‘China was the center of the known world and of civilization.’
- ‘Non-Chinese were peripheral and inferior.’
- ‘China was superior to all foreign regions.’
‘The disaster that hit China in the nineteenth century is one of the most comprehensive any people has ever experienced.’
- ‘The ancient tradition of China’s superiority, plus this modern phase of disaster, undoubtedly produced one first-class case of frustration.’
- ‘It could not seem right that a civilization once at the top should be brought so low.’
Mr. Xi seems to feel China’s humiliation and frustration in his bones.
- All this is echoed in his overarching initiative: the China Dream.
[.cmrred]2 | ‘I was born to set it right.’
‘The CCP’s mandate is to set history aright by returning China to the top of the heap’ write Drs. Beckley and Brands.
‘In some ways, China’s bid for primacy in Asia and globally is a new chapter in the history’s oldest story.’
- ‘As countries grow more powerful, they become more interested in reshaping the world.’
- ‘Given how rapidly China’s power has increased over the past four decades, it would be very odd if Beijing was not asserting itself overseas.’
‘Yet China is moved by more than the cold logic of geopolitics.’
- ‘It is also reaching for glory as a matter of historical destiny.’
‘China’s leaders view themselves as heirs to a Chinese state that was a superpower for most of recorded history.’
- ‘A series of Chinese empires claimed “all under heaven” as their mandate and commanded deference from smaller states along the imperial periphery.’
‘In Beijing’s view, a U.S.-led world in which China is a second-tier power is not the historical norm but a profoundly galling exception.’
- ‘That order was created after the Second World War, at the tail end of a “century of humiliation” during which rapacious foreign powers had plundered a divided China.’
Again from Dr. Fairbank:
‘The most remarkable thing about China’s political history is the early maturity of the socio-political order.’
- ‘The ancient Chinese government became more sophisticated, at an earlier date, than any regime in the West.’
- ‘Principles and methods worked out before the time of Christ held the Chinese empire together down to the twentieth century.’
‘The fact that this imperial system eventually grew out of date in comparison with the modern West should not obscure its earlier maturity.’
- All what we might call the ‘institutional memory’ that Mr. Xi draws on today -
China is not groping to find its way or unsure of where it belongs – or doubtful about its role in shaping the world order.
- And Mr. Xi believes he was born to set it right.