Chairman Xi has won COVID-19. Now China wants to win the world.
Confidence is an empowering thing.
So is fear.
Xi Jinping has bucketloads of both.
In the midst of a global crisis, Beijing is asserting its will like never before.
Mr Xi’s cracking down on Hong Kong. He’s pushing hard on Taiwan, the East and South China Seas. Even India.
Mr Xi’s dictating terms to the United Nations. He’s reaching deep into the affairs of countries around the globe. Including Australia.
So far, the world hasn’t demonstrated any great will to oppose him.
How did it come to this?
“What’s happening in Hong Kong? What’s happening with the border tensions with India? Why right now?” asks ANU National Security College associate professor Dr Michael Clarke.
“There seems to be at least a perception in Beijing that the time is right – in a very opportunistic sense. Obviously, it’s high risk. But it’s also potentially high reward behaviour.”
Flinders University Jeff Bleich Centre research lead Dr Zac Rogers says that if everything seems to be happening at once, that’s because it’s the new nature of international competition.
“The strategy is to push as hard as you can, where you can – just so long as you don’t cross into kinetic warfare. It’s very effective. It’s very destabilising. And the West, even after several decades of this, is still in the process of figuring out how to respond.”
Macquarie University Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies Bates Gill pins much of China’s actions on the character of its leader.
“Xi Jinping, if anything, has only further confirmed for us that he’s a risk-taker, is bold and is damn serious about what he says he wants – which is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. And so we should expect him to continue to be a risk-taker, to take bold measures in pursuit of this goal.”
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DESTINY WRIT LARGE
Chairman Xi is a man with a mission. That’s been evident since he secured his leadership over China’s Communist Party (CCP) in 2012.
It’s not the same mission as his more immediate predecessors.
Mr Xi’s a political princeling. He grew up amid the power and privilege of Beijing’s ruling class. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was part of the first generation of CCP leadership under Chairman Mao Zedong.
He sees himself restoring that legacy.
“I think we know enough about Xi Jinping to understand that he sees himself as a transformational and historic figure in China’s history,” says Professor Gill.
“His ambition and vision and belief – not just in himself but also the Party – is such that he’s going to double down and do everything they can to make sure his train keeps on rolling.”
Mr Xi’s predecessors had adopted policies of political reform and opening up to the world as a way of promoting economic growth and development.
“Not that ideology was absent,” Dr Clarke adds. “It was always there. But under Xi Jinping, I think we’ve seen a reversal of the order of priorities. Under Xi, the ideological and political domain is prioritised once again. And I think you can see this in what’s happening now.”
For Xi, the international COVID-19 crisis has become a catalyst for his ambitions.
“Even before COVID-19 the world seemed to be on a bit of a diplomatic race to the bottom,” Dr Rogers says.
“It was about who could survive the most pressure. And the pandemic has really, really turned that up. Now Beijing senses the relative weight of global influence is shifting in its favour.”
But it’s no certain thing.
“2020 is going to be a very tricky year,” Prof Gill says.
“This is the biggest crisis that Xi Jinping has ever faced. And I think he’s still scrambling for answers.”
BALANCE OF POWER
It could have gone either way. But Chairman Xi had prepared thoroughly for a crisis. Even if it wasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic.
China’s population was angry. The virus was sweeping the nation. Awkward questions were being asked.
Amid it all emerged a hero: Dr Li Wenliang. He had been on of the first to raise the COVID-19 alarm publicly. An information-management obsessed Communist Party was not pleased.
He was detained. Attempts were made to discredit him. Then, even as the pandemic he predicted exploded, the virus killed him.
Dr Li was on the brink of becoming a martyr. A rallying point for public dissent.
So the massive social-political engineering mechanism Chairman Xi had prepared for just such an eventuality swung into action. Beijing appropriated the doctor’s memory and transformed it from one of whistleblower to national patriot.
“Xi has rewritten history,” Dr Rogers says. “He’s recast himself as the saviour of the Chinese people. He’s even presenting himself as the benevolent saviour of the world. This propaganda has worked – inside China.”
Prof Gill says it’s all about maintaining the support and confidence of the Party.
China has a population of about 1.4 billion. Some 90 million of them are Party members. Most of those are ethnic Han.
“This is the most important circle. They rule the country. They run the country. But how they’re reacting to the various crises depends on who you talk to,” Prof Gill says.
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China has embraced the ease with which immense amounts of personal information can be harvested through social media and digitised records. Just as Western corporations leverage such surveillance to predict – and prompt – purchasing behaviour, Beijing uses it to ensure its ideologies are being obeyed.
You will think what they want you to think. You will do what they want you to do. And, if you don’t, they will find out – and punish you.
And there’s a need for such control.
China’s demographics are seriously skewed. The one-child policy was well-intentioned. But it’s produced a rapidly ageing population. Not to mention a severe shortage of wives. And then there’s been the grand – but disruptive – push to urbanise and industrialise.
Public unrest is always a threat.
On top of this is the way non-Party members and ethnic groups outside the Han are treated as subjects.
People like the protesters in Hong Kong or activists in Xinjiang, the religious devotees in Tibet … these are all Chinese citizens, Prof Gill says.
“But they’re not part of that inner circle. So I don’t think they matter all that much to Xi Jinping, at least not for the moment. What matters to him is that his Party support base stays happy for now.”
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Beijing’s ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomats have been unleashed on the world. They’re not at all being diplomatic. At least, not in the Western sense.
But their aggressive, confrontational demeanour is exactly what Beijing wants.
It serves Mr Xi’s purpose.
“It’s about pushing a big, bold and aggressive narrative out there,” Dr Rogers says. “And that sets a new bar – a new level of debate. It’s all about pushing their agenda.”
It’s certainly bold.
Brazil’s new Chinese ambassador this week wrote to members of parliament demanding they ignore Taiwan. The public backlash was immediate and predictable.
“I don’t think he was ignorant,” Prof Gill says. “I think he’s trying to score points at home. And, of course, not every member of the Brazilian parliament is going to get the same message. Some may respond in private by saying, ‘Well, let’s be more careful…’.”
Such startling nationalistic statements are about much more than international relations.
“It seems to me this harks back to the old Cultural Revolution days,” Dr Clarke says. “Then, as now, China’s various ambassadors around the world had to demonstrate loyalty by being sort of ultra-ultra Red Guard. So the question becomes: Which is the most important audience? And it seems to me that it’s the one back in Beijing.”
Prof Gill says it’s obvious China’s diplomats want to impress the guy at the top. “But I think it’s also intended as a way of reassuring and shoring-up public opinion. It’s about fostering solidarity and unity in the face of what is the biggest crisis the Party has faced since at least 1989. I mean, everyone’s happy if the top guy reads your tweet. But it’s bigger than that.”
Aggressive language. Threatening military movements. Economic coercion.
“This is very consistent with past practice,” Prof Gill says. “Lean forward. Test the waters. Probe. Push the envelope. And then – when you finally meet resistance – you fall back. But only by one step. That’s what we’ve seen from Beijing over the past several years.”
It’s all a matter of attitude, says Dr Rogers. “For Beijing, political warfare is constant and unrestricted. It’s economical. It’s information manipulation. It’s militaristic. So they’re constantly calculating and modulating levels of aggressiveness in their diplomacy. It’s all about what benefits they see available at any given time.”
It’s also about driving a wedge into existing international relationships.
“A significant component of the Hong Kong situation right now is a message to Taiwan,” Dr Rogers says. “It’s about America’s response. Or lack of one. It’s about shaking Taiwan’s confidence in America’s backing and support.”
And Beijing appears convinced it can handle any political fallout.
“Again, it’s about being prepared to wear certain costs – whether they be diplomatic or economic – to embed certain objectives,” Dr Clarke says. “But also, once you have set a high bar, it can then subsequently be walked back a little. But that new benchmark inevitably remains.”
Prof Gill says there’s every sign Beijing will continue to turn up the pressure. “I would not discount the possibility that there will be more episodes like those we’ve seen toward Hong Kong or Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
“It’s brinkmanship tactics. And it’s mostly in the realm of politics and diplomacy – which is very hard to respond to. China holds a lot of cards. So it’s quite possible we’ll see more of the same.”
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A WORLD OF CHANGE
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing pressure points and tensions across the world. Both geopolitical and economic.
“I think it’s right to say the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically accelerated all of these trajectories which were already in motion and moving increasingly into negative territory,” Prof Gill says. “Whether that’s China’s economic prospects, whether that’s US-China rivalry, whether that’s a self-perceived need on the part of the Party to be more assertive – to shore up its self-confidence, to aggressively seek the respect of the outside world. I think obviously it’s going to get worse.”
China has money. It has resources. It has people. It has technology.
“The US really now looks hellbent on decoupling its economy with China, not only financially but technologically,” Dr Rogers says. “And that comes back to the race-to-the-bottom concept. Is such a decoupling worse for the US? Or worse for China?”
But not everything is falling in Mr Xi’s lap.
“We like to give China credit for having very long-term, well-thought-out plans,” Dr Clarke says. “But, in fact, they’re often just as ad hoc in their decisions as everybody else. Especially when reacting to unexpected events.”
Prof Gill believes imperatives of survival are driving Beijing. “And they just don’t have a lot of choices, to be honest. Backing down, giving up, throwing in the towel – no way. And since their vision can’t be voted out in the ballot box, it’s one that they’ll have to continue to pursue.”
Otherwise, they’d have to admit to making a mistake.
“It may be that we’ll see some pullback because of an unexpectedly severe economic downturn, because of international push back, and possibly even some disgruntlement within the Party itself,” Prof Gill adds.
“But we should expect another ‘two-steps forward’ within the next couple of years because, well, rejuvenating a nation is no easy thing. And Xi has big plans. And his legacy depends on taking those steps forward again before too long.”