One man. One party. One country of 1.4 billion people. Little wonder Chairman-for-life Xi Jinping is worried about maintaining absolute authority.
To do so, he’s painted a nationalistic picture of China’s future. It’s as good as – if not greater – than at any point in its 2000-year history.
Now, he has to deliver. That’s not proving so easy.
Floods. Insects. Famine. COVID-19. All are affecting food supplies and prices.
Xi quickly fell back on the tried-and-tested fallback position for most embattled authoritarian leaders: extol the nation’s greatness, it’s glorious history, it’s manifest destiny – and blame everybody else for its woes.
RELATED: Satellite images expose China’s plan
But the world isn’t cowering in the face of such ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy as expected.
They’re biting back.
Australia. Britain. Canada. India. Japan. Vietnam. All have stood firm in the face of extraordinary Chinese threats and intimidation. And, for Chairman Xi, that’s humiliating.
Now rumbles are beginning within his halls of power. Has Xi squandered China’s great chance to take its rightful place on the world stage?
Instead of backing down in the face of threatened economic sanctions, Canberra has hardened its insistence upon the rule of international law over the East and South China Seas.
Malaysia, facing frequent incursions on its economic zone and interference with its commercial operations in the South China Sea, issued a formal note of complaint about China’s actions late last year. Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines have followed suit.
Even Somalia has taken a stand. Chinese ambassador Qin Jian reportedly attempted a ‘wolf-warrior’ tack in recent talks with President Muse Bihi. He was given “marching orders”, and Somalia’s government initiated diplomatic contact with Taiwan.
Richard McGregor at the Lowy Institute points out there are concealed signs of dissent among Beijing’s elite.
The recent high-profile arrest of Beijing-based Professor of constitutional law Xu Zhangrun may be a veiled warning to them all. The legal scholar’s crime was to advocate equality under the law for all Chinese citizens.
It took a dozen police to arrest the 57-year-old intellectual at his Beijing apartment last month. But, he was ready. He’d long since said he kept a spare set of clothes by the door to take with him when detained.
He’s now a subject of the Communist Party-controlled legal system he dared criticise.
Coercion may be working well to silence internal dissent. Internationally? Not so much.
And behind the barks and growls of his ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats, Xi must now contend with grumbling generals.
VOICES OF DISSENT IN THE RANKS
Retired Major General Qiao Liang and a serving PLA Air Force Senior Colonel Dai Xu are two prominent voices sounding a note of discord in Beijing in recent weeks.
Qiao is one of the founders of China’s modern military doctrine after publishing his book Unrestricted Warfare in 1999.
He’s dared to contradict Chairman Xi’s aggressive threats to take control of neighbouring Taiwan by force.
“China’s ultimate goal is not the reunification of Taiwan, but to achieve the dream of national rejuvenation so that all 1.4 billion Chinese can have a good life,” he said in a recent interview. “Could it be achieved by taking Taiwan back? Of course not.”
Senior Colonel Dai was even blunter about the potential cost of a cold war with the US in an essay entitled: 2020, Four Unexpected Things and Ten New Understandings About the United States.
“The US would be so tough, imposing stacked tariff increases of 30 billion, 50 billion and then 200 billion,” he writes. “Remember: the 30 billion in tariffs imposed on you will bring an effect of 60 billion, 90 billion, or more. This is where Imperial America is truly powerful. We must be rational instead of angry and fight wisely.”
People’s Liberation Army Senior Colonel Zhou Bo has also rejected his great leader’s belligerent tone in a recent article for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. Instead of being a crisis, he argued the latest dispute with Washington was merely a “headwind”. It was all to be expected as Beijing continued to “develop peacefully” and Washington languished in decline.
“Even if the US is in retreat, Beijing has more serious business to attend to than confront Washington, most importantly the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ by 2049”.
According to McGregor, this all hints of the shadow politics of Beijing’s halls of power.
“Xi has always had his critics among China’s liberal scholars who blame him for provoking the US with his assertive diplomatic and military policies,” he writes.
They prefer the “hide your strength, bide your time” policy enacted by Chairman Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.
“But by citing the doctrine of a revered political leader like Deng, the liberals gave themselves political cover to criticise Xi, without mentioning him by name.”
CHAIRMAN WITHOUT A TIME LIMIT
China’s state-controlled media is almost shrill in its repeated declaration: “The CCP must have absolute leadership over the military”.
Not the state. Not the government. Not the law. The Communist Party.
And Xi is its Chairman without a time limit.
“The PLA led by our Party has been the staunch pillar of the people’s republic, a great wall of steel in defence of the motherland and an important force in socialist construction,” an editorial on the ChinaMil official PLA website reads.
“And loyalty to the CPC is the soul and lifeblood of the PLA and the reason why the PLA can overcome difficulties and achieve victories.”
Article after article. Video after video. This message is proclaimed over and over again.
As Beijing has learnt several times in the past century, a powerful military can be a two-edged sword. A mutiny in 1927 led to the militarisation of the CCP and the successful 1949 revolution.
“China will continue to uphold and improve the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces and ensure that they will faithfully fulfil their missions in the new era,” the Central Committee decreed last year.
This year, they’ve been giving the PLA cause to be distracted – heightened tensions in the East and South China Sea, in the Himalayas, against Taiwan and the United States.
“Prepare For Worst-Case Scenarios,” Xi instructed his troops in May.
“Although the main objective of Beijing’s nationalist push has been to build domestic support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it has also stoked tensions with Washington, as each side tries to outdo the other in shifting blame and avoiding accountability,” associate professor Jessica Chen Weiss of Cornell University writes in Foreign Affairs.
“Wolf warrior diplomacy might appease Chinese nationalists at home, but it will limit China’s appeal abroad. And xenophobia and repression in the name of national stability — whether toward African migrants in Guangzhou, Central Asian minorities in Xinjiang, or ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong — have given the lie to Chinese efforts to project a benevolent and magnanimous image.”
Beijing is rapidly losing what friends it has.
“China has provided assistance to so many countries, benefiting them in so many ways, but at this critical moment, none of them has taken any unified action with China,” Colonel Dai bemoans.
This fallout is also severely affecting many key Chinese corporations with strong ties to the military’s leadership. Alibaba, Huawei and Tencent are just the most prominent names facing an intense international backlash.
Their financial losses will be felt personally by many PLA generals.
And unhappy generals make for uneasy authoritarian leaders.
Must Xi back down? Or must Xi escalate?
McGregor says Beijing is unlikely to back down as it has a “powerful military and a political system with a profoundly adversarial mindset toward the West”.
“Those factors alone, along with Xi’s ambitions for China and his iron discipline in executing them, make it difficult for China to set a new course,” he writes. “They have already ‘made America angry’, and it will be hard to turn that around. Similarly, these factors have also ensured that the more concerted global pushback against China will be sustained for some time yet.”
Weiss agrees. “Even if Beijing recognises these problems, it will be costly — although not impossible — for the Chinese leadership to constrain the nationalism it has unleashed.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel