China has undeniably managed to slowly carve out its place among the international great powers. As we enter the second decade of this century, analysts and world leaders are more wary of a possible powder keg blowing up in the Far East rather than in the usual and crisis stricken Middle East. In the wake of the recent Iranian crisis of January 2020, The Economist has even suggested how the overall US, and Trump’s, strategy in the region might be to pull-out and de-escalate as soon as possible to re-direct all resources to the more pressing situation emerging around China.
The US-China relationship, it goes without saying, has reached dramatically tense contours, probably for the first time since the normalization of US-China diplomatic relations with Nixon and Mao in 1979. The intensifying trade-war, which, more often than not, has seen politically charged and vehement diplomatic exchanges between the world’s two largest economies, is merely a symptom of a deeper imbalance between China and the West. Indeed, while the US naturally takes up direct confrontation with the Eastern giant, it should be noted that China’s model and Weltanschauung is well distinct from that which more generally belongs to the West.
In particular, Europe’s sitting on the fence because of lack of political will-power should not obscure the fact that the Old Continent’s pluralist, democratic and (even if recently it has come increasingly under strain) liberal heritage is fundamentally distinct from the vision which the Chinese Communist Party is pursuing. The latter, while presenting itself to the outside as open and cooperative, does rely on authoritarian and non-pluralist principles to limit freedom of expression domestically and abroad, enhance its position of power, punish adversaries and manipulate information.
The West will need to re-think its international standing not only in terms of real power, but also in terms of deeper, ideological lines. Indeed, Western societies, and particularly the US, are not immune to the spread of authoritarian and anti-liberal winds. It is often out of fragility that Western powers seek to point the finger against China. This is most evident with the recent escalation provoked by Donald Trump. Having lost faith in many of their own crucial pillars, the US look at China, in some sort of non-bellicose “Thucydides Trap”, as a possible scapegoat. This is a process which is dangerous both for the West and for the entire world. Fundamental imbalances and entrenched insecurities create fragility, which in turn is a reason for un-reasoned and radical action. Nonetheless, this is a trend that has not at all excluded China.
China is facing a crucial phase of its political, social and economic development. In the next decade, the Middle Kingdom will be confronted with key choices and crossroads which will determine its future both at home and as a global player. 2019 closes, and 2020 opens, with an overall negative balance for China. The economy keeps contracting, having reached around 6% growth rate in 2019. If we compare it to the staggering 15% growth rate in 2007, this cannot be good news for a power establishment whose primary legitimation channel relies on economic performance.
Xi Jinping’s mantra of the “China Dream” (Zhongguo Meng) may have been enshrined in the Constitution in an unprecedented act since Mao Zedong, but the conservative Party General Secretary has never seen an improvement in growth during his by-now seven years long mandate. It is hard to foresee how he and the CCP will soften the blow. While they can count on, and have indeed made all possible use of the extremely well prepared and fine-grained propaganda-machine the Chinese government has been working on for nearly a century now, today’s daily technological breakthroughs represent both a weapon and a threat for the Party’s attempts for legitimating its rule. It is increasingly harder to control information flows, and there are countless Chinese abroad, especially in Western universities, which have potentially access to the depths of the web beyond the Great Firewall. Perhaps, then, the CCP may need to rely more on positive and strategic propaganda rather than on trying to prevent its subjects to reach information sources. And it has done so, producing increasingly unpredictable and hardly controllable consequences.
Negative censorship and traditional authoritarian models of self-defense have been additionally put under considerable pressure by events which happened within Chinese borders and which have gained considerable international attention. Most importantly, Beijing will need to deal with the situation in Hong Kong at some point. The highest ranks of the Chinese leadership have been practically paralyzed by the events in the former British colony, and this was mainly because due to a complete lack of understanding of Hong Kong’s specific context in the past decade.
Indeed, by ignoring the rising localism and pro-democratic sentiment in Hong Kong and attributing grievances to merely economic issues while strengthening its control over the already limited autonomy granted by the “One Country, Two Systems” maxim, Beijing authorities have slowly created a fertile ground for resentment in their own garden. The 2019 extradition bill protests exploded to incorporate a wide range of issues perceived by Hong Kong citizens (the famous “Five Demands”). Nevertheless, it is remarkable to observe how the key factors which led to a quick escalation of violence and resentment often depended from the Beijing-backed Hong Kong’s government’s inability and unwillingness to take the matter seriously and address it with practical answers. By merely praising and strenuously supporting the repressive capacities of the police force, authorities didn’t exactly make a step towards the many who were so determined to risk their everything on the streets.
Trapped by its desire to shine internationally on the one hand and by its need to stop the deadly virus of anti-Party protest to spread towards the mainland, the CCP has relied on a strategy of time-buying. This was based on the assumption that the few pockets of violent students would have served as evidence for the carefully crafted and heavily advertised idea that the protest was nothing more than a bunch of terrorists setting the innocent and motherland-loving Hong Kong society under siege. As the council elections at the end of last year have however demonstrated, the underlying reasons of the protest are more than alive and present. Beijing has underestimated the power of free elections and the resiliency of ideas, further widening the gap between the mainland and Hong Kong. This gap is hardly going to be filled in the near future. The Party will not easily win over the hearts of the younger generations with cheap talk and no facts. It is time for Beijing to hear out what Hongkongers have to say, and to find pragmatic political solutions accordingly. If it doesn’t, the next crisis may be too hard to ignore.
Xi Jinping’s and the CCP’s heavy-handed rhetoric and propaganda did not lead to positive results in Hong Kong as it only contributed to worsen the most important pain in the neck for Beijing: Taiwan. Most recently, Xi has stepped up the game with the ‘departed province’ and returned to a much more decisive and aggressive attitude towards a prospective unification with the PRC. As this indisputable and assertive position joined up with the turmoil in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s citizens moved away from appeasement and confirmed Tsai Ing-wen as President in her second mandate. In her winning speech, Tsai made it crystal clear that Taiwanese citizens were opposing their treasured, democratic and free system to the growingly authoritarian and cumbersome neighbor. If there was a chance to convince Taiwanese of the necessity of unifying China once and for all, Beijing has lost it by playing the force-card. This experience hopefully taught strategists and planners in Zhongnanhai that telling voters in a democracy what to vote under threats of aggression may provoke the opposite result.
A Taiwan that is drifting away from the “motherland” is a sour pill to digest for the CCP. Indeed, the Party is, once again, entangled between the requirements of international politics, its fervent desire to stick to power and the consequences of its own legitimating tactics. Nationalist sentiments are skyrocketing on the mainland, most of them aroused by a state-led campaign aimed at supporting the CCP’s rule.
It goes without saying that, as an ideology of mass cohesion and polarization, nationalism is hardly reconcilable with “Chinese” territories reacting against the motherland. In Hong Kong, the Party has played with fire, with official propaganda at least tolerating the widespread idea among mainland Chinese that the territory was asking for independence. In this case, the risk of other contexts emulating the reactionary spirit in Hong Kong paid the price for a strong nationalist sentiment to do rise as a dam.
In Taiwan, however, the Party has promoted feelings against Taiwan’s independence, while official documents have branded Tsai’s party (DPP) as an enemy. Although this may serve to legitimize Party rule for the time being and discourage the Taiwanese (apparently with modest results), this strategy may backfire if, as it seems, Taiwan decides to stick to its guns. Nationalist sentiments may then direct their anger directly to the CCP, for being unable to pursue and realize those unification goals which are part of Xi’s much publicized “China Dream”.
In sum, it does look like as if the CCP is facing more dilemmas than it might at first appear. By relying on a relatively static, hierarchical and recently more and more leadership-centered system, the Party may be unable to tame the forces it has itself summoned. There are three distinctive issues where we can spot potential weaknesses in the Party’s dealings. First, the economy. As we saw, while China’s growth is still remarkable, there are visible, and I dare say natural, changes taking place in the basic texture of the Chinese economy. The Deng-era revolution and the subsequent boom in manufacturing capabilities is now slowing down, and there is an increasing need of a radical shift in the overall economic model if China is to keep shining. This model requires a fresh vision, entrepreneurial spirit, a competitive research environment more accountability for power and improved legal guarantees.
If the Party will insist on maintaining its primacy by staying above the law and perpetuating Maoist dogmas, in the way Xi Jinping seems to be doing, there is little space for such needed reforms to take place. Nevertheless, Marx may have been right when he claimed that economic factors would always influence and press upon political and institutional ones. Ironically, a system that originated from Marxist teachings apparently fails to see this connection. By imposing its version on a changing social environment, the CCP needs to resort to alternative legitimizing methods, such as nationalism. However, this creates a complex web of dependent factors which will ultimately end up harming the Party’s interests more than those of anybody else. In both the cases of Hong Kong and Taiwan, Beijing has its hands tied up. This inaction will in turn lead to a deepening of those structural issues that affect the Chinese power establishment today.
It is often said that a hurt beast is even more dangerous. This might be true for China as well. While the CCP finds itself in a fragile and delicate position, external interference and threats are magnified and exaggerated. This was clearly visible in how the Party reacted to outsiders’ comments on Hong Kong. The mantra “No interference in China’s internal affairs” is becoming more of a defensive strategy for Beijing at this point. Paralyzed by its own doing, the CCP may adopt an even more assertive and reactive attitude, which may lead to sudden and unexpected actions. All in all, it is a time for great caution, for both China and the world.