Sinophobia should not define the US approach to China or its ‘emperor’ Xi
Andrew K. P. Leung says that despite the extensions to Xi Jinping’s power, there are still protocols and procedures limiting what he can do, and there are still ways of engaging China other than in destructive confrontation
US President Donald Trump says he likes chaos. And that “trade wars are good and easy to win”. These remarks define his world view: that the United States has been short-changed by the existing world order and China, a master of “unfair” trade practises and “intellectual property theft”, is the main culprit. Trump wants to upend this world order to make America great again.
The trade deficits feed the anger over decades of trying but failing to shape China according to the West’s values. China is seen as posing an increasing challenge to American supremacy and prosperity.
Zero-sum realism informs books on the subject , and results in an American national security strategy revised from China-containment to head-on rivalry. The Taiwan Travel Act, encouraging visits even by high-ranking US officials, is now law, breaking a decades-long taboo.
These conflicts are characteristic of a looming Thucydides trap, in which an existing superpower is drawn into conflict with a perceived challenger. They also reflect a clash of two different value systems vying for global influence.
How the looming US-China trade war will work out is anybody’s guess. It is likely to be messy, characterised by fireworks, collateral damage, open negotiations and work behind the scenes. Meanwhile, it helps to read China’s politics and intent accurately.
First there is the concern that the unwritten retirement system for senior cadres has now been ditched. However, the age barrier was observed in the retirement of five Politburo Standing Committee members and the committee’s exclusion of 69-year-old Wang Qishan, Xi’s confidant (and now vice-president).
Meanwhile, Article 36 of the constitution, which forbids lifelong tenure for senior cadres, remains untouched. Even if Xi stayed on for a third term, after it ends, he may choose to retire but exert influence by other means, like Deng Xiaoping. It is premature to conclude that Xi will ignore the party’s retirement system.
Xi took the presidency in 2013 on a vow to realise a national renaissance. The goal of “building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021” is within reach. But vested interests and hidden corruption persist. Old habits die hard, delaying reform. A tight rein needs to be kept on key levers of power, with accountability among all Politburo members.
But decisions are unlikely to be Xi’s one-man show, as he sets great store on expert groups. Important policy decisions go through drafts and, where appropriate, public consultations. Anything less would result in social or political repercussions.
Will China become more assertive, displacing America’s global leadership? The constitution has been amended to eschew hegemony and stress peaceful development, opening up and building a shared future for humanity.
China will continue to enhance military capabilities to safeguard national security, but this doesn’t equate to military adventurism or hegemony. Military hegemony doesn’t work in a post-nuclear hi-tech world of mutually assured destruction. China stands to benefit from a more peaceful, cooperative international environment.
Still, Deng’s early dictum of “hiding one’s light and biding one’s time” is no longer feasible. Nations are getting nervous. Some resort to geopolitical hedging and pushback.
China’s “authoritarian” one-party model is widely opposed. With decades of unprecedented achievements, China is unlikely to copy the West’s multi-party democracy, with all its fault lines. But whether a single political party or many parties, there can only be one government. Provided it substantially improves people’s lives and continues to reform itself in response to changing aspirations, it will enjoy legitimacy. Pew Research Centre annual surveys since 2010 show that more than 80 per cent of Chinese are satisfied with their country’s direction.
As for checks and balances, the historical “mandate of heaven” proves that corrupt dynasties which sacrifice subjects’ well-being never last. Hence, Xi’s relentless anti-corruption campaign.
Second, in the age of digital ubiquity, despite the “great firewall”, an internet-savvy society is on the lookout for power abuse, corruption and injustice. There is nothing a party official dreads more than being caught by virtual citizenry.
Third, Chinese culture prefers resolving conflicts through consultation rather than confrontation. This manifests itself in such party organs such as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
China’s development, culture and history are unique. One risks seeing only dystopia using Western lenses. “America first” coercion violating international agreements and multilateral rules undermines US leadership. As China is economically embedded in many countries, coercion is unlikely to be effective or profitable.
Legitimate trade concerns are best resolved through negotiations. There are other ways to engage China productively. Much could be achieved by co-opting China’s interests in denuclearisation, regional security, climate change, anti-terrorism, cybersecurity, science and technology, trade, investments and global institutional building. Playing with a potentially catastrophic Thucydides trap is not an attractive option.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong