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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The successful projection of China's power abroad is a sign of strong leadership rather than anything malign

While Xi Jinping's “Chinese dream” makes Western-centric liberals nervous, there is little evidence to justify their criticism

Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to embark on a second five-year term this week. AFP
Chinese leader Xi Jinping prepares to embark on a second five-year term this week. AFP

Today, as the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China begins, president Xi Jinping’s position has never seemed more commanding. The traditional duopoly at the top has become increasingly lopsided, with Li Keqiang being widely described as the weakest premier in decades.

Possible rivals have been sidelined or sacked, media outlets firmly reminded that their job is to promote the government’s achievements and the Communist Party reformed and reinvigorated.

Meanwhile, the campaign against corruption and waste has even extended to congress venues and hotels (in which perks, such as free haircuts and fancy food, will no longer be available).

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Key Xi allies, such as Wang Qishan, the head of the anti-corruption campaign, are expected to be promoted or retained beyond the traditional retirement age, a move that some have speculated could provide justification for Mr Xi to seek a third five-year term as party general secretary from 2022 to 2027 (two has normally been the limit).

Abroad, under Mr Xi, China has thoroughly renounced Deng Xiaoping’s advice that the country should “hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership”.

Its first overseas military base was formally opened in Djibouti on 1 August – the 90th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army – while the Pentagon reported last year that China had reclaimed more than 3,200 acres from the South China Sea, where it has also created facts on the ground and upped the ante considerably, by installing military facilities on disputed islands.

The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was nothing if not a demonstration of leadership, as is Mr Xi’s promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative that could possibly tilt trade and growth firmly to the east, as it encompasses 65 countries and over 60 percent of the world’s population.

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It is no surprise, then, that the current edition of The Economist has Mr Xi on the cover with the caption “the world’s most powerful man” (and especially not to regular readers of this column, as I asked if he deserved that title in these pages in November 2015).

Underlying much of the international pre-congress coverage and analysis, however, is the clear suggestion – if not outright accusation – that there is something malign about Mr Xi’s ascendancy. With its free market and liberal democracy creed, it is perhaps predictable that The Economist should conclude that “China’s leader has been good for the Communist Party but not for his country”.

Less expected is a South China Morning Post column asking whether Mr Xi’s next five-year term will bring “reform or repression”.

Why the pushback and the harsh verdicts? A degree of trepidation is to be expected from those who pine for the continuation of the US-led world order. That was waning anyway, and the Trump administration is both too transactional to set great store by that and also ideologically averse to the very concept.

More to the point, America’s interests – including its sanctimonious preaching about human rights – are not necessarily the world’s interests. The fear of China retaking what it very reasonably considers to be its rightful place (under a leader who sees no reason to hide that) is overdone.

Mr Xi’s China will definitely act in its own interests, but it is far from alone in that. As Donald Trump said in his speech to the UN: “I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”

Neither are there any signs that China’s military intend to encroach permanently on any territory they do not consider to be their own; and even then, there is a long tradition of patience – such as over the status of Taiwan – and compromise – as Beijing has with Manila after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines over one of the South China Sea disputes.

Finally, there is the question of whether Mr Xi intends to continue after his 10 years as president are up. According to the constitution, he cannot. But that can be amended, or he could continue to exercise power as party general secretary, or he could give up both positions and still be China’s de facto leader, as both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping did.

The truth is that Mr Xi has not just been a very strong leader of China, he has also been effective at clamping down on the corruption and excesses that have affected many countries when liberalising their economies. He has also brought new discipline to the Communist Party and renewed its legitimacy by ensuring rising standards of living and continued growth, in addition to encouraging greater confidence and purpose as part of his promise for national rejuvenation.

While Mr Xi’s “Chinese dream” may well be a nightmare for those who treasure the liberal values of Western societies, what matters more is what people in China think. And if Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is right to conclude that “he has been a popular leader … in Trumpian terms, he has managed to make China look great again”, why shouldn’t he go on?

Western-oriented critics need to come up with actual evidence if they want to cast Mr Xi as a dictator manqué and China as a danger to the world. Being the “world’s most powerful man” is not, I’m afraid, a charge in itself.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia