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Monday, October 18, 2021

What does Xi want?

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HONG KONG — Does Xi Jinping want to be feared or loved?

The answer is critical. What China’s paramount leader wants from the world will shape it, in everything from how we tackle climate change to the future of technology and whether the world tumbles into another age of superpower competition.

Xi himself doesn’t provide a clear answer. Take his speech in July, marking the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party: In a scene straight from another, darker era, Xi took to the stage dressed in a Mao suit to spew fiery rhetoric to an enthusiastic crowd of adherents.

They applauded as he ticked off China’s many achievements: Its earth-changing economic rise, the alleviation of poverty, the rebuilding of the country’s strength. But an especially thunderous roar erupted when Xi issued a stern warning to the world: Foreign powers who wish to do China harm, according to one translation, “will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

There were also lines of the speech showing a different side to the Chinese president. A few breaths before the blood and steel Xi was all peaches and cream, pledging China to “peaceful development” and international cooperation. China “will continue to work with all peace-loving countries and peoples to promote the shared human values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom,” he said.

After the speech, official Chinese media also softened the translation, insisting Xi had not intended to be bellicose and Westerners had misunderstood his meaning.

Like his speech, the true meaning of Xi’s agenda can be hard to discern and appear mired in contradictions. He craves a larger role in international institutions but seems to undermine them. He champions globalization, then pursues insular policies. He wants to win over hearts and minds to China’s cause, then engages in alienating bullying.

What ties the strands together is a quest for legitimacy, for both the Communist regime and himself. While that might sound strange at first — China is a major power, recognized as such by the rest of the world — it starts to make sense when you consider the international context in which Xi is leading his country.

One of the great achievements of the U.S. and its allies was crafting a world system in which liberal democracy is regarded as the sole form of legitimate government. As a proud autocrat, Xi can never fit into this democrats’ global order. And so he has adopted a different ambition — not merely to play a bigger role on the global stage, but to change the stage itself.

“The Chinese are trying to lead global governance reform, and that means inserting autocratic norms into the international system,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy think tank.

Xi loves me

Xi’s vision for an alternative system has not been fully outlined — he may not even have one. At least for now, he isn’t working to overthrow democracies and replace them with revolutionary or autocratic governments. But it is clear he wishes to forge a “new type of international relations,” as he calls it, based on altered perceptions of what makes for good government.

“Each country is unique with its own history, culture and social system, and none is superior to the other,” Xi said in a January speech to the World Economic Forum. “What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice and hatred; it is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilization or to force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others.”

In other words: Don’t preach that democracy stuff to us, our system is every bit as valid. Xi’s team has gone as far as to attempt to redefine what democracy is. Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., recently tried to claim his country was a democracy as its government cared for the wellbeing of its citizens. Invoking Lincoln, Qin characterized the Communist regime as “from the people, to the people, with the people, for the people.”

Xi’s interpretation of good governance extends to the realm of international diplomacy, in which he has championed the principle of “noninterference.” The choice of term isn’t without irony, as China’s leaders constantly interfere in countries’ domestic affairs despite insisting the opposite. (So much China-backed money was infiltrating Australian politics that the government there passed laws to curtail its influence.)

Beijing’s views on “interference” are epitomized in its approach to Afghanistan. The U.S. spent 20 years attempting to refashion the Central Asian nation into an entirely different country, and now won’t recognize the Taliban due to ideological precepts. By contrast, Beijing had no trouble seamlessly switching its relations from the now-defunct U.S.-backed administration to the militant group’s regime.

Call it “values-free” diplomacy: In a July meeting with Taliban representatives, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the distinction with the U.S., stating Beijing has “Always respected Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity … and pursued a friendly policy toward the entire Afghan people,” according to an official summary of the conference.

Xi’s desire to change the rules can be seen in Beijing’s diplomatic endeavors across the world. Its state-run banks, for instance, have become major lenders to governments in the emerging world, most notably through Xi’s infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative. But Chinese lenders haven’t worked with existing institutions and systems, such as the Paris Club, to manage that lending, nor do they follow their guidelines.

“The willingness of China to abide by international rules and processes for these investments has been secondary to its interest of shaping norms for its favor,” noted development policy expert Kristen Cordell in a 2020 report.

Xi loves me not

The flipside of “noninterference” is that Beijing is increasingly intolerant of efforts to change its behavior.

Xi’s diplomats have drawn “red lines” around most issues of concern in Washington, including the status of Taiwan (which Beijing considers part of China), the ill-treatment of minority Uyghurs in the far-west region of Xinjiang and the crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Instead, the Chinese president wants to dictate his terms to the world. When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her Chinese counterparts in Tianjin in July, they handed her two lists of grievances — one of “U.S. Wrongdoings that Must Stop” and another of “Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns with” — which, according to official news agency Xinhua, demanded Washington drop sanctions against Chinese officials, remove restrictions on visas for Chinese students and cease “suppressing” Chinese companies, to name a few.

Similarly, Beijing has become increasingly annoyed that Chinese companies are forced to adhere to U.S. law, such as Iran sanctions, and in June passed legislation allowing it to punish firms that do so.

Australia has been the target of especially hardball tactics. Canberra had the temerity to challenge Xi, namely by calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, and Beijing launched a campaign of economic coercion to compel the Australians to back down in response. Chinese authorities effectively banned vital Australian exports, including coal, wine and lobsters, costing businesses billions in lost sales.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explained in his recent book “A Bigger Picture” that his government’s turn toward a harder line on China was a reaction to Beijing’s shift in attitude toward the world. “China’s capabilities, in every respect, had continued to grow; but what had really changed was its intent,” he wrote. Under Xi, “it became more assertive, more confident and more prepared to not just reach out to the world … or to command respect … but to demand compliance.”

This rings especially true concerning interests Xi perceives as core, such as Taiwan. Angered by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her efforts to build support for the Taipei democracy, Beijing sharply escalated its efforts to intimidate her government from mid-2020 by repeatedly sending jets dangerously close to the island.

Xi’s regime is similarly strident on the South China Sea. Beijing has claimed nearly the entire waterway, an assertion contested by its neighbors. To firm China’s grip, Xi built man-made islands stacked with military gear and deployed his coast guard to harass others’ shipping routes.

The message is clear and explicit: China will no longer change for others, but others must change for China. “We will not…accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us,” Xi said in his July speech.

Xi’s not sure

What Xi believes he gains from his stance is unclear. The world has largely met his hostility in kind. Exasperation over incursions by Chinese vessels into disputed South China Sea waters prompted the Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Teodoro Locsin, to issue a decidedly undiplomatic tweet: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O…GET THE FUCK OUT.”

Public sentiment around the world toward China has soured too. Asked who they had confidence would do the right thing in global affairs, respondents to an international survey by the Pew Research Center ranked Xi last — even behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rather than making China more secure, Xi’s policies seem to be fostering the opposition he fears. The Quad — a Pacific partnership including Australia, India, Japan and the United States — is shaping into an anti-China coalition. A new defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. will beef up the Australians’ naval capabilities — clearly with an eye on countering China.

And yet so far, Xi has not reassessed his foreign policy. Maybe it’s because domestic concerns won’t allow him to — after all, much of his overseas agenda is an outgrowth of his position at home.

Xi has altered China’s governance as much as the country’s foreign relations. Before he took office, the Communist Party devised a system of collective management with methods of power-sharing and transitioning from one leadership team to another. Xi has pushed that aside to reintroduce a Mao-style one-man rule, with a full-on cult of personality and the heavy centralization of power. Having erased the two-term limit in China’s constitution, Xi apparently intends to stay in charge as long as he can.

To justify all this, Xi has fostered a political construction characterizing him as the man to make China great again — to achieve, as he calls it, the “Chinese Dream,” a (rather vague) promise of national rejuvenation. Supporting this pledge is a historical narrative painting China as a victim of Western powers during a “century of humiliation.” (Reading the Chinese state media, you’d think the Opium War happened two years ago rather than almost two hundred.)

In order to marshal Chinese nationalism to bolster his political standing, Xi constantly reminds his public this is China’s moment to stand up. “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” as he said in his July speech.

That might make for good politics at home, but it has boxed him in abroad. Having sold himself as the champion of Chinese interests to his domestic audience, he lacks the flexibility required on the global stage. Any compromise or setback could become a politically dangerous embarrassment at home.

The result is yet another Xi Jinping paradox: Ever greater ambition on the world stage is making Xi feel more vulnerable at home. The result is that his foreign policy can be understood as a “duality of anxiety and confidence,” said Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at consulting firm Eurasia Group.

That same duality is also showing up in Xi’s economic policies. Though Beijing still professes to be “opening up” — it recently applied to join the refashioned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact — he is simultaneously limiting China’s integration with the global economy. His new economic mantra is “self-sufficiency,” the need to reduce China’s reliance on other countries. It has produced a manic quest for homegrown technology and localized supply chains Beijing can control.

In the end, what Xi wants may matter less than what he is able to achieve, and that will depend on whether he is able to resolve the many contradictions of his approach. He has to decide if he intends to befriend the world or bully it; embrace integration or defend against it; and immerse China in the global order or elucidate a true vision for a new one.

Is it better for Xi to be loved or feared? What’s clear is pursuing both objectives may grant him neither. “It seems that China’s own diplomacy is undercutting its ability to pursue whatever objectives it might have,” Wyne said. Xi’s contradictory ambitions are making China “a self-constraining competitor.”

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