It is very seldom that President Xi of China admits that he may have made a mistake. But last week, in remarks made to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 25-strong leadership group, he came close to it, as he called for a major reassessment of China’s international profile and how it presents itself to the rest of the world.
Xi’s concern, as he put it to his senior CCP colleagues, is that China is not understood or appreciated enough by other nations. The rest of the world is apparently refusing to accept Xi’s central thesis, which is that “the “Communist Party is truly striving for the wellbeing of the Chinese people, that Marxism works, and that socialism with Chinese characteristics is good”. Nor, he said, do the rest of us view China as China would like us to, viz as a friend and “credible, loveable and respectable”.
As an analysis of how many other countries – and not just the West – view China, this is probably fairly accurate, if slightly unusual in the words Xi chose to use. Words like credible, lovable and so on speak of an ongoing lack of self-confidence and even inferiority complex which is surprising for the second most powerful country in the world; not many countries worry about whether others see them as credible or respectable, and few major powers have ever sought to be loveable (though the United States does tend to prefer to be liked). More normal national aspirations probably centre around such things as being respected as an equal, being seen as a role model, being admired and perhaps even being envied.
But it is Xi’s proposed response to this diagnosis of China’s problems that is more interesting. For he calls for a more forceful presentation of China’s case to the world, a “strategic communication system with distinct Chinese characteristics” to assert China’s view of itself. And how is this to be done? Not, of course, by being open to the world and allowing the world’s media to see the truth about China. No, he demands greater control over the news stories, greater assertiveness in demanding people accept China’s version of events, greater restrictions on what foreign journalists can see and say about China.
The positive point one can extract from this is that China recognises that it does indeed have an image problem, and is showing signs of realising that if you pursue “wolf diplomacy” (ie, aggressively attacking anyone who dares to criticise or even query you) and arrogant indifference to what the rest of the world might think, then in due course the rest of the world will push back. We wrote a year ago (“A personal reflection on Xi’s China”, 3.07.20) that Xi’s approach risked creating more confrontation than co-operation, and in the last twelve months this has certainly happened. On a surprisingly large number of issues – their treatment of the Uighurs, their clampdown in Hong Kong, their aggressive insistence on the 9-dash-line in the South China Sea, their obfuscation over the source of the pandemic, their harsh terms as a creditor to the third world, their environmental policies – much of the rest of the world not only disagrees with China but has stopped either believing them or even giving them the benefit of the doubt.
The negative point is also alas clear: China seems to believe that what is needed is a propaganda offensive, that you can make people your friends by telling them how wonderful you are, by telling them to like you. This displays a surprising lack of understanding of how to win friends and influence people. I am not even sure that it works within China and with its own citizens – it is true that the Chinese people in general approve of and support their government, but this is more likely to be because the government has delivered jobs and prosperity rather than the incessant messaging that Xi is a superhero who must be loved. In the international sphere, however, the position is clearer: there is almost no precedent for such an approach bearing fruit with the citizens of other nations. It really is a textbook way of alienating people.
This leads to two final questions: what has caused Xi to reconsider his approach, and is the change one of style and presentation only or is there more of substance to it as well.
On the first of these, ie what has caused Xi to call for this change in direction, the catalyst is unlikely to be unrest among China’s population. As we have observed, the Chinese people in general do support their government and do accept the government’s version of events, and even where critical voices from outside get through the Great Fire Wall, they are not believed. Nor, even if the people were hostile, do we think Xi and the CCP would be minded to pay very much attention to their dissent.
Dissent from within the government, and especially from the highest echelons of the CCP, is a different matter. The CCP is not quite as monolithic or under XI’s control as either the government portrays or Xi himself would like, and stories of dissent from XI’s senior CCP colleagues, who continue to chafe at his command-and-control approach to their liberties on the one hand and the restrictions on eg travel and asset-owning that the West is beginning to impose on the other, refuse to go away.
We very much doubt that Xi is that vulnerable – we doubt the grumbling has reached a point at which coalitions might start forming to oppose him, and he is still more than strong enough to take down anyone unwise enough to be too public in their criticism. Even such a figure as Jack Ma, the business magnate and founder of the technology company Alibaba (and a strong advocate of a more open economy with less state control), found he was not immune last autumn, when the IPO of his payment company Ant Group was cancelled at the last minute, apparently on the direct orders of Xi, and the company itself subsequently taken from him and brought under direct state ownership.
But Xi may well feel that it would be safer to nip criticism in the bud, and the line that “there is nothing wrong with what I am doing, only in the way it is explained to the rest of the world” will be an attractive one for him, allowing as it does an admission that things are not perfect while denying that Xi himself and his policies are the cause of the problems.
And what are those policies, and have they changed at all? Xi appears to be urgent to be seen by history not just as “another president of China”, but as one of the founders of his country’s greatness. He has decided that the way to achieve this is to cement China’s position as the world’s superpower, and to reunify all of the Motherland (including Hong Kong and Taiwan); this, he seems to believe, will place him on a par with or perhaps even eclipsing Mao. (Hence also in passing the creation of “Xi Jinping thought” as a creed all Chinese citizens must learn, and the abolition of term limits for his presidency, both necessary if he is to be considered alongside Mao).
We do not see any sign at all that Xi has changed his mind on this, and almost certainly the objective remains intact. But we think Xi’s tactics may change. And that is because we think he made a bad mistake in assessing the West’s weakness last year.
For the West really did face a perfect storm in 2020. The combination of a weak and divisive president in the White House, race riots in the US, distrust of and dissent with America’s leadership among her allies and a chaotic US election campaign would have been enough to unsettle the Western Alliance even without the pandemic turning each nation in on itself to combat Covid-19. As it was, 2020 became what one commentator has called “the West’s year of utter chaos”, and it seems to us that Xi saw this as an opportunity to advance his agenda while China’s main rivals were preoccupied and unlikely to have the energy to criticise let alone stop him.
But we think Xi overplayed his hand. The West did notice, and with President Biden restoring some order both domestically and with America’s allies, and the rapid roll-out of the vaccines and economic recovery in many western countries, it is increasingly voicing its criticisms and demanding answers from Beijing on everything from the pandemic to the treatment of the Uighurs. And neutral countries are hearing it, and may be less willing to believe everything China says. Which Xi does not want.
Our assessment is that Xi is a very good politician (he can both gain and then hold power, is determined and thorough, and has a clear vision for his country), but we think a less good statesman. He is arrogant, impatient and egocentric, he is not good at persuading those who do not agree with him, and he understands less about the West than he thinks.
Should the West be concerned at this? Yes, we think so. Xi is far from the only poor statesman in the world of course, but he is the only one in charge of a rising superpower. There is increasing talk of a hostile relationship with China, of a breakdown in trust and a new Cold War, even talk of the risk of military confrontation (for example over Taiwan). None of this is good news.
The world’s superpowers have not seriously faced off for nearly 60 years, since the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis. It is to be hoped that, with the Covid-19 pandemic still not under control in much of the world and the urgency of collective action on climate change growing all the time, China and the West realise that confrontation is in no-one’s interest, and that more than a Chinese charm offensive is needed to revitalise and restore international relations.