The Telegraph, 19 October, 2017
Xi Jinping’s keynote speech – impressive for its three-hour running time – at Beijing’s Party Congress firmly established three things. First, Xi has accumulated the type of personal power last seen under Chairman Mao Zedong; second, that the Communist Party of China will be the main conduit of his power; and third, that China is ready for global leadership.
“The Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and now it embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … it will be an era that sees China moving close to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”
For some, the speech and the drift of China back toward one-party authoritarian rule, marks the end of a failed experiment by Western liberalism to co-opt China as a “responsible stakeholder”. But will China, in fact, be a responsible stakeholder? The results are not promising.
Between the 1990s and the present day, American, European, and Japanese companies invested hundreds of billions into the Chinese economy, turning a backward agrarian nation into one of the world’s trade and manufacturing powerhouses.
In 1994, despite the long shadow of the Tiananmen Square Massacre only five years before, President Bill Clinton granted China most-favoured nation (MFN) trade status. Six years later teams of US diplomats and lawyers worked around the clock to help sponsor China’s membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a key event, after which Chinese growth exploded. In addition, China was given a seat at the table of nearly every international organization and institution.
Plausibly, China is one of the great successes of the Western liberal order: collectively we helped a large country reduce its poverty to the tune of 680 million people.
These themes, very present in Xi’s speech, have begun to close the once-open Chinese society and demonize Western intellectual influences.
“China has absolutely no need to import the failing party political systems of other countries”, said state-run media in the run-up to the Congress.
So great is this hostility, that an infamous memo was circulated in 2013 – the infamous Document No. 9 – heavily restricting discussion of Western liberal concepts among Party cadres.
Thus, we are presented with the paradox of a Chinese global power, at once the product of the Western liberal order and yet hostile and resentful of that same system. We have already seen this in how it has conducted its foreign policy vision on its periphery.
Given its internal emphasis on “an unfair rules-based order”, built “when China was weak”, we have a new power that views international law with ambiguity. Its arbitrary rejection of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong this July, and a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the summer of 2016 are alarming signs of this.
We also see this narrative in China’s willingness to use force in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and on the Indian border.
A Chinese superpower also impacts how global information is exchanged: Chinese elites see history and information as relative – things to be moulded or suppressed according to party needs. This impacts how information is controlled in countries around China, dependent on Chinese trade.
From the arrest of Hong Kong booksellers, to the funding of Chinese programmes in Western universities, or the funding of Western media, China has systematically begun to attempt to direct the flow of information deemed important to it.
Only months ago, Chinese officials pressured Cambridge University Press into removing more than 300 articles, counter to party narratives. Perhaps what the most important question we must address is what type of imperium or order China wishes to build.
Professor William Callahan, an expert on Chinese international relations at the London School of Economics, described in his 2013 book, China Dreams, 20 different visions of order that Chinese theorists currently discuss.
Imperial-era concepts like Tianxia, once-used by Chinese emperors to justify and legitimize the Emperor’s power domestically, are now back in vogue. As a new Emperor takes his place in Beijing this week, as Chinese companies extend their reach across central Asia, and as Chinese forces assert control over the South China Sea – one wonders if we are indeed entering a new era of Chinese dominance and what that will mean for the American and European builders of the Western liberal order.
Will we stand apart – a “free world” to China’s new bloc – or will we be pulled inexorably into the orbit of a new Middle Kingdom?