11 May 2020
Xi Jinping’s China: The BacklashRichard McGregor's book of less than one year ago, “Xi Jinping: The Backlash”, may have rapidly grown in relevance thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, writes John West.
Pre-Covid-19 backlash against Xi JinpingChina’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, is often compared with Chairman Mao for the immense power that he has accumulated. At his instigation, the National People's Congress even removed the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency, effectively allowing Xi Jinping to remain President for life. And there is neither an obvious successor or rival, as Xi has ensured that he stands alone -- in contrast to even the time of Mao.
On the international stage, XI has abandoned the policy of Deng Xiaoping that China should hide its strength and bide its time, as he has adopted extraordinarily assertive posture.
But as Richard McGregor argued in “Xi Jinping: The Backlash”, Xi’s grip on power may be less strong than it seems. Through his aggressive anti-corruption campaign, Xi has made many enemies among China’s elite families, state-owned enterprises and the military. He has also piled up enemies among disgruntled officials, disillusioned technocrats, lawyers, scholars, sons of former top leaders, and private entrepreneurs.
Relations with Western countries have also turned south in light of China’s assertive behaviour in the South and East China Seas, and its ambition to assume the mantle as Asia’s undisputed leader, and see the US retreat from East Asia. Above all, China has ruffled many feathers through its Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development, which are seen as initiatives to reshape the international order in its favour.
Nevertheless, “Xi is in no danger of being toppled from his perch”, wrote McGregor, “As long as China's economy remains reasonably healthy, he can count on sufficient support to retain his hold on the system”. And yet McGregor also muses “Just as it is difficult to anticipate where any challenge will come from, it is equally hard to see how Xi's supremacy in domestic politics can be sustained.”
The Covid-19 backlashCould Covid-19 be the incident that ultimately threatens Xi's supremacy in domestic politics? Perhaps.
In post-Tiananmen China, the legitimacy of the Communist Party has been based on its competence and above all its ability to generate non-stop economic growth (“performance legitimacy”). However, one of the immediate effects of Covid-19 has been the sudden stop in the Chinese economy after decades of strong growth.
According to the IMF’s optimistic forecasts, China’s economy might only grow by about one percent this year, a far cry from the 6-7 percent of recent years. This will certainly cause more pain than Chinese citizens have known for a long while, and could lead to social discontent. Looking ahead, many Western countries have become concerned about their over-reliance on China, as the factory of the world, and are planning to retrench some of their supply chains which are centered on China.
Moreover, China’s initial handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was disastrous, with a grotesque coverup, the tragic death of a doctor who was punished for revealing his discovery of the virus, and the ultimate draconian lockdown imposed on Wuhan. And now there are multiple reports of the “disappearance” of anyone who asks questions about management of Covid-19, including relatives of victims.
In light of all this, will the Chinese people really swallow the Party’s narrative that they managed the pandemic brilliantly, and that the Party has proved itself to be much more effective at managing crises like Covid-19 than chaotic Western democracies? Maybe not. Indeed, chatter now emanating from China suggests that Xi’s position is now even more fragile, and that he is not assured of a third term, an issue which will come to a head at the next Party congress, due in late 2022.
China’s relations with Western countries are hardly in better shape. Being guilt-ridden, after causing the world’s greatest crisis since World War 2, China then launched an international soft power initiative. Masks and other medical equipment were rapidly shipped to many places. But this initiative often foundered due to the faulty quality of these products.
The Party’s reluctance to be open and transparent about Covid-19, and to entertain an independent, international inquiry into the origin and handling of Covid-19 is exacerbating an international backlash. So is its “wolf-warrior diplomacy” whereby Chinese diplomats are increasingly adopting an assertive approach to any foreign country that questions its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as its economic sanctions against countries like Australia for suggesting such an inquiry. While wolf-warriors may find cheerleaders among Beijing’s hardliners, it is not winning China any friends in the international community.
On the contrary, it seems clear that the new Cold War will only become more deeply entrenched, as Western trust in China rapidly falters. There could be deep flow-on effects to the Chinese economy as Western countries reduce their economic dependence on China. This will in turn pose a threat to Chinese social stability.
What next?With China’s incredibly opaque political system, it is difficult to anticipate where any challenge to Xi will come from. But the Communist Party is well known for its intense factional rivalries. And if ever Xi’s leadership was seen to be weakening the Party’s grip on power, he could be readily replaced.
In any event, it is in China’s longer term interests to return to a more cooperative approach to China’s relations with the West. After all, the main source of China’s prosperity and power has been economic relations with the West, and the Western-led liberal international order. Continued growth in prosperity would foster social stability and might even help ensure the survival of the Communist Party.
But the Communist Party is now running scared about its responsibility for Covid-19. And we are in the midst of electoral politics in both China and the US. With the US economy faltering due to Covid-19, China bashing will likely be the leitmotif of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. While Xi’s quest to be Chinese President for life will also depend on being tough and appeasing hardliners.
In short, the coming couple of years will be a rocky period in China-US relations, and thus global politics.