27 August 2023
What happened to China’s peaceful rise?

What happened to China’s peaceful rise?

Today, US/China relations are at virtually their lowest ebb since US President Nixon went to China in 1972. How did relations end up in such a parlous state? What does the future hold?


From the moment Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger stepped into Beijing in 1972, China and the US were friends of sorts. The initial motivation was to join forces against the USSR. But Nixon was also more far-sighted when he wrote in 1967,

“Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbours.”

True, there were some rough patches along the way – such as the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and the 7 May 1999 US accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. However, good relations were restored relatively quickly after these incidents, and the two countries got on remarkably well. It is especially remarkable considering their very different political systems and China’s position as a rising superpower.

Indeed, the first five-year term of Chinese leader Hu Jintao, starting 2002-03, was a period of relative freedom, openness, and rising prosperity in China. I personally remember meeting with Chinese and international NGOs in Beijing in 2005 and inviting them to speak at an OECD Forum in Paris. According to US professor Susan Shirk, this period was the “peak freedom of information” in China. There was stimulating commercial media, investigative journalism, and lively public debate on the Internet. Hu’s administration tried to create a form of authoritarian governance that was more responsive to the people.

China hardens domestic and foreign policy under Hu Jintao

From the beginning of Hu Jintao’s second term as Chinese leader, around 2007-08, the country’s domestic and foreign policy hardened sharply. The extremely tight security arrangements for the Beijing 2008 Olympics were never lifted after the Games, leaving tight controls over society, media, and the Internet. After years of opening up, the state’s role in the economy was strengthened. And China started pushing other countries around in the South China Sea.

Under Hu, China had a “collective leadership,” as conceived by Deng Xiaoping, such that Hu was first among equals in a Standing Committee of the Politburo that had been expanded to nine members. The collective leadership of the Standing Committee was supposed to foster restraint and prevent the excesses of personalistic dictatorship that China experienced under Mao Zedong, like the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. But it did not work out that way.

Hu’s weak leadership enabled members of the Standing Committee to pursue narrow domestic and international security interests, to compete for resources based on exaggerated policy analyses, and to engage in corruption and power struggles:

“Hu never mobilised the businesspeople, intellectuals, and urban middle class who might have helped sustain his first-term liberalising reforms.”

Thus, China’s peaceful rise came to an end. Shirk argues that the “overreach” in domestic and foreign policy under Hu laid the groundwork for Xi to go even further when he took over China’s leadership in 2012/13.

Xi comes to the rescue!

Xi made the case to CCP elites for a more concentrated, stronger leadership to salvage and clean up the Party and restore popular support. While elites welcomed stronger leadership, they had no idea what they would get with Xi until he quickly launched his massive anti-corruption campaign, which also helped him purge potential rival leaders. That created an atmosphere of fear among the political elite. Now, China finds itself in a state of permanent purge.


Xi first two terms as China’s leader, which came to an end at 2022-23, saw overreach taken to a whole different level from the days of Hu. Xi’s administration was forever in the international eye due to issues like the lack of transparency regarding the origin of Covid, militarisation of construction in the South China Sea, economic coercion of any country that does not toe Beijing’s line, “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”, widespread cyber intrusions and intellectual property theft, and military threats to Taiwan, to mention just a few. Xi’s heavy hand regarding domestic issues was evident in policies for ‘Zero-COVID’, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the social credit system, and propaganda and censorship more generally, as well as the anti-corruption campaign.

Two-term limits

Perhaps the most flagrant example of Xi’s overreach was the abolition of presidential two-term limits, which enabled him to be reappointed at the 20th CCP National Congress in October 2022 for an unprecedented third term (and potentially more in the future) as general secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission and the president of the People’s Republic of China. Further, Xi managed to fill all of the Standing Committee members with his proteges and allies, departing from tradition whereby members from the Communist Youth League faction would also be represented on the Standing Committee. In sum, under Xi’s leadership, the National Congress has repudiated the 1981 resolution on the lessons learned from the Cultural Revolution, namely, the need to restore collective leadership, renounce the cult of personality and prevent lifelong tenure.

Where to next?

Shirk has been studying China for over 50 years. She has a vast Chinese network who have informed her recent study.

Based on her extensive interviews, she believes the current situation in China is unstable. The high degree of concentration of power in Xi is resulting in poor quality decisions. Examples:

-- Zero Covid and the lockdown in Shanghai,

-- Xi’s quiet support of Vladimir Putin, and

-- the emphasis on Leninist/Marxist ideology and Xi Jinping taught in the education system.

Subordinates feel under pressure to prove their loyalty to Xi, such that many “over-comply” with Xi’s instructions, while others find doing nothing the lowest risk option.

Criticism of Xi

There is much underground criticism of Xi by elites, and many are unhappy about the global backlash against China. Shirk believes this situation cannot last. She also says,

“I can’t predict what will happen, but when it happens, I won’t be surprised.”

Shirk is concerned that there has been essentially no diplomacy between China and the US for six years (starting with the Trump administration), and calls for an attempt to restart dialogue.

In a joint conference, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd expressed a harsher view. Under Xi, the CCP is now led by a Marxist/Leninist leader who has reinvented ideology, putting the CCP at the centre of everything. Moreover, its foreign security policy has the stated objective of China becoming the preeminent global and regional power by mid-century.

Based on his own book, “The Avoidable War,” Rudd argues that the US and China are now in a state of “unmanaged strategic competition.” He says should work towards establishing “managed strategic competition” using rules and guard rails to minimise the risk of conflict. Further, the US, its allies, and partners should strengthen deterrence in relation to China – militarily, technologically, and economically – to convince Xi that a war is too risky.

China’s future depends on the economy

Rudd also believes that Xi’s future could depend on the economy. Much of the elite is unhappy with him. But all the signs are that Xi remains popular with the public. But this could change if the economy continues to weaken, unemployment rises further, and incomes shrink. This is a very possible scenario with a leader who puts loyalty and national security ahead of economic development. Such circumstances could embolden elites with different views from Xi to make a move against him. Indeed, any political change would come at the level of elite politics rather than a mass uprising.

Readers of this article, if they make it this far, might well accuse me of being anti-Chinese and pro-American. But there is irony in China’s changed behaviour since the second term of Hu Jintau: It has weakened the economy. It has also damaged China’s relations with many other countries. China’s ambitions of becoming a great power have been undermined – even if it has strengthened the CCP’s short-term grip on power.


This article by John West was first published by EconCurrents.
Tags: china, EconCurrents, Susan Shirk, Overreach, Kevin Rudd, Avoidable War, Richard Nixon

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