Xi has stifled dissent at home and is increasingly willing for China to assert itself abroad
Lily Kuo in Beijing
Xi Jinping on a visit to inspect grain production. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the country’s economy but it is faring better than rivals such as the US. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock
Earlier this week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a rare meeting in Beijing with business leaders. Admitting that the Covid-19 pandemic had a “huge impact” on the country’s economy, Xi used a Chinese idiom to assure his listeners.
“While the green hills last, there will be wood to burn,” he said. “If we maintain our strategy … we will find opportunity in crisis and turbulence. The Chinese people will surely prevail over all difficulties and challenges ahead”.
Xi’s remarks – reported in state media under the headline: “Xi Jinping conveyed confidence! Confidence! Nevertheless, confidence!” – belie a difficult and increasingly hostile international environment, one that critics say the Chinese leadership brought on itself through miscalculation and stifled dissent within the ruling party.
In just the last two months, China has fought a deadly border clash with India, an unresolved border that threatens to erupt again; seen the abrupt end of the so-called “golden era” of relations with the UK; engaged in a war of words with Australia, bringing relations close to an all-time low; forced a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, earning international condemnation; and fallen further into a rivalry with the US that is forcing other countries to choose sides. Increasingly, they are choosing the US.
Chinese companies and citizens have begun to suffer the cost of growing mistrust. Fifty-nine Chinese companies have now been locked out of India, one of the world’s fastest growing markets, including WeChat and TikTok – a third of whose global users were in India. Chinese national champion Huawei has lost access to a key foothold in Europe as the UK, aligning with the US, announced it was blocking the tech giant.
As countries welcome fleeing Hongkongers, the Chinese territory is likely to see a brain drain. More countries have begun speaking out against China’s mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, as advocates call for sanctions and legal measures. Chinese scientists, students and others have come under more scrutiny abroad.
“This changes the whole narrative of China’s intentions. China looks like it has very narrow self-interest that it is pursuing rather than a more cooperative approach, and that means that other countries are going to erect all sorts of barriers. There will be real costs – not just reputational but economic costs,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
For years, China worked to assure the international community that its rise was peaceful, that it would not try to overturn the status quo. A more assertive China has emerged under Xi, one more willing to confront its critics and brave damage to its reputation. This past year, after containing the Covid-19 outbreak at home, Beijing has gained the upper hand over some of its rivals, such as the US, still struggling with the pandemic.
“This time they think, ‘Maybe we are strong enough. We are equals now and therefore we can cause as much pain to you as us. We can fight’,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science focusing on China at the University of Chicago.
Chinese officials have ramped up attacks, criticising the US and other western countries for their Covid-19 response, defended its policies in Xinjiang, expelled foreign journalists and quickly implemented the security law in Hong Kong, with arrests made less than a day after the law was passed.
Beijing also finds itself locked in confrontations with countries not traditionally seen as rivals. After Australia pushed for an inquiry into Covid-19, China imposed 80% tariffs on Australian barley and sentenced an Australian man to death. As Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case in Canada proceeds, Chinese courts have begun the formal charges against two Canadians detained in what was widely seen as retaliation. Recent dispatches of Chinese ships to islands claimed by Japan and China have hurt years of rapprochement, with conservative lawmakers now calling on the government to cancel a state visit by Xi.
“There has long been a question of whether Beijing could be authoritarian at home while acting responsibility and constructively abroad,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Huawei, come together in a distressing picture. It is hard not to feel like we have been given a preview of what sole Chinese global leadership would look like,” she said. “This puts all of its neighbours on guard at once.”
Analysts have been puzzled by the behaviour of the Chinese leadership over the last few months, cautioning that it is difficult to decipher why certain decisions have been made and who made them. But it is clear that the more centralised leadership of Xi has caused more backlash.
“It is rare actually that the Chinese leadership has picked fights with everyone at the same time,” said Shirk. “There is something broken with the policy-making process. This is a reflection of what Deng Xiaoping called the ‘over concentration of power’ that leads to policy mistakes. And why does it lead to policy mistakes? It’s because nobody dares tell the leader that this is a bad idea.”
At home, China faces the threat of high unemployment as the economy – already slowing before the pandemic – struggles to recover. After the outbreak, online censorship appears to have worsened. Those who have expressed critical opinions of the government or its Covid response have been detained, including a prominent law professor and young internet activists working to save information wiped from the Chinese internet.
“The Chinese people are probably starting to digest that their country is in this cold war with the US – the future looks pretty uncertain – and how they will deal with this because for the last 40 years, China lived in a very peaceful environment and now everything has changed,” said Minxin Pei, an expert on governance in China at Claremont McKenna College.
For the Chinese leadership, what is most important may not be international reaction but maintaining support from its citizens. Its success over the virus, compared to other countries, appears to have helped. A recent survey of 1,000 urban residents by the China Data Lab at the University of California, San Diego found that trust in the central government has increased. On a scale of one to 10, average trust in the central government was 8.65 at the peak of the outbreak in China in February and 8.87 in May, compared to 8.23 in June last year.
For Xi, who has spent the last several weeks making appearances around the country – talking with farmers in northeastern China, posing in an attack helicopter while visiting the air force, or giving “important instructions” on floods overwhelming much of the country – that may be more important than any international backlash.
“For the people who are making the decisions, they see it as the price to pay and they are willing to pay it,” said Yang.