You may not have noticed, but 2015 was the year the shine went off China.
The last two or three decades, businesses from around the world and foreign governments have been falling over each other to get in on the China act. They have for comfort wanted to see a state that is worthy – authoritarian, yes, but delivering good governance for the benefit of the people. Academics, like Henry Kissinger and others, have helped by praising China as a ‘civilization state.’
But slowly, we are seeing that the regime is being reshaped by Xi Jinping and his team, into a less attractive one than had been hoped for.
An early signal went out immediately on the new leadership taking up office. Their position in the East and South China Seas was classified as one of ‘core interest,’ a message that China will do as it wants in these areas and that there will be no settlements by mediation, a policy, according to the defense minister, of ‘no compromise, no concession, no treaty.’ Since then, China has done what it wants, unilaterally setting up an ‘air defense zone’ between Taiwan and Japan and establishing bases on islands of its own creation in other countries’ areas. China is now an aggressive and expansionist state, certainly in its own neighborhood. And not only towards its smaller neighbors. During Xi Jinping’s official visit to India in September 2014, Chinese troops moved briefly into the contested border territory they call South Tibet, repeating a larger incursion a year earlier.
A second change has been in domestic policy. The leader the world hoped would be a modernizer, has instead tightened all the screws of dictatorship. Censorship is harder. Maoist mass-line and rectification campaigns are back in use. Internet control is ever more uncompromising. Non-official NGOs have steadily less space of action. Activism is increasingly dangerous and activists more severely persecuted, including for causes such as women’s rights. In the most recent campaign, hundreds of human rights lawyers across the country have been detained or had their practices shut down.
Here, too, there is an aggressive edge to the new policy. Principles we in the democratic world hold high, are virulently denounced in the party press as ‘western’ and purged from school and university teaching and textbooks. Their promotion is said to be the work of foreign agents.
While the tightening of controls has been clear to see, less noticed has been a rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism in policy. Collective leadership is gone and one-man rule back, complete with a veneer of person cult. Also back is a cultivation of ideology, now in the form of a narrative of nationalistic greatness and glory. In this ideology – Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ – nation comes first, greatness is the purpose, and ‘each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.’ A big and powerful country, a strong state, an ambitious and shrewd leader, a commanding ideology – that adds up to a force to be feared.
As policy has turned to aggression abroad and dictatorship at home, the economic ground is shifting under the feet of the state. Growth is slowing. It is becoming recognized that China’s self-promotion has been based in part on bogus statistics. More importantly, the state’s reputation for steady management is crumbling. Last year, it opened its stock market and encouraged households to put their savings into equity. This year, the stock market crashed and millions of savers lost their money. The government then wasted billions in a failed attempt to stabilize prices, only to reveal that they did not understand what they had unleashed.
A regime that has pinned its reputation on effective governance turns out not to be in control. The most recent evidence is in the trumped-up abolition of the one-child policy. It is more than twenty years since Chinese and other demographers started to sound serious warnings of the detrimental economic and social effects of the birth control policy. But the new policy amounts to no more than a twigging of the rules, universally received as too little too late. The government has built up a birth control bureaucracy more than half a million strong and is unable to do more for fear of retribution from vested interests.
The world is taking stock of the new China, but with confusion. When Xi Jinping came to Washington in September, he was received with all the honors due to a great leader and could show the folks back home that he had been given respect. But there was a conspicuous lack of substance to the visit. One reason is that China looks after itself, ruthlessly so, as in cyber espionage, but takes little interest in collaborating on the solution of world problems, such as in the Middle East. It has nothing of positive interest to offer the other great power.
When he came to London a month later he was received with open arms and the British government offered itself up as China’s best friend in Europe. There was much criticism of Britain humiliating itself in order the obtain Chinese investments, but the real humiliation was the other way around. It will not have escaped the Chinese leaders that they were received not for the brilliance of their civilization but for, and only for, the weight of their gold.
If America is apprehensive and Britain a case study in folly, how should the world deal with a China that is more aggressive and dictatorial than is comfortable?
First, we should engage with China on all levels. That is in our own interest. But also, by engagement China binds itself to international rules and commitments. A China that feels snubbed is a more dangerous country. For every bond, China is less dangerous.
Second, we should speak out in clear language against China’s breach of human rights and rule of law. That should always be done with reference to China’s own constitution and laws, which are in these respects sound (if ineffective), and with reference to the many relevant international commitments that China has signed up to.
Third, we should speak out in clear language against China’s policies of aggression, in particular against neighbors. That should always be done with reference to international law. We should know from history that if aggressors are not stood up to early but instead met with appeasement, there will be a higher price to pay later.
For now China has the upper hand since others are divided and hesitant. Above all, neighboring countries need to collaborate more and better. Others should support that collaboration and speak with one voice. Have no doubt: speaking out is effective if it is consistent. The Chinese leaders are desperate for respect. They should know that the way to get it is to respect their own people and other countries.