My first and only interview with the state-owned Global Times newspaper took place in May 2010. I argued China was probably the loneliest rising power in modern history — no real allies, few true friends and widely distrusted even by those admiring its achievements.
The Global Times published an editorial a few days later entitled China’s Loneliness Could Go the Distance. To my surprise, the editorial agreed the Communist Party was indeed alone and faced hostile forces waiting in the shadows. Like a lone wolf in a strange and inhospitable environment, the party bore the glorious responsibility of returning China to pre-eminence and could not count on any other nation to help it achieve that historic mission.
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Today’s pandemic seems to have triggered a strategic and political Communist Party psychosis. The Chinese lone wolf has transformed into the wolf warrior, insulting nations and threatening multiple countries with economic and/or military punishment for perceived insults. From its actions in Hong Kong to the escalation of disputes with Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asian nations, India, Canada, Britain, Europe and, of course, Australia, any good faith built up over decades is now burned.
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The old guard would be aghast at the wrecking ball approach adopted by Xi Jinping given that the great fear going back to Deng Xiaoping was external coalitions against China. Their considered conclusion was that Mao Zedong tried to do too much too quickly and subsequently left the country in a terrible mess internally and in the eyes of the world. Better to quietly build what they referred to as “comprehensive national power”.
How then to understand present Chinese behaviour? The Global Times does not formally speak for the regime, but the editorial was a revealing insight into the world view of the Communist Party. Add the recent toxic mix of hubris, overreach, impetuosity and emerging panic among today’s Chinese leadership, and we get closer to comprehending what is going on.
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It is impossible to understand the Communist Party if we do not take history, ideology and the power of self-serving narratives seriously. It has two main conceptions of itself: as the heir to the Chinese civilisation’s imperial and dynastic past, and as a Marxist-Leninist communist organisation. It does not matter if most of the party’s 100 million members are more interested in living the good life and pay scant lip service to these ideas. Neither is it relevant that much of the history is cherrypicked or else apocryphal. This is what sustains the organisation’s sense of itself and defines its purpose and objectives.
Consider Beijing’s external objectives, which under Xi are no different from those of his predecessors. They include integrating Hong Kong and Taiwan on Chinese terms, establishing a Sino-centric economic and strategic regional order filled with subservient or neutral states, pushing the US back to its half of the Pacific, and taming the world to accommodate the interests and values of the party.
In this hierarchical world view, with no historical or moral peer, China is innately exceptional, necessarily alone and lonely. It does not seek enduring alliances or lasting friendships with smaller or inferior nations. Consider what was then a rare outburst in July 2010 when then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi angrily reminded Southeast Asian counterparts, regarding the South China Sea: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”
That scorn for purportedly subordinate nations demanding equal sovereign rights and privileges has long existed but was covered up under Deng’s prudent formula of “hiding brightness and cherishing obscurity”.
As always, the highest purpose of any true Marxist-Leninist party is to do what it takes to remain in power. When it comes to means, and in addition to outright coercion, they believe promising material reward or punishment will eventually be enough to bend nations, governments and populations to their will. But previous leaders did not believe China was able to make too great or many demands concurrently. They never threatened multiple nations at the same time.
The difference now is change in temperament, miscalculation, and overreach under Xi. He has purged more than 1.5 million officials, including most of his rivals, in preparing to be leader for life. To secure his position, he encourages the most strident and chauvinistic elements of Chinese nationalism and rides that wave.
Lest he disappoint and this wave crash on top of him, he is the first leader promising to return China to its former dominance within his lifetime. Beijing may get its way with Hong Kong but Xi faces the serious problem of having over-estimated China’s power and leverage to coax or intimidate once meek nations now seeing the Communist Party in a dim light.
China needs the goodwill of North America, Europe and East Asia to continue its rise but neither material seduction nor coercion is bending wills sufficiently to Beijing’s requirement or expectation. Nations are moving in the opposite direction.
With limited perspective and tools to comprehend, respond to and repair these widening rifts, an increasingly panicked leadership has left itself little room for retreat and becomes only more infuriated at the gall of supposedly inferior nations to defend their interests and way of life from encroachment.
Unchecked, Beijing’s anger could take the region and world to a dark place. But we now know the problem is not so much that Beijing is too powerful to resist but there was a previous lack of collective resolve to stand firm.
John Lee is a nonresident senior fellow at the US Studies Centre and Hudson Institute in Washington. From 2016 to 2018 he was a senior adviser to the Australian foreign minister.