Last modified on Sun 6 Jun 2021 13.16 BST
Is it too late to halt the slide towards all-out confrontation between China and the western democracies? An apparently conciliatory speech last week by Xi Jinping led some observers to suggest China’s president may want to mend fences. But a change of tone in Beijing will not cut much ice in Washington unless Xi’s aggressive policies change, too.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has overseen a marked shift towards authoritarianism at home and increased “assertiveness” – a polite word for bullying – abroad. He has established the type of personal, almost cultish dominance over the Chinese Communist party not seen since the days of Mao Zedong.
So when Xi talks, as he did last week, about the need for arrogant CCP spokespeople and the country’s antagonistic “wolf warrior” diplomats to present a more “lovable” and “humble” image of China to the world, he is really critiquing himself and his own management style.
Yet Xi has never had to woo ordinary voters. He has purged all serious rivals. He lauds uniformity and exhibits a hatred of “difference”, as cruelly manifested in Xinjiang. He rules by fear, political cunning and brute force. Love has nothing to do with it.
Looked at another way, Xi’s speech would not have been out of place at a Militant tendency meeting circa 1976 or, for that matter, in the old Soviet politburo. Like hard-left politicians and neo-Marxists everywhere, Xi believes it’s not his policies that are at fault but a failure to explain and communicate them effectively.
China must expand its “circle of friends”, he said. “Propaganda organisations” (meaning state media) must make clear to all that the CCP wanted “nothing but the Chinese people’s happiness and good fortune”. Does he really believe people will swallow such tosh? Coming from a man dedicated to supplanting the US as global hegemon, his words suggest startling naivety about the world beyond China or else a shocking cynicism.
Extensive state-directed, under-the-radar schemes to “tell China’s story” and expand its influence are in any case already in train, according to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. “Over the past decade, the CCP has overseen a dramatic expansion of efforts to shape media content around the world,” it said, even as the CCP stifles critical independent coverage.
Using propaganda, disinformation and censorship, “Beijing has insinuated its content ... into foreign media markets in many subtle ways, for example, through content-sharing agreements ... Hundreds of millions of news consumers around the world routinely view, read, or listen to information created or influenced by the CCP, often without knowing its origins.”
Xi’s image-massaging and media manipulation went a drastic step further last week as Beijing suppressed coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary. Hong Kong media were told not to mention it. An annual vigil for victims was banned amid yet more arrests. The record of the CCP’s historical culpability over Tiananmen was wiped. Yet today’s crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms is a very public crime that Xi cannot airbrush away. Lovable it ain’t.
Blatant and loveless, too, is the siege of Taiwan, where Chinese military forces regularly launch high-profile, provocative territorial incursions. Like a latter-day emperor, Xi sees reunification as the crowning achievement of his reign. The west’s shameful failure to defend Hong Kong emboldens him, and fears grow that he may soon resort to force. Taiwan could yet become America’s Falklands.
All around China’s borders, from India and South Korea to Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia, a grim story of intimidation, impunity and aggression is unfolding, as opposed to the confected, made-in-Beijing narrative of neighbourly co-existence. The list of western grievances with Xi’s China, often spilling over into undisguised anger, grows longer almost by the day. The problem now – assuming Xi really is having second thoughts – is that it may already be too late. A tipping point has been reached. Tolerance for Chinese boorishness is all but exhausted.
Xi may not be able to alter course even if he wants to. For almost a decade, he has unleashed wave after wave of what analyst Sulmaan Wasif Khan calls “belligerent, defensive nationalism” – political, economic and military. China, he wrote, “has poisoned itself through its own rhetoric ... As the US discovered in the Donald Trump years, one cannot stoke nationalistic fires without their eventually blazing beyond control.”
A reckoning is due. US president Joe Biden has stuck to his predecessor’s tough line, and is steadily reinforcing it. This coming weekend’s G7 summit will back him up. The Quad – an alliance of the US, Japan, India and Australia – is reviving. Defence spending is rising, on both sides. New weapons, including nuclear, come on stream. Britain, following other Nato powers, has sent a naval battlegroup to the South China Sea.
Punitive sanctions multiply, noisy diplomatic clashes and trade disputes escalate, mutual recriminations abound. And now, having previously dismissed it is as a Trumpian conspiracy hoax, Biden has ordered a fast-track investigation into the theory that Covid-19 leaked from a secret laboratory in Wuhan and Xi covered it up.
Biden’s action is legitimate, epidemiologically speaking. But it is also unmistakably political. Seen from Beijing, it looks like an overtly hostile act, even a trap, that potentially undoes all the efforts to portray China as a benign global superpower. For Xi and his legacy, the threat posed by the “Wuhan virus” story is existential.
Xi is making nice as the CCP prepares to mark its centenary next month. But it won’t last, because nothing has fundamentally changed. Attitudes in the west are hardening. And Xi is not afraid of a fight. However he spins it, the slide towards confrontation appears inexorable.