On the 12th of this month, five of China's largest state-owned enterprises announced their intention to delist shares from the New York Stock Exchange. The announcements came amid the deadlock between American and Chinese regulators over the right of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board to inspect audit work papers of Chinese firms listed on American exchanges.
The enterprises cited a low volume of trades for the voluntary delistings, but Beijing apparently forced the companies to leave the U.S. Chinese officials are determined to prevent foreign parties from gaining access to corporate data. Instead, Beijing is promoting offerings on domestic Chinese exchanges.
Why is this development significant? Not because China wants to hoard information, which of course it does.
The move is significant because Chinese ruler Xi Jinping, while branding himself the planet's leading champion of globalization, is in reality cutting China's links with the world. He is, unfortunately, reversing the gaige kaifang—"reforming and opening up"—policies of Deng Xiaoping, Communist's China's "second-generation" leader and Mao Zedong's successor.
Xi is leaving no aspect of society untouched, relentlessly trying to eliminate foreign influences in China. He has, to further this goal, been promoting the Four Confidences, the last of which is confidence in China's culture. "Cultural confidence" is now a consistent theme of his speeches.
In practice, this ostensible promotion of things Chinese has turned out to be a campaign legitimizing—even glorifying—xenophobia.
Government-sponsored "sinicization" campaigns have attacked, among other targets, Christianity. Yet Xi Jinping the atheist is going after more than just Western religion. Santa Claus is on the outs, as are other secular symbols associated with a foreign holiday.
Cartoon characters are by no means safe. Winnie the Pooh, for instance, is treated like a criminal. One could argue that Pooh's banning is political in origin, because clever Chinese netizens compared Xi to the fat bear and President Obama to the slim Tigger in a photograph of the two leaders at a 2013 summit.
Yet how about Peppa Pig? The Communist Party in 2018 went after the adorable cartoon character, who became, as The Guardian put it, the "snouty enemy of the Chinese state." Peppa's sin? Chinese slackers adopted the barnyard creature as their hero.
And in Xi's China, no foreign book is good enough. Xi has restricted the distribution of foreign children's books, hoping to stop the "inflow of ideology."
Real persons have also felt the brunt of Xi's campaign. China, not surprisingly, has ended most exchanges between its academics and those in other countries. Moreover, foreign teachers are being expelled from Chinese institutions—even those in the supposedly autonomous "special administrative regions." At the Macau University of Science and Technology, for example, foreigners who have left on vacation often cannot return to campus to teach. As they try to board return flights, I have heard, they learn that their visas had been canceled.
The regime's comprehensive drive for cultural purity is a signal that calamity is around the corner. Throughout China's imperial history, rulers have severed ties with the outside when they have thought that contact with the foreign threatened their rule.
Paradoxically, these emperors, as they cut China's links with the world, maintained they held the Mandate of Heaven to rule tianxia, "All Under Heaven." Mao Zedong, the first ruler of the People's Republic, also adopted the notion of worldwide Chinese rule, albeit under different theories.
Mao, taking a page out of imperial history, closed off China with his "Bamboo Curtain" and, free to do what he wanted, embarked on abnormal programs. For instance, his viciously anti-foreign Cultural Revolution, the decade-long campaign beginning in 1966, killed millions, almost destroyed the Communist Chinese state, and set the country back decades.
Xi Jinping, who reveres Mao and emulates him whenever possible, is now vigorously pushing tianxia and at the same time doing his best to isolate China, evoking the worst periods in Chinese history.
So is Xi sponsoring a temporary pullback from the world, or a complete Maoist severance?
"The rise of Xi reflects a historically significant closing off of China, as the party-state, per the logic of the tianxia regime, decided that its political interest demands a curtailment of the already selective 'opening,' even at the expense of resealing China into isolation," Fei-Ling Wang of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology told Newsweek. "It is not a momentary pullback."
China's tianxia system has always caused suffering. It has, Wang wrote in The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power, "a record of suboptimal performance that features despotic governance, long stagnation of economy, suffocation of science and technology, retardation of spiritual pursuits, irrational allocation of resources, great depreciation of human dignity and life, low and declining living standards for the masses, and mass death and destruction periodically and frequently."
In the past, Chinese rulers damaged only China with their isolationist moves. This time, however, Xi Jinping cannot close off an interconnected China without also affecting the world.
China's disaster will, in all probability, become the world's disaster.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.