I may be accused of rattling on too much about China, but in a recent social media post Ian Bremmer, founder and President of the Eurasia Group, said: “It’s a particularly unfortunate coincidence that the US has the weakest leader in recent history at the same time China has the strongest.” I think that is an important idea: China’s rise is actually being aided by America’s political confusion.
In the Globe and Mail Nathan VanderKlippe, the Globe‘s Asia correspondent, writes that “Five new faces now occupy China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the elite club at the pinnacle of the country’s political system … [but] … not one looks like the next leader of China, an indication that sitting President Xi Jinping may want to shatter recent convention and remain for years to come at the helm of the world’s second-largest economy, a position he has used to expand the influence of the Communist Party at home and the leadership of China abroad … [and] … Mr. Xi on Wednesday strode out at the head of the new Standing Committee roster, an unveiling of the next generation of leadership that is normally a dramatic event in the country’s secretive decision-making process … [but] … This time, the reveal merely underscored the hold Mr. Xi has asserted over the country’s political system … [because] … Breaking a quarter-century of tradition, the new Politburo Standing Committee includes no members young enough under current party rules to serve as Mr. Xi’s successor, suggesting he has chosen not to anoint an heir. Chinese presidents are limited to 10 years in office, but the more powerful roles of party general secretary and head of the military, which Mr. Xi also holds, carry no such limits.“
Mr VanderKlippe suggests that “The Politburo Standing Committee has, since the ugliness of the Mao era, been the primary instrument of China’s system of collective leadership, a small cohort of powerful voices with the ability to introduce and argue their own ideas and agendas … [and] … The newest lineup suggests that era has been dispatched by Mr. Xi and party elders eager for a strong leader who can rule without the constraints or competing interests of others who might vote against him … [further] … The new Standing Committee faces are drawn from a more diverse background than expected, including from other factions inside the Communist Party … [but] … none is seen as possessing the ability to challenge Mr. Xi, who has augmented his personal stature by being named the party “core” and, this week, adding himself to the party’s constitution as originator of a theoretical concept: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.“” Thus, he goes on to suggest that there is “a continuity in the direction set for China by Mr. Xi, whose first term was marked by a more assertive foreign policy, a coordinated effort to expand Communist Party influence in Chinese society, wars on poverty and pollution – and a series of clampdowns on dissent … [and] … Mr. Xi’s second term began to fresh indications that the latter, at least, will continue.“
In The Economist, which Nathan VanderKlippe notes was one of the major journals barred from attending the unveiling of the new Standing Committee (an example of those “clampdowns on dissent”), it is noted that “The constitution of the Chinese Communist Party defines what it means to be a party member and lists the organisation’s core beliefs. On October 24th a new principle was added to it: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”—quite a mouthful. Xinhua, a government news agency, said the change was approved at the end of a weeklong party congress, an event that takes place every five years. Party leaders had been parroting the cumbersome phrase for several days since Mr Xi, who is the party’s general secretary as well as president, first mentioned it (albeit without his own name attached) on the opening day of the gathering … [while] … Talk of theory and whether someone is named in a document might sound recondite. But this has huge implications because it invests Mr Xi with more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He is the first living leader to be mentioned in the party’s charter since Mao. Deng Xiaoping’s name is also in the constitution but this was an honour accorded him only after he died in 1997. Mr Xi’s two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, are not named. Moreover, Mr Xi’s thinking uses the same term in Chinese (sixiang) as the one in Mao Zedong Thought. Deng in contrast contributed only a “theory” (lilun), a less elevated term. No one can have more ideological authority than Mr Xi. The person has become the party in a way China has not seen since Mao … [and] … Mr Xi has made influential enemies during his first five years as party chief, notably the allies and clients of the hundreds of influential officials he has had arrested for corruption. He has also complained repeatedly that officials lower down the bureaucracy are stymying his orders. This could change, because to oppose him now would be regarded more than ever as opposition to the party itself. In principle, it could make decision-making in China smoother. But it raises the risk that underlings will tell Mr Xi only what they think he wants to hear, and increase the chances of bad policymaking.“
All in all, as Mr Bremmer said, “China has the strongest … leader in recent history,” but he is, as all (near) absolute rulers are, of being isolated from the good, clear, hard advice that is an essential input to good strategic thinking. Xi Jinping appears to be holding all the high cards and he also appears to have a well developed authoritarian streak … but he also appears to be smart, not just intelligent but also “street smart” and IF that is true then he will find a way to open himself up to critical thinking, contrary opinion and well considered advice … even, especially, the sorts of advice he might not want to hear.
Meanwhile, to the other part of Ian Bremmer’s quip, the Globe and Mail reports that “Republicans this week launched scathing attacks on the leader of their own party, highlighting internal divisions that first became apparent during U.S. President Donald Trump’s insurgent outsider campaign.” It may well be that Donald Trump will win, again, in 2020, but he may do so as the leader of a new third party or the Republican Party, as we know it may divide. In any event he seems likely to be leading America into uncharted territory … away from being the unchallenged leader of the liberal democratic West.
The two leaders stand in marked contrast to one another: President Trump is almost defiant in his victory ~ as much in conflict with his own people than with the outside world which appears, to me, to frighten him so much. Paramount Leader Xi Jinping, on the other hand, appears to be master of all he surveys ~ of a united, prosperous China that is willing, even eager to follow him, and of a world that, faced with Donald Trump, seems willing to suspend what should be very natural suspicion and allow Mr Xi to assume the mantle of global statesman.
The Financial Times, another journal that Mr VanderKlippe reports was barred from the announcement of the new Standing Committee, says that “On the Google map of Beijing there is an empty quarter, an urban block next to the Communist party’s leadership compound in which few of the buildings are named. At street level, the aura of anonymity is confirmed. Uniformed guards stand by grand entrances checking official cars as they come and go. But there are no identifying signs; the sole information divulged is on brass plaques that bear the street name and building numbers … [but] … The largest of these nameless compounds is 135 Fuyou Street, the offices of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist party, known as United Front for short. This is the headquarters of China’s push for global “soft power”, a multi-faceted but largely confidential mission that Xi Jinping, China’s president who on Wednesday was confirmed in place until at least 2022, has elevated into one of the paramount objectives of his administration … [and] … The building, which stretches for some 200m at street level, signifies the scale of China’s ambition. Winning “hearts and minds” at home and abroad through United Front work is crucial to realising the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, Mr Xi has said. Yet the type of power exercised by the cadres who work behind the neoclassical façade of 135 Fuyou Street is often anything but soft … [further] … A Financial Times investigation into United Front operations in several countries shows a movement directed from the pinnacle of Chinese power to charm, co-opt or attack well-defined groups and individuals. Its broad aims are to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information … [the] … United Front declined interview requests for this article and its website yields only sparse insights. However, a teaching manual for its cadres, obtained by the Financial Times, sets out at length and in detail the organisation’s global mission in language that is intended both to beguile and intimidate.” I have discussed China’s use of soft power before. The Chinese, unlike most Canadians, seems to have actually read and understood Joseph Nye’s book and they appear, to me, to be taking his ideas and America’s experiences in the 1920s through 1950s to heart. Just look at the scope of their “aid” projects, especially the $62 Billion they are investing to build themselves a Persian Gulf port in their client state of Pakistan.
China’s rise will, I suspect, accelerate as their potent mix of soft power, hard power, and vigorous leadership goes into overdrive ~ pushed along by President Trumps “know nothing” isolationism.
My prescription for Canada is unchanged from a few days ago:
- Recognize the reality of Donald Trump’s America and its implications for Canada;
- Recognize China’s rise;
- Renew and strengthen ties with traditional, trusted allies;
- Engage China as a trading partner, as a competitor, but not as an enemy; and
- Do more, much more, to help secure the West.