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Isom: An assertive China we need to heed

By Harriet Isom

Published on November 3, 2017 3:07PM

Assessing China’s President Xi Jinping’s extraordinarily fast rise to power — and his philosophy — should bring little comfort to us Americans. Since 9/11, we have been too caught up in our own domestic and other foreign preoccupations to appreciate China’s goal, not just to be an equal superpower but to restore China as the historical “Middle Kingdom” dominant in the world. Xi’s disdain for Western democracy means he will be touting an entirely authoritarian model.

Party Congress: “Xi Dada,” or Big Daddy Xi as he is fondly called in China, emerged from the October Communist Party Congress as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s thoughts on governing were enshrined in the Communist Party constitution. His command titles were multiplied. His allies now occupy key party seats. And no successor was named to the top Politburo Standing Committee, suggesting that he intends to rule for a long time.

Dream: Xi’s “dream for China” from the start of his presidency in 2012, is laced with hubris, nationalism and xenophobia. Xi sees a glorious revival for China in the 21st century after what he argues has been its 100 year “humiliation” by Western colonial powers. He wants strictly Chinese elements to be injected into international rules and to be considered the strongest country in the world — economically, politically, militarily and culturally.

Democracy: In Xi’s view, China’s history and social make-up render it unfit for multi-party democracy — or any other non-Communist system. Moreover, he thinks the U.S. and Europe are in decline.

Soviets: He is obsessed by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and blames it on the steady infiltration of “subversive” Western political ideas, failure of Communist Party conviction and weak Soviet leaders. He admires strongman Vladimir Putin and has met with him more than any other foreign leader.

Communist Party: The Chinese CP must in his view remain as Mao intended — absolutely in control. Xi has insisted on strict loyalty to party (and himself) and revived Mao’s policy of public confessions. Xi uses the perhaps largest security and secret policy establishment in the world for enforcement. By mining multiple data sources, the CP is newly giving every citizen a “social credit” rating and a digital facial image. Offenders, easily tracked, are already being punished or suppressed. Even modest dissent has been crushed.

Anti-corruption: His anti-corruption campaign is how he is purging anyone in the CP, military or, most recently, business community who is a threat to him.

Economic Reform: Instead of privatizing or closing the bloated, debt- loaded state enterprises as expected, Xi is strengthening them. He presumably concluded that the CP has greater control over state enterprises than private companies.

Private Business: Indeed, China’s entrepreneurs, including 647 billionaires, have grown into a powerful constituency, many of whom have invested abroad and have ideas of their own. Technology giants such as Alibaba and Tencent are another powerful element. Xi is seeking to control them by demanding loyalty, restricting investment abroad and putting party people on company boards.

Foreign policy: Xi has been promoting China tirelessly on the world stage through, among other things, wide-ranging travels, new Chinese lending institutions, new trade associations, a robot moon landing, South Sea island creations, a robust military build-up and new overseas bases. He is happy to replace U.S. leadership of “globalization” and the most modern renewable energy projects. He has announced a huge Chinese infrastructure project to recreate the old Silk Trade Road across Eurasia, thus creating his own block to compete with Western Europe and the United States.

Foreigners: Westerners in particular are finding themselves less welcome than before. Diplomats are reportedly getting a cold shoulder. Foreign NGO’s are being closed. Western journalists were excluded from the October Party Congress final press conference.

Comment: We in the West seem amazingly blasé about the significance of China’s extraordinarily rapid development in just 40 years to already be the world’s second biggest economy — and still growing. It is the only world nation which can effectively challenge us. With Xi in power, China’s model will be a highly controlling, digitized style of authoritarian rule reaching out boldly to remake the world order in the 21st century. True, authoritarianism can develop its own chinks for self-destruction as it did in the Soviet Union. But we can’t be sanguine. China has, with its five thousand years of history, a very long view, exceeding patience and, today, enormous determination and resources. We truly need our own long term strategy for protecting and enhancing our preferred model of Western democracy — and its values of rule of law, basic human rights, civil society, free trade and freedom of the seas, air and space.

Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton. She was a career diplomat in Asia and Africa and retired to the family ranch.


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