China’s Mounting Worries: How Much More Can Xi Take?

9 September 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

A recent FDI analysis noted that China’s strong-arm and coercive diplomatic efforts, its so-called Wolf-Warrior diplomacy, had failed to achieve its goal of cowing any nascent and existing antipathy in the international community towards the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the time that that analysis was published in mid-June this year, matters have only become worse for China. From its immediate neighbourhood, across Africa to Europe and North America, it appears that the international community is rising up against China. The growing anti-China sentiment has seen coalitions form that could, in time, take on a military hue to counter China’s power and China’s favourability ratings among the common people in many countries plummet. The anti-China sentiment – even derision – could lead to CCP General Secretary Xi facing even more pressure than he currently does. The ensuing loss of face would, almost certainly, make him even more dangerous than he is at this time, leaving the world in the kind of precarious position last seen during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Comment

A major CCP bugbear relating to the general Chinese population is diversity, in language, culture, literature, religious beliefs and so on. As the CCP sees it, if the party is to exert its full control over the Chinese people, those variations among them make the task of achieving that control more difficult. Despite the Han community constituting the greater proportion of the Chinese citizenry, the CCP apparatchiks recognise that there is a sufficient diversity of other communities in China that warrants an effort to remove those variations and to make all Chinese citizens a homologous unit. It is that thinking that, in part, accounts for Beijing’s repression of the Uighur people. While that repression has been going on for some years (it is only more recently that the matter has come to the attention of the ordinary people of the international community), the plight of Chinese Mongols is almost as bad. The CCP has very recently enacted legislation to remove the Mongolian language from core subjects in the school curricula in Inner Mongolia, leading to rare public protests. If history is any indication, this is the thin edge of the CCP wedge, which it also employed in Tibet.

While the CCP is well-placed to manage any demonstrations and push-back within China, however, it is not quite as capable of doing so internationally. China has essentially over-estimated its ability to control the governments of other countries, as it is now finding out. A previous FDI paper described China’s efforts to construct a canal across Thailand (also here). The CCP was fairly confident that it could persuade the Thai Government to allow it to construct the Kra Canal, thereby enabling Chinese ships, both naval and merchant, to bypass the Strait of Malacca, reduce travel times and costs and give the CCP a foothold in Thailand, just as it has in Cambodia. It would have come as a severe shock to the CCP, then, that Thailand has now decided not to allow the project to go ahead. Just as great a shock, if not more, would be the realisation that it is losing its influence in South-East Asia, as recent reports about the Philippines retaining its ties to the US demonstrate. Vietnam, never much of a Chinese friend, let alone an ally, has its own reasons – energy deposits in the South China Sea, Chinese occupation of parts of the Paracel Archipelago – for growing tensions with Beijing. Also in the region, the tiny state of Palau has invited the US to build military bases on its territory, at a time when China seeks to increase its influence there. The US could, if it accepted that offer, employ the Second Island Chain to support its military personnel in Japan, South Korea and Guam. As a major analysis observes, Palau is part of a critical logistical network that enables US troops to move through and within the region without challenge and connecting US military forces in Hawaii to those in the Western Pacific.

At home, the Scott Morrison Government has decided to also stand up to the CCP, despite China being Australia’s largest trading partner. Canberra has rightly decided that it has ignored China’s “Silent Invasion” for too long (a second recounting of China’s bid for influence may be found here) and its attempts to divert Australia’s scientific and technological research to Chinese firms and universities.

Now comes the news that Malaysia has decided that it will not extradite Uighur refugees, who have fled China on their way to Turkey, back to China.

The CCP’s relations with India fare no better. Following the clashes at the Galwan River Valley in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas between Chinese and Indian troops, New Delhi hit back at China, first banning around sixty Chinese software applications and then, after further transgressions at their common border, a further 118. Those bans sit well with the US, which is calling for a “clean [communications] network” bereft of any Chinese involvement. New Delhi has also terminated contracts with Chinese firms that were working on Indian infrastructure projects. It has also been reported that India has deployed its Special Frontier Force, which is made up of Tibetan refugees, to counter China’s movements in the Himalayas.

The US, which has taken a very hard line against the CCP, has, in conjunction with Taiwan, called on “like-minded” democracies to re-structure global supply chains and shift from their reliance on China. Just as alarmingly for China, an official from the US Department of State has called for a formal alliance similar to NATO with India, Japan and Australia.

While the CCP may have expected the US’s hard line, it was likely that its leaders were more than taken aback by the European Union’s. General Secretary Xi’s goal in regard to the EU was likely to have been to prevent it from joining forces with the US to oppose China under his leadership, so he sent the CCP’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on a five-stop tour of the EU in preparation for a video-conference between the CCP leaders and the heads of the EU. In Berlin, however, things did not go as Mr Wang planned. He castigated a Czech delegation, led by the President of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, for visiting Taiwan and warned that the latter would “pay a heavy price” because he had made an enemy of 1.4 billion Chinese people. That comment led Mr Heiko Maas, Germany’s Foreign Minister, who was standing beside Mr Wang, to retort that ‘We as Europeans act in close co-operation’, demand respect and that ‘threats don’t fit in here’. Other EU politicians, including those from Slovakia and France, backed Mr Maas’s comment.

It was a local Czech mayor, however, who truly captured the mood regarding China in the Czech Republic and the EU. In a letter to Mr Wang, he demanded an apology from the Chinese Government, essentially from the CCP, within twenty-four hours. His diatribe, in Czech, and its English translation, is available here.

Given all of the above (and China’s economic woes have not been touched upon here), it is probably safe to say that Mr Xi is being assailed on several fronts and is under tremendous pressure, even from within the Party. That could be one reason why there is yet another purge in the offing. The issue is, what happens if that purge does not weaken the factions within the CCP that oppose him? What if, say, the Jiang Zemin faction, further works to erode his authority? Given the rising nationalism in China, Mr Xi would probably be very tempted to engineer a situation that would act as a release valve for the pent-up anger and frustration in China and that would allow him to put the foreign powers that are arrayed against him on the back foot. A situation like that could succeed – or, just as likely, fail. Either way, it is unlikely that the EU, Japan, India, Australia and, especially, the US would continue to treat with the CCP. That truly would be the beginning of a divided world, one that runs a heightened risk of encountering conflict.

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