What triggered the China backlash?

Richard McGregor’s new short book Xi Jinping: The Backlash is a useful summary of how much of the world’s view of China has changed over the last few years, and not for the better. The catalog of the things that have upset foreigners dealing with China is now quite a long one:

The construction, and then militarisation, of islands in the South China Sea from 2013 galvanised hawks in Washington and allies in the region, not least because of its sheer audacity and scale. Foreign businesses, once advocates of engagement with Beijing to open the Chinese market, became disillusioned when they saw their access truncated. The seemingly ceaseless theft of trade secrets and technology hardened cynicism in governments and companies alike. The detention of up to a million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang in the name of anti-terror from 2017 highlighted human rights abuses in a way the jailing of individual dissidents never could.

And that is even without going into the somewhat different dynamics of the developing world’s backlash against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Given all this, it may be a fool’s errand to try to identify any single trigger for the world’s reaction to a more assertive China. It is overdetermined, in the social science jargon, with many causes all pushing in the same direction. Nonetheless I very much agree with McGregor’s assertion that:

If there is a period that crystallised perceptions of Xi, and his world view and ambitions, that moment was in late 2017 and early 2018 when foreigners, and many Chinese as well, finally started to take him at his word. Xi was reconfirmed as leader of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017 and then abolished term limits on his presidency in March 2018, removing any obstacles to his remaining in power in perpetuity. … In one decision, Xi confirmed his critics’ view that he was an unrepentant autocrat willing to take China backwards in the service of his agenda.

This jibes with my own observation of the dramatic shift in the consensus of the US China-watching community (and here is a similar observation from someone with more foreign-policy expertise than me) . As a few people have pointed out, what has really changed over the last couple of years is not the views of the China hawks–it is the views of the China doves. People who had long felt that China, was moving, albeit imperfectly, in a more positive direction over the long term, began to concede that, in fact no, China was not really moving in the right direction anymore. Xi’s decision to abolish term limits helped convince the waverers and solidified this trend. It was a move that was almost perfectly indefensible. After all, abolishing term limits is something only tinpot dictators of third-world countries do.

China clearly did not anticipate the blanket foreign-media coverage and criticism of the move, but its explanations only highlighted how poorly officials understood the perceptions of their system abroad. Chinese official media justified the removal of term limits as being a minor administrative adjustment to bring the term limit for the presidency in line with the other two offices Xi holds (Party general secretary and Central Military Commission chairman), neither of which have term limits. The official argument is that it’s important for the leader in China’s system to hold all three offices (something Jiang Zemin, the first to do so, had also said). What this argument actually implies is that Xi had already decided to stay for a third term as general secretary, and that the rules had to accommodate this decision by not forcing him to give up the state presidency.

Given the consequences that have since flowed from it, Xi’s decision on term limits must go down as one of the greatest geopolitical own-goals of all time. So I was a little disappointed that McGregor, author of the classic and still-relevant The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, did not dig deeper into the background of this decision. Not that anyone in the Chinese system would have any incentive to talk to him about it. The full story of that fateful moment in early 2018 is likely to emerge only after Xi eventually passes from the scene.

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