China’s President Xi Jinping is now invoking cultural diversity as a pretext for opposing democracy and asserting Beijing’s sharp power, reports suggest.
Xi repeated his rallying cry on Wednesday as he addressed dozens of leaders in Beijing, where he hosted an inaugural Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. Xi did not name the United States, but the subtext was clear as he subtly criticized those who “insist on reshaping and replacing other civilizations,” The Washington Post’s Gerry Shih writes:
Xi’s administration has vigorously pushed back against the concept of universal liberal values and Western-style democracy. It has swatted aside international condemnation of its program to forcibly assimilate its Turkic Uighur minority and touted its authoritarian model of governance as a system suited to Chinese culture, which it says is steeped in a tradition of collectivism and centralized rule.
A newly-assertive China is pursuing a sophisticated “whole-of-society” strategy that exploits all elements of state power to strengthen its position in the world and diminish U.S. power and influence, argues Senator Mark Warner (D-VA).
But it’s also using more creative mechanisms—that take advantage of its authoritarian model to force Chinese companies, researchers, and others to act on behalf of China’s national interests, he told Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow [and National Endowment for Democracy board member] Victoria Nuland at in a conversation last week.
In March 2018, Chinese leader Xi Jinping put an end to presidential term limits in China, thus opening up the possibility of him ruling for life, notes Dr. Juliette Genevaz, the China research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris). He appeared all-powerful. Now, however, signs of political stress and internal tensions are emerging, she writes for War On The Rocks:
- Paradoxically, the concentration of power in the figure of Xi seems to be making it harder, not easier, to manage the growing tensions in Chinese society. In January, he convened an extraordinary meeting with provincial party leaders to warn against political turbulence. …
- Another source of tension within the party has to do with the economy. In 2018, China’s economic growth was the lowest it has been in 30 years. The government response to the 2008 financial crisis generated a 20 percent growth in debt between 2009 and 2015. …In March 2018, Premier Li Keqiang cited persisting financial risk as the first of three “critical battles” to be fought and won domestically.
- Finally, Xi has seen mixed results in his effort to crack down on mass protests, which grew steadily in number during the decade that preceded Xi’s rise to power in 2012. Protesters, demobilized soldiers, and Marxist students have all pointed out the party’s failings.
Those who look at big datasets on democracy around the world argue that regime survival is still far likelier than democratic transition in China, notes analyst Bruce Gilley. They are right…[but] The time to think about a tilt in the odds is before they shift, he writes in 30 Years After Tiananmen: The Young and the Restless, an article in the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Journal of Democracy:
The regime itself is aware of the need to prevent such a tilt. In 2013, it banned all mention of seven “dangerous” subjects that threatened to inspire prodemocratic agitation: civil society, human rights, universal values, freedom of the press, judicial independence, China’s new economic elites, and past blunders by the CCP.
As China’s growing power, ambitions, domestic repression and overseas aggression spur the defenders of the liberal international order to grow more active in defense of their interests and values, it appears likely that ideological competition will grow between the United States and China, says Scott W. Harold with The RAND Corporation’s Center for Asia-Pacific Policy.
In meeting the China challenge, the United States will need to continue to articulate a compelling set of ideals and support norms and institutions, which embody beliefs and values that other nations find more appealing than China’s offer of low-cost technology and debt-financing, he writes in Winning the ideological competition with China, an article for The Asan Forum.
“This is not to say that the US can rely on ideology and ideals alone; you cannot beat something with nothing, nor offer hungry populations freedom from tyranny without also offering them pathways to development and security,” Harold adds. ‘But neither can the United States rely solely on material capabilities absent values in defending US interests.”
There may be ideological competition with Beijing but the notion of a “Clash of Civilizations” to describe U.S.-China relations has been widely and rightly derided, foreign policy expert Max Boot writes for The Washington Post:
- First, the United States has had competitors of color before. (Remember who bombed Pearl Harbor?)
- Second, China’s governing philosophy — Market Leninism — borrows from two Western thinkers, Adam Smith and V.I. Lenin.
- Third and most important, [the argument] echoes Beijing’s propaganda, and insults brave Chinese dissidents, by writing off human rights as a Western concept alien to the Middle Kingdom. Taiwan proves there is nothing un-Chinese about democracy.
“However, the silencing of unorthodox voices within and outside the party, the discrepancy between central- and local-level economic management, and the disruptive effects of social protests are reaching new heights,” she observes. “Thus far, under Xi, the party has been successful at stifling organized opposition. But this success is a sign of its own decay, as it needs to employ increasingly coercive resources to remain in power.”