Although the extent of state control makes China well-placed to contain the coronavirus, it will not alter Xi Jinping’s global ambitions, writes Kevin Rudd
The coronavirus crisis represents the single biggest challenge for Xi Jinping since he became general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012.
People across China are living in fear. Multiple Chinese provinces are under virtual lockdown.
Politically, the blame game bounces between local authorities in Wuhan and the central government in Beijing, with both sides mindful of the eternal principle of Chinese politics — when disaster strikes, someone must be seen to pay the price.
The wider world should show sympathy and express solidarity with the long-suffering Chinese people. The racism implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many responses to Chinese people around the world makes me question just how far we have really come.
Xi wields near-absolute political power over China’s Marxist-Leninist state. Arguably, only an authoritarian regime could have pursued the draconian methods that China has in trying to control the virus since January.
Only time will tell how effective these measures prove to be. What is certain, however, is that the crisis, once resolved, will not change how China is governed. To understand why, one must consider the underlying worldview that guides Xi as he seeks to make China the global
power of the future.
When people ask me what Xi wants, I have explained his approach in terms of 10 priorities. This may best be seen in the tradition of the psychologist Abraham Maslow: Xi’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The first priority is to keep the CPC in power. Xi has never seen the party as a transition mechanism to some sort of democracy or semi-democracy. Rather, he sees China’s unique form of authoritarian capitalism as essential and as a model that could potentially be applicable to other parts of the world.
Second, Xi believes that he must always maintain national unity. This is why there have been sustained crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang under his rule, as well as a consistent hardening of policy toward Taiwan.
The third task is to expand the economy. Xi understands that the economy’s size, strength, and technological sophistication are central to all dimensions of national power.
The fourth goal is to incorporate environmental sustainability into China’s growth matrix.
The Chinese people will not tolerate high levels of air, soil, and water pollution. Still, sustainability, including action to combat climate change, will always compete with priority three (economic growth).
Priority number five is to expand and modernise the Chinese military. Xi is overseeing the People’s Liberation Army’s biggest reform since 1949.
The PLA is being transformed from an army-based institution for continental defense into a force for projecting power beyond China’s borders. Xi’s stated mission is to build a world-class military “to fight and win wars”.
The sixth objective is to secure benign and (when possible) compliant relationships with China’s 14 neighbouring states and six maritime neighbours.
Russia has been key to this project, having gone from being an historic adversary to a virtual ally. On the maritime front, China has made clear that it will not yield on its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
Seventh, on China’s eastern maritime periphery, Xi believes that he must push the United States back to the “second island chain”. China also wants to weaken (or sever, if possible) America’s longstanding security alliances in the region. The ultimate objective here is to enhance China’s capacity to secure reunification with Taiwan — by force, if necessary.
Eighth, to secure China’s western continental periphery, Xi wants to turn the Eurasian landmass into a new market for Chinese goods, services, technology, and infrastructure investment.
Through Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
he also wants Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as Europe, to become increasingly sensitised to and supportive of China’s core foreign-policy interests.
Similarly, China sees large-scale market potential across the rest of the developing world. Hence, Xi’s ninth priority is manifested in the “Maritime Silk Road”, which is becoming as significant as the BRI.
Finally, Xi wants to reshape the global order to be more accommodating of Chinese interests and values.
China has therefore developed a two-pronged strategy. While increasing its power, personnel, and financial influence within the existing global institutions, China’s leaders are also building new institutions like the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Not everyone in the CPC’s senior echelon shares Xi’s worldview. There is much internal debate about whether China is overextending itself.
Time will tell how these debates shake out, particularly before the party’s 20th National Congress in 2022, which will decide whether to extend Xi’s leadership through the 2020s and possibly beyond.
In this context, Xi’s management of the coronavirus crisis at home, and of politically totemic projects such as 5G expansion abroad, assumes a critical new significance.
Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020