The last year has not been kind to the men in Beijing.
After years of seeing power drain to the East, the West is striking back. At the fore is U.S. pressure on China to modify its practice of protectionist trade policy and industrial espionage. The Trump administration has given notice that China must change its ways or pay a heavy price. Trade negotiations are progressing toward new rules.
Security services in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain and other countries have issued warnings against wireless technology giant Huawei on grounds of national security. In China’s state-led capitalism, companies like Huawei have a duty to collaborate with government authorities, including sharing data. Huawei’s chief finance officer is under house arrest in Canada, awaiting extradition to the U.S. In January a Huawei employee was arrested in Warsaw and charged with espionage.
Also over the last year, respected research organizations including the Mercator Institute in Berlin, the Asia Society in New York and the Royal United Services Institute in London have issued reports detailing China’s “influence policy” aimed at political and educational institutions, media and civil society in democratic countries.
The West has been desperate to see China as a collaborative force, but Beijing has made it impossible to hold on to that illusion.
American lawmakers have spearheaded a fight against China’s use of financial clout to chip away at the foundations of academic freedom. Western universities have become reluctant to welcome the Trojan horse of Confucian Institutes, and established institutes are being shut down. The tone of voice in media commentary has changed. Apologists are silent and the dominant melody is one of warning.
A year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first serious mistake since becoming supreme leader in 2012. He had the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency lifted. That pulled back the curtain for the world to see the regime as it is. Xi speaks the language of rule of law but will change the constitution at the flick of a finger if it suits him.
Internally, Communist Party control has been tightened in draconian ways under Xi. A heroic community of human rights lawyers has been decimated. Social control is being perfected in a big-data “social credit system” in which daily life rewards and punishments are distributed according to a people’s citizenship behavior score on a scale from good to bad. The western province of Xinjiang, where the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are concentrated, has been turned into a totalitarian police state, complete with mass detentions and a network of concentration camps.
Externally, Beijing is pursuing a policy of global domination. The main instrument is the Belt and Road Initiative in which China lends participating countries capital for infrastructure investments. The loans and projects are irresistible but have the effect of tying receiving nations into dependency on Beijing.
The West has been desperate to see China as a collaborative force, but Beijing has made it impossible to hold on to that illusion. When loans taken on by Sri Lanka became unserviceable, China took over the port in question and 15,000 acres of land around it on a 99-year lease, establishing a Hong Kong-style concession in a weaker country. Others caught in China’s debt trap include Zambia, which in late 2018 lost control of its main international airport, and Kenya, which is in danger of having to hand over its main port in Mombasa for inability to pay back its Chinese loan to fund a China-built, but unprofitable, Mombasa-to-Nairobi railway.
To make matters worse for themselves, when meeting resistance Xi & Co. revert to bullying. After New Zealand joined other Western countries in a stand against Huawei, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was unable to schedule a long-planned visit to China, and the launch of a much-promoted tourism initiative was abruptly canceled. Also in New Zealand, in a much-noticed case, professor Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, after publishing a critical paper about China’s influence in the country, has found herself and her family on the receiving end of a campaign of intimidation she believes is orchestrated by Chinese authorities.
When the British secretary of defense made some critical remarks about the South China Sea, the chancellor of the exchequer found a planned visit called off. Norway has been forced to sign a treaty of friendship in which its government, otherwise a consistent voice in defense of human rights, commits itself to silence on China’s abuses.
But as the West pushes back, the realignment of power — not too strong a term — is finally starting to narrow China’s space of action. An immediate beneficiary is Taiwan, which sits on the contemporary fault line of totalitarianism and democracy. The danger that China will trample liberty underfoot there is less today than it was a year ago.
Winston Churchill in the early years after World War II said of Josef Stalin that he did not believe Stalin wanted war, just the spoils of war. The same can be said of Xi Jinping today. But now, the West is finding its voice against Chinese abuses of power. It turns out that speaking clear language to the giant works.
Stein Ringen is a professor of political economy at King’s College London and the author of “The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century.”