Secure at Home, Xi Steps Back Onto the Global Stage

Secure at Home, Xi Steps Back Onto the Global Stage

Updated: 20 days, 8 hours, 50 minutes, 24 seconds ago

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The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for back-to-back events in Indonesia and Thailand, the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou veers toward a full COVID-19 lockdown, and how the U.S. midterms might play in Beijing.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for back-to-back events in Indonesia and Thailand, the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou veers toward a full COVID-19 lockdown, and how the U.S. midterms might play in Beijing.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Xi Slowly Resumes Travel

Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping took his new leadership team on a pilgrimage. The Politburo Standing Committee, appointed at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), traveled to Yanan, the mountain base used by Mao Zedong to lead the party’s struggle against both the Nationalists and the Japanese in the 1930s. There was plenty of praise for China’s former leader, but the trip was more about Xi’s authority than Maoism.

It’s understandable to compare Xi to Mao. Xi himself often invokes the Maoist legacy, and his power is increasingly dictatorial. Also, Chinese dissidents tend to reach for Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a reference point for any government crackdown; it was a traumatic experience and one that particularly affected academics and intellectuals. But there are big differences. Xi’s recent pilgrimage doesn’t mean his temperament is similar to Mao’s.

Mao built his power from the ground up twice over, leading a revolutionary army and then breaking the system to restore his dominance over the CCP by turning the mobs of the Cultural Revolution against his colleagues. Xi’s power is top-down, derived from his family connections and his position within the party. He doesn’t seek to unleash the kind of chaos that Mao thrived on. For Xi, a visit to Yanan isn’t about being a revolutionary. It’s about asserting that the CCP’s history is the source of his authority.

With his domestic power secured at last month’s Party Congress, Xi also seems ready to step back onto the global stage, even as most Chinese remain more isolated—both physically and culturally—from the rest of the world than they were before Xi’s rule. Xi made his first foreign trip since January 2020 in September and then hosted a number of leaders in Beijing last week.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was his biggest guest last week. Scholz visited Beijing on the back of controversial deal giving China permission to buy a significant stake in the Port of Hamburg that aimed to reaffirm pre-pandemic ties and shore up economic relations between the countries. Germany has often been criticized for its closeness to China—especially after its failed engagement with Russia. Earlier this year, Berlin shifted position on investment guarantees in Xinjiang due to human rights concerns.

Scholz’s visit produced one immediate result: For the first time, Xi publicly stated China’s opposition to use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, saying that the international community should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used, a nuclear war cannot be waged, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis.” Although Russia has pulled back on its nuclear saber-rattling, China’s implicit rebuke is a welcome intervention—and a contrast to recent claims by the U.S. Defense Department that Moscow and Beijing are moving into a closer alliance.

Xi is likely to attend both the G-20 forum in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in Thailand later this month. He will likely make stops en route, perhaps visiting close ally Cambodia and Vietnam, an uncertain comrade.

At the G-20 and APEC meetings, Xi will probably focus on reassurance that China will eventually be fully open for business again. Slowdowns and border closures hit China’s Southeast Asian neighbors hard. But the COVID-19 pandemic also eased, somewhat, years of tensions over claims in the South China Sea, as countries dealt with their own domestic problems. That stasis may be on the way out, especially with renewed Chinese naval aggression around Taiwan.

One thing to watch is whether Xi avoids public engagements after he returns from his overseas travel, as happened after his trip to Central Asia in September. Another absence would suggest that Xi’s brief disappearance from public life, which sparked a round of coup rumors, was in fact just the leader and key personnel quarantining themselves.

All of Xi’s diplomatic efforts, however, are unlikely to be enough to repair China’s damaged global image—especially as the country remains so inaccessible to visitors.

What We’re Following

Guangzhou lockdown. One of China’s biggest manufacturing hubs is veering toward a full lockdown after a COVID-19 outbreak. Parts of the southern city of Guangzhou, which recorded more than 2,600 new cases on Tuesday, are already locked down—a familiar feeling for urban residents in China. In a city of Guangzhou’s size, it also evokes memories of the disastrous Shanghai lockdown earlier this year.

Social media posts reflect eroded public trust when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, with people expressing skepticism about limited lockdowns or anticipating that people may be detained for posting accurate information, as they were in Shanghai. (Many users are posting in Cantonese rather than Mandarin, hoping to evade censors.) Perhaps fear of the economic damage caused by a major lockdown could change the government’s mind, but that seems unlikely, given the risks of a full-scale outbreak in a crowded city.

U.S. midterm reactions. Control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate is up in the air at the time of writing, following U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday. While the Democratic Party’s relatively strong performance surprised many in Washington, I doubt it will occasion much in Beijing. That’s because, in my experience, the Chinese leadership tends to project its own system onto U.S. domestic politics, resulting in a conviction that elections, no matter their result, are usually fraudulent.

Besides, in the case of these elections, Chinese leaders may not have picked up on the idea of a so-called red wave of Republican enthusiasm among voters in the first place; the Chinese press certainly didn’t cover it extensively. Unfortunately, this lack of information also makes the leadership susceptible to U.S. conspiracy theories. China doesn’t lack experts with a detailed understanding of U.S. politics, but—by their own accounts—they are rarely listened to. Even in internal networks, censorship prevails, as The Associated Press recently chronicled.

At this point, I don’t think Beijing has a clear party preference in the United States anyway. Hopes for friendlier relations with the Democrats have been dashed by the Biden administration’s hard-line policies on Chinese technology.

Canadian infiltration. A report in Canada’s Global News claims that Canadian intelligence warned of major Chinese interference in the country’s 2019 elections, including funding candidates and attempting to smear politicians seen as opposed to Beijing. The story echoes similar reports in New Zealand and Australia, and the interference would also have happened as China took a special interest in Ottawa’s affairs due to the Meng Wanzhou case and the detention of two Canadian citizens.

Tech and Business

German city cuts Huawei ties. Even Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing couldn’t save the connection between the German city of Duisburg and the Chinese technology firm Huawei. Duisburg has ended its collaboration with Huawei as a “smart city,” part of the firm’s global program to sell itself as a digital infrastructure partner. The smart cities program raised red flags for those concerned about privacy or Chinese espionage, particularly in the United States.

China is still involved in creating surveillance infrastructure around the world, from security cameras around the Port of Gwadar in Pakistan to entire urban networks in Ecuador. However, those concerns weren’t the final straw in Duisburg. Instead, it was China’s failure to distance itself from Russia amid its war in Ukraine—a major public relations liability in Europe.

Crypto questions. The dog-eat-dog world of cryptocurrency exchanges is now down to a single player following crashes earlier this year. This week, the biggest player, Binance, effectively forced the near-collapse of the second-biggest company, FTX. A forced acquisition seemed possible, but Binance is now talking about walking away from the deal. Binance was founded in China, but it vehemently denies that it is a “Chinese company”—an important message in an industry that is distrustful of governments and particularly of Beijing.

That doesn’t stop persistent questions, even though China has cracked down on the crypto industry and Binance long ago stopped operations there. Still, for several years there, Chinese officials found bitcoin (and sometimes other cryptocurrencies) a useful way to get money out of the country—so useful that even the crackdown doesn’t seem to have totally halted bitcoin mining.

Binance’s former Chinese links will likely add to Washington’s growing skepticism about cryptocurrency’s unregulated nature, despite a recent lobbying push by crypto advocates.

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