China is gearing up for the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China later this year, where the consensus is that President Xi Jinping’s historic bid for a third term as party general secretary is all but assured. But for many clear-headed observers, including in China, an unprecedented third term for Xi is little cause for celebration. Under his rule, China’s assertive foreign policy has alienated foreign governments and trading partners, while its economy reels under the weight of Beijing’s “zero COVID” coronavirus policy. Throughout Xi’s tenure, dissenting voices within the CCP and elsewhere were purged as part of a personality cult built around him, while aggressive displays of nationalism became a convenient tool to stir up support and divert attention from policy failures elsewhere.
In desperation, many of those disillusioned with Xi are increasingly looking to Premier Li Keqiang, who has taken a more active role in policymaking in recent weeks, to serve as a credible counterweight. But as many analysts argue, such hope is misplaced, if not entirely misguided. The sweeping changes in the political landscape over the past two years, they argue, are a harbinger of what a third term for Xi would hold for the country and the world at large.
Observers have many reasons to worry about China’s rise to global power status. The past two years have seen an escalation in China’s assertive “Wolf Warrior” approach to foreign policy, from a spat with Australia over a tweet to public confrontations with US diplomats over high-level meetings. The deep ideological differences between China and the West have been laid bare in the respective responses of the two sides to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing, which insists on its neutrality on the conflict, has nevertheless expressed an unwavering attachment to its strategic partnership with Moscow, further degrading already strained relations with the United States and the European Union.
China has also increasingly militarized its global economic footprint in service of its geopolitical ambitions. It has led boycott campaigns against international brands to divest itself of Xinjiang over China’s human rights abuses in the region and suspended imports of pineapples from Taiwan due to heightened tensions. across the strait. More recently, Beijing has sought to cut Lithuania off from the supply chains of its EU trading partners following the Baltic state’s show of support for Taiwan last year. Brussels may be increasingly aware of Beijing’s willingness to use economic coercion to intimidate its trading partners, but as the row with Lithuania demonstrated, the EU has yet to formulate a response. efficient. And when left to their own devices, smaller countries cannot effectively fend off Beijing’s bullying tactics without hurting their economic prospects.
Then there are China’s domestic issues, which, though viewed by Beijing as internal affairs barred from foreign criticism, continue to attract international attention and scrutiny.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, arrived in China this week for a trip to Xinjiang, where China’s brutal crackdown on ethnic Uyghur minorities has been singled out by Washington, among other governments and national parliaments, like genocide. With a tightly controlled itinerary, Bachelet’s visit should not bring with it the accountability that many human rights activists and other observers seek. But a damning new trove of information that emerged last week confirmed the worst suspicions of activists and researchers about China’s drive to erase Uyghur identity and culture, or in the words of the China, “break their lineage, break their roots, break their ties, and break their origins.
Across the strait, Taiwan has maintained de facto sovereignty for seven decades, in part by refraining from formally declaring independence that would alter the status quo, but that delicate balance is also increasingly under threat. With his sights seemingly set on Taiwan, Xi pledged to accomplish the historic task of “unifying” mainland China with the self-governing and democratically-ruled island, by force if necessary.
Many Taiwanese citizens now look ominously on Hong Kong as a cautionary tale about what may soon become their own fate. The framework that once guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy and political freedoms as a special administrative region has been effectively dismantled in a crackdown that began in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in 2019. In addition to the imposition of national security law in 2020, Beijing overhauled the city’s electoral system. system and instilled a former police officer as the next leader of the city.
The approach of curtailing civil liberties in Hong Kong meant that many of the most important developments were deemed too insignificant to make international headlines. After reading the writing on the wall, the international media have largely moved on. Fewer and fewer voices spoke for and from the city, as the personal costs of dissent rose, to the point where something as innocuous as a round of applause in a courtroom might be considered by the authorities as seditious.
A relatively free society, Hong Kong once served as an example of what China could one day aspire to be. But the hoped-for assimilation happened instead in the other direction, creating a seemingly bottomless downward spiral.
It is against this bleak backdrop that I conclude my latest China Note for World Politics Review. Extrapolating from state media coverage of China’s various political leaders, social media is teeming with speculation that Li’s star is on the rise. But as David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, has argued, any attempt to read Beijing’s tea leaves should be undertaken with a healthy dose of skepticism. As for me, I find it hard to see any hope for this country, no matter which leader is at the helm, because they are all ultimately part of the same authoritarian political system.
As coronavirus cases rise sharply in another wave, many Chinese residents remain confined to their homes, seemingly stopping time. But as one observer noted in a commentary on China Digital Times, the country itself is moving in an alarming direction. “We don’t stop,” the commenter wrote. “We drive in the opposite direction while pressing the accelerator.”
In other news
US President Joe Biden has once again sparked controversy by saying that Washington would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Biden made the remarks on Monday during his first trip as US president to the Asia-Pacific region, marking the third time he has appeared to deviate from Washington’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the island. autonomous. The remarks came amid growing calls from regional U.S. allies as well as many Washington analysts for clarity on the U.S. position, which they said would bolster the credibility of Washington’s deterrence.
But the White House, including Biden himself, has since appeared to backtrack on the comments, causing even more uncertainty about the Biden administration’s commitment to Taiwan’s security. “On the Taiwan side, there is often hope that the United States will take a much tougher stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty. There are concerns of [Taiwan] potentially be used as a geopolitical chess piece and discarded or abandoned,” Brian Hioe, founding editor of independent magazine New Bloom, told Vice World News.
Launched in March, an informal network run by volunteers called “the great movement of translation” has endeavored make news, comments and social media posts in Chinese accessible to English-speaking audiences, but the authorities of Beijing is still unimpressed, reports Timothy McLaughlin for the Atlantic. A translator said he chose content that represented the “true face of China,” highlighting an increasingly nationalist discourse that includes “pro-Russian sentiments, sabers about Taiwan reunification and co-option anti-Asian-hate movement. In response, China’s state-backed tabloid, the Global Times, criticized the movement as a smear campaign that validates Western anti-China biases. “It’s as if this group has triggered the most sensitive points for the various participants in the conversation about China,” said censorship expert Maria Repnikova.
Taking inspiration from Xinjiang Police Files – a massive cache of data hacked from the region’s police computer servers – John Sudworth and his BBC colleagues created this powerful multimedia piece, putting faces to names thousands of inmates in Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang. . A set of internal police protocols from the files revealed the positioning of machine guns and sniper rifles in the camps’ watchtowers, as well as a policy of shoot to kill inmates trying to escape from the camps. “The material isn’t redacted, it’s raw, it’s absolute, it’s diverse. We have it all,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the US-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which fed the data to the BBC and other media. “We have confidential documents. We have speech transcripts where leaders speak freely about what they really think. We have spreadsheets. We have pictures. This is completely unprecedented and it shatters the veneer of Chinese propaganda.
China Note-Taker writes anonymously for personal security reasons.