The obvious answer is, “yes.” So perhaps the better question is how far Chinese President Xi Jinping will go?
Having had business ties to China for more than 20 years, I have had a close-up view of the changes. They were virtually all good – heading in the right direction even as they lagged western standards of political and commercial freedom. That is until now.
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When I first visited China in 1999, it was still very difficult for foreign enterprises to start wholly owned businesses in China. It was very difficult to get profits out of the country. The great cities were scarred by dreary government housing. And outside of Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai, it was virtually impossible to cash traveler checks — and credit cards and ATMs were unheard of. It was a cash-and-carry country.
The more China opened to the world, the more prosperous it became. Living conditions improved dramatically. During my time in China, the country was engaged in the biggest building boom in world history. It was once said that 85 percent of the world’s construction cranes were in China. I believed it. From my upper-floor Beijing hotel window, I saw a forest of such equipment as I panned the horizon.
Regulations against foreign ownership and repatriating profits were relaxed. Unlike Maoist China, the modern nation was engaging in business – and politics – throughout the world. It became more of an economic competitor than a military one
Unlike Mao, China’s President Xi Jinping is an affable and gregarious guy – the face of the new China. Gone were the universal uni-sex Mao-designed uniforms. Chinese business and political delegations took on the style of the west, along with much of its business culture.
Whereas Mao was a brutal enigmatic dark figure lurking in the shadows of the Bamboo Curtain, Xi fully supports the Middle Kingdom’s engagement in the world – in fact, he relishes it. Whereas Mao ruthlessly oppressed his own people – arguably even more than the outside world — Xi tends to be a popular figure back home. There will be no deadly Cultural Revolution – or even another Tiananmen Square – as long as Xi is in charge. But, in more subtle ways, he is exerting greater control over the people than Mao could have imagined – thanks to technology.
While Mao saw a future world based on the harsh imposition of socialist Communism ideology, Xi has reflected and embraced China’s shift to a hybrid free(r) enterprise communism – in which private sector business is able to flourish, but only under the supervision and financial underwriting of the one-party authoritarian political structure. In that regard, Xi is turning socialist communism into fascist communism.
Since President Nixon brought down the Bamboo Wall – much like President Reagan dismantled the Soviet’s Iron Curtain – the trend lines in China have been mostly good. From a nuclear Cold War adversary, China became a friendly trading partner, with substantial cross-investment. A range of allied interests developed – including cross-culturalism. China rose to be the number one tourist destination in the world. We “ugly Americans” were suddenly welcomed – with Beijing opening its arms and we Americans opening our wallets.
Xi, however, has reversed the trend line.
For more than 40 years – under various leaderships – China had been progressing toward greater individual freedom and expanded free-market concepts – not comparable to our standards, but better than before. The competition between China and the United States was focused on economics, not military or world prominence.
But Xi is an ambitious man. He sees China as replacing America as the world leader – economically and militarily. He sees himself as one of China’s most prominent and enduring leaders – a man for the ages. Unlike his predecessors, the thoughts of Xi have been incorporated into the Chinese governing documents – a custom unfamiliar in the west, but with great historical significance in China. He has become China’s “president for life.”
It may have been more of the times making the man, rather than Xi creating the times. More than ten years ago, I wrote of China’s desire and ability to take over world leadership. They have the financial and natural resources to do it. Ironically, it was the embrace of capitalism that gave them the ability to take on the United States. They began beating us at our own game.
China’s advantages, however, were not all based on fair trade and honest competition. Even as the business sector rose in China, the folks in Beijing kept their thumb on the competitive scale with tariffs, regulations restricting imports and subsidies for a broad range of commercial enterprises. They achieved technological parity with the west by literally stealing our technology. They built powerful consumer enterprises based on western innovation and even to the point of creating fraudulent “knock-off” products carrying popular western brand names – like Nike shoes, Rolex watches, and Armani ties — all of which were commonly available in every street market in China.
Since the death of Mao, every Chinese head-of-state was a bit of a progressive by Chinese standards – pushing for a liberalization of the severely restrictive communist policies of the past. Xi ended that trend both domestically and internationally.
While in the west, social media has been seen as a democratic process that enables greater expression, China has tamed the cyber beast to suppress individual freedom. China’s WeChat is nothing like western social media. It is not one of several platforms. It is virtually the only platform for daily activities. It performs – and tracks – every aspect of Chinese life at the individual level. Chats, purchases, banking, hobbies and sexuality are all potentially monitored and accessed by the technocrats in Beijing. Virtually every citizen in China is on WeChat.
Getting banned from WeChat is more than a social shunning. The person targeted is almost incapable of carrying on normal daily activities. WeChat is the Beijing government’s access into the personal lives of every citizen. It monitors and censors free speech – meaning any criticism of the government. It uses facial recognition to identify dissidents – meaning anyone criticizing the government.
To get back on WeChat after being booted, a person must admit to the errors of their ways and submit a facial recognition photo image and a voice print. Many in the west do not appreciate just how deeply these Orwellian policies and programs have advanced in China.
The current unrest in Hong Kong – with a million people in the streets — is the result of Beijing’s effort to change the extradition rules to better enable the removal of dissidents from the quasi-independent province. Beijing’s promise to keep hands off Hong Kong in terms of China’s more oppressive policies is being undermined by the Xi regime.
For decades, China has been flexing its economic muscles internationally. They have expanded their global policies to be more aggressive on the ground throughout the world – including Africa and South America. China is looking for soft spots in the historic American alliances and spheres of influence.
Perhaps the most significant change in China policy under Xi is the introduction of a level of militarism in which even Mao did not engage. Xi is devoting a larger portion of China’s wealth to military and space exploration. In the past, China was more isolationist – worried about its own perceived boundaries than international expansionism.
Under Xi, more emphasis has been on military buildup. Perhaps his most provocative project has been the creation of artificial island military bases in the South China Sea. Xi’s suggestion of Chinese hegemony over this critical international trade route is perhaps the greatest threat to the relationship between China and the United States.
Many are surprised at the hardline Beijing has taken in response to the Trump administration tariffs. They should not have been. China is not likely to give up all advantages they currently enjoy over the United States. As an authoritarian regime, China does not have to yield to the impact of the American tariffs on the populace. The Chinese leaders do not have a political opposition to fight them at every turn – or to even seize power away from the current leadership.
More than ever, the Kim Jong-un government is a puppet regime for the Chinese. Because of China’s support, it is unlikely that the Korean peninsula will be nuclear free without a dramatic change in the diplomatic balances – or military intervention.
The Chinese-American relationship has not gone smoothly in recent months, but it has less to do with Trump than the past administrations that expressed the theory of American world leadership but did nothing to exert it as adversaries and allies alike took advantage of American diplomatic and military impotency. How it may all turn out is yet unknown, but the Trump administration has done more than to confront the problems with polite words and empty threats. If we return to the passive policies of the past, America will be in the sunset of world leadership – and the Twenty-First Century will belong to China.
So, there ‘tis.