Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 17, 2017.  REUTERS/Ruben Sprich
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

In a glowing hagiography of Xi Jinping in November last year, China’s Xinhua used a wide range of fawning words and titles to depict the country’s president. One of these was “a world leader,” whose “extensive knowledge of literature and the arts makes him a consummate communicator in the international arena.”

To illustrate that, the official news agency’s opus recalled Xi’s “impressive speech” at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January 2017 and quoted a comment by in the president in that address: “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”

It then obsequiously observed: “In 47 minutes, Xi won more than 30 rounds of ovation. At key parts of his speech, almost every sentence was greeted with applause.”

If one watches, listens or reads Xi’s WEF speech without knowing or examining China’s domestic and foreign policies under his rule, one may agree with Xinhua.

Indeed, Xi’s speeches at the WEF, as well as many international forums – such as the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summits in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), and the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in China this year – are replete with axioms and advice on how global affairs should be conducted.

It may be safe to say that when it comes to preaching about how international relations should be approached, very few, if any, other world leaders could do better than him.

For instance, in the address at the Davos-based WEF, the first of its kind by a Chinese leader, Xi quoted Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He also shared an old Chinese poem that goes, “Honey melons hang on bitter vines; sweet dates grow on thistles and thorns,” and another Chinese adage that reads, “Victory is ensured when people pool their strength; success is secured when people put their heads together.”

In the 2016 APEC speech in Peru, the officially atheist communist leader of the one-party state orated: “As an ancient Chinese saying goes, ‘Bringing benefit to the people is the fundamental principle of governance.’ There is also a Peruvian saying, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’.”

Addressing the United Nations Office in Geneva in 2017, Xi said, “An ancient Chinese philosopher said, ‘Law is the very foundation of governance’,” lecturing: “It is thus incumbent on all countries to uphold the authority of the international rule of law, exercise their rights in accordance with law and fulfill their obligations in good faith.”

In all those speeches, he always bulleted a number of points that the countries of the world or the international community as a whole should – or shouldn’t – do in order to achieve stability, security, harmony, equality, amity or prosperity, and often used Chinese and international sayings to support or demonstrate his points.

For example, in his Geneva speech, entitled: “Work together to build a community of shared future for mankind,” he said that to achieve such a goal “the international community should promote partnership, security, growth, inter-civilization exchanges and the building of a sound ecosystem.”

Five actions

He then proposed five actions all nations should take, and the first among these is to “stay committed to building a world of lasting peace through dialogue and consultation.” To make his point, Xi argued: “When countries enjoy peace, so will the world; when countries fight, the world suffers” and recalled past conflicts, “from the Peloponnesian War … to the Cold War,” stating: “History, if not forgotten, can serve as a guide for the future.”

He also alluded to “the Swiss writer and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse [who] stressed the importance of serving ‘not war and destruction but peace and reconciliation’” and advised, “Big countries should treat smaller ones as equals instead of acting as a hegemon imposing their will on others.”

Xi’s status as a well-informed global leader is also apparent in his so-called “signed articles.”

It has become the norm that before departing for a foreign country, the Chinese president writes an op-ed specifically aimed at its people. Such a commentary is carried by some chosen newspapers of the visiting nation and widely disseminated by China’s key news outlets, such as Xinhua, the China Daily and the Global Times.

It has become the norm that before departing for a foreign country, the Chinese president writes an op-ed specifically aimed at its people

If one types in “Full text of Xi’s signed article” on Google, one can find many such articles, with most of them appearing in those Chinese state-run papers. Xi has done so before all his recent trips, such as to Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa in July 2018 and Papua New Guinea, Brunei, the Philippines, Spain and Argentina this month.

Those op-eds often follow a similar pattern. In the first part, Xi lavishly praises his host country’s landscape, culture, history, people or its current leadership. Then he focuses on China’s millennium- or century-old interaction with the concerned nation and their recent cooperation. In the second and most important part, he explains why China and the concerned country should elevate their bilateral relations to a new level and suggests how and what they need to do to improve them.

Ahead of his current Argentina trip, during which he attends the G-20 summit and a high-stakes meeting with American President Donald Trump on its sidelines, Xi penned a piece, headlined: “Opening up a new era in China-Argentina relations.”

To demonstrate that China is a good friend and partner of the South American country, he quoted “an ancient Chinese poem [that] reads, ‘If you have a friend afar who knows your heart, distance cannot keep you two apart’.”

He then talked about the current state of the world, which “has been undergoing tremendous changes … unseen in a century” and “a crucial stage of development” at which both China and Argentina are, and urged the two sides to “seize historical opportunities, move forward with the times, and join hands to open up a new era in China-Argentina comprehensive strategic partnership to the greater benefit of our peoples.” To achieve that he (again) suggested a number of points that the two countries need to focus on.

In fact, through his international speeches and signed articles, Xi apparently shows off that he is not just a sage who knows [almost] everything about the world and how to better it, but also a responsible global leader who deeply cares about humanity.

Xinhua’s Xi opus itself claimed that his idea about “a community of shared future for mankind” that is “an open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world with lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity […] is a philosophy long held by Xi, out of an emotional commitment to serve people worldwide as his duty.”

If Xi’s international pronouncements and China’s propagandistic works, such as Xinhua’s “Xi Jinping and his era” profile are taken at face value, Xi and the communist-country he is leading are, without doubt, very benign, if not the most benevolent, actors on the world stage.

In his Geneva speech, the now so-called ‘president for life’ stated, “China remains unchanged in its commitment to uphold world peace,” vowing: “No matter how strong its economy grows, China will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence. History has borne this out and will continue to do so.”

To emphasize that the Asian behemoth is a good, peace-loving neighbor, in his Philippines op-ed, titled: “Open up a new future together for China-Philippine relations,” the strongman leader quoted Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.”

In an apparent effort to assuage the concerns of the Filipinos, most of whom remain suspicious of their giant neighbor and its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, China’s “core” leader further stressed: “We Chinese believe that peace and stability is the only way to development and prosperity. This is neither a choice of expediency nor a diplomatic rhetoric.”

Diplomatic rhetoric

But all this is diplomatic rhetoric that sounds too good to be true.

Under Xi, China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, it is widely noted that the communist regime in Beijing has become more regressive at home and more aggressive abroad.

For instance, since he came to power in 2012, Xi has tightened the ruling party’s – if not his – control over the 1.3 billion-plus-people country’s cultural, social, economic and political life. The tightly censored country “was the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom in [Freedom House’s 2018] Freedom on the Net for the fourth consecutive year.”

Under his watch, Beijing has carried out land reclamation and a military build-up in the contested waters of the South China Sea. It has also rejected a landmark ruling by a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which invalidated many of its contentious claims and unlawful actions in the resource-rich and strategically vital sea.

Had his regime not done all this, the world might believe that Xi’s China is a benign power – that has “worked hard to advance and uphold human rights” at home, “uphold[s] the authority of the international rule of law,” loves its smaller neighbors as itself, or “never seek[s] hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence” – as Xi has publically preached.

All in all, while it is unclear whether the 65-year-old autocrat is an omniscient statesman, it is evident that his communist-ruled country isn’t as altruistic and benevolent a power as he would like the world to believe.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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