President Xi Jinping Xi will do his best to maintain the illusion that China can beat the inevitable crash that befalls every economy. Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik / AFP

It’s certainly too early to assess whether Xi Jinping can help “realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” as he vowed, because he solemnly made such a pledge just about a year ago. But what’s clear is that things are not as good for Xi and his country as they then appeared and Xi’s “Chinese dream” is faced with major obstacles ahead. Much of this is his own fault.

Addressing the Communist Party of China’s quinquennial congress in October 2017 and the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the one-party state’s rubber-stamp parliament, in March 2018, Xi proudly proclaimed that the Chinese nation “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” and “with an entirely new posture, it now stands tall and firm in the East.” What’s more, he hailed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” calling it “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”

With such confidence, he declared “a new era,” which will see China become “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” and “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” by 2050. In that new era, he asserted, the Asian power will also “stride forward at the forefront of the world” and “move closer to the world’s center stage.”

Up until early last year, Xi had every reason to make such bold statements.

At the CPC’s 2017 national congress and the NPC’s 2018 meeting, his political doctrine, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, was enshrined in both the party’s charter and the country’s constitution. Also, the NPC removed the presidential term limits, paving the way for him to rule for life. Besides his three official roles – head of the CPC, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the People’s Liberation Army – he leads numerous important commissions. What’s more, Xi’s men were installed in the key organs of the party, state and army, which is why he is dubbed China’s “Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone.”

Externally, with the United States becoming isolationist, protectionist, unilateralist and anti-globalist under President Donald Trump, Xi’s China was provided with a unique opportunity to play a leading role in world affairs. In fact, at key international fora, such as the World Economic Forum and the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit, he always presented China – or more precisely, himself – as a responsible and capable global citizen that champions globalization, free trade, open economy and multilateralism and that can provide solutions to the world’s woes.

Beijing’s propaganda machines also extolled Xi and the country. Xinhua, China’s news agency, depicted him as a great reformer, a world leader, a servant of the people, a miracle maker and “the unrivaled helmsman who will steer China toward [that] great dream.” The People’s Daily, the Communist-ruled nation’s mouthpiece, even called on the Chinese leadership to seize the “historic opportunity” to reshape the global order, as “the world has never focused on China so much and needed China so much as it does now.”

Such an optimistic, euphoric and ambitious mood has now turned out to be short-lived. Xi and his country are now faced with major challenges, some of which were unforeseen, and even unthinkable, around this time last year

Yet such an optimistic, euphoric and ambitious mood has now turned out to be short-lived. Xi and his country are now faced with major challenges, some of which were unforeseen, and even unthinkable, around this time last year.

In a key speech at a study session at the Central Party School, China’s top school, last month, Xi warned top central and provincial officials present, of “major risks in [key] areas, including politics, ideology, economics, technology, society, the external environment and Party building” – and urged them to strengthen their ability in foreseeing, preventing and defusing these dangers.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, recently noted that, in that speech, Xi raised the highest alert for senior party officials to “be on guard against black swans and keep watchful for gray rhinos.” To debunk who, or what, are “black swans” (serious unforeseen incidents) and “gray rhinos” (potential risks that are highly obvious but ignored), the China expert identified a number of internal and external risks facing Xi’s China. In his view, “the true meaning behind Xi’s warning about ‘black swans’ and ‘gray rhinos’ is found in China’s own domestic affairs.”

Indeed, judging by his own speech, as reported by Chinese state-run media, it’s clear that Xi is more concerned about the “black swans” and “gray rhinos” within China. This is, in many respects, understandable.

Since coming to office in 2012, Xi has extraordinarily strengthened and extended his power. He is now China’s most authoritarian and powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who ruled the PRC with absolute power and an iron fist from its founding in 1949 to his death in 1976. The manner, extent and purpose of Xi’s power consolidation has certainly caused disquiet, discontent and dissent among certain people and groups within Chinese society and the ruling party. As he intends to rule China for a long period, even for life, Xi must be worried about any imaginable or actual threats to his own authority and rule.

But while it isn’t easy to measure how broad and deep those internal dangers are, as they are not always perceptible, the external risks the country and Xi are faced with are more visible.

Over the past year, the Trump administration has adopted a tough posture vis-à-vis China on several fronts. Chief among these is Washington’s hardline position toward the trade and technology dispute. To end the damaging trade war, the US demands China make huge concessions, including buying more US goods to reduce the trade deficit, strengthening intellectual property rights protection and enforcement and carrying out major structural reforms.

In fact, Beijing has already made some considerable concessions by promising to buy more US soybeans. Beijing has played down “Made in China 2025,” an ambitious strategy aimed at transforming China into a leading high-tech power, because Trump put the industries and products associated with this flagship state-run plan at the heart of the United States’ trade dispute with China.

With or without a trade deal with the US by March 1, China is now in a much weaker position than it was a year ago. If the two sides fail to strike a deal by then, the Trump administration will harden its tariff war and such a deepening conflict would further damage China’s economy. To reach a permanent agreement, it’s clear that Beijing will have to make huge concessions in the key issues that have made China strong and are essential to Xi’s plan to make it more powerful.

Partly because of the US pressure and posturing, many other countries have become more wary of China. Australia and New Zealand have joined the US to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei’s 5G (fifth-generation) telecom technology, while Canada and the United Kingdom, the other two members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, are considering whether to make the same move. European countries such as Lithuania and Poland, which were until recently quite friendly with Beijing, have now become suspicious of it.

While the prospect of Beijing letting the Belt and Road Initiative die quietly, as some have argued, is open to debate, it is not debatable that the BRI, China’s signature foreign policy and Xi’s pet project, has met widespread backlash. Several countries, including some of China’s neighbors such as Malaysia, have canceled, downgraded or reconsidered the China-funded projects under this grandiose initiative.

Meanwhile, extra-regional nations, such as the UK and France, have implicitly or explicitly voiced their disapproval of China’s behavior in the disputed South China Sea and carried out “freedom of navigation” operations in this strategically vital area.

An opinion piece in the South China Morning Post last week rightly noted “a very important, and often ignored, factor” behind China’s economic success over the past decades was that it “developed in a non-hostile environment, one where the US and other Western countries supported it, and helped it grow.”

But “only very recently,” it continued, “the US has begun to feel China’s rise poses a threat. Now, the Western world’s focus has changed: to monitoring China. With China on the radar, every move it makes is subject to scrutiny.”

China is now faced with a hostile international environment, consequently hindering its development. The country – or more precisely, Mr Xi, its core leader – is mostly blamed for this

Indeed, China is now faced with a hostile international environment, consequently hindering its development. The country – or more precisely, Mr Xi, its core leader – is mostly blamed for this. It’s his regressive and oppressive actions at home and his assertive and aggressive policies abroad that have engendered strong suspicion, apprehension, condemnation and pushback in the US and many other countries.

In May last year, China Leadership Science, a journal of the Central Party School, published a series of articles on “the international praise for Xi Jinping’s super-strong leadership in the new era.” In its lead article titled “Extraordinary leader: A study of the international praise for the super-strong leadership of Xi Jinping in the new era,” China Leadership Science claimed that since 2012, Xi “has made comprehensively pathbreaking and historic achievements in leading the [CPC] and the country … China’s international standing is now at a high not seen in modern times.”

But again, such an obsequious claim, or what David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, sarcastically called “China’s new science of sycophantology,” has turned out to be false. International opinion has now viewed China and Xi negatively. Over the past few years, several China watchers – such as these in The Atlantic, The Hill, Foreign Policy and The National Interest – argue that under Xi’s rule, China took great leaps backward. This week The Economist said China “has in some ways gone backward” since he came to power.

An opinion piece in the SCMP, the newspaper of the Hong Kong-based media group now owned by Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and a professed CPC member, last month even said that “China’s heavy-handedness [under Xi] has left its neighbors happy to see the local thug beaten up by the bigger, global bully [that is,  Trump’s America].

“Dissent among Chinese policymakers is growing,” that piece read, arguing “many observers are assessing both [Deng Xiaoping and Xi] and, despite his undoubted political muscle, [the latter] is by no means winning the contest.” It also noted, “cracks are emerging in China’s economy and the superpower is looking less invincible.”

Against this background, it can be argued that unless there are positive changes in its own policies and international environment, it will be very difficult for Xi’s China to realize its dream.

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