Journalists watch a live image of Chinese President Xi Jinping giving a briefing at the end of the final day of the Belt and Road Forum, at the media center in Beijing on April 27, 2019. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

For years, many countries, directly or indirectly, submitted to Beijing’s power to preserve their lucrative trade with China. This bolstered the ego of not only the Communist Party of China but also Chinese netizens, making them believe in China’s power and its rise. By using the country’s economic muscle, the CPC propagated the credibility of its so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics both at home and abroad.   

Now, however, we have begun to see something different: the world gradually rejecting Chinese economic power. Of course, there are still several developing, relatively small, countries in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere committed to their relations with China. But does that make a big difference if China has lost its grip on powerful partners in the West?

India and the US have tightened their strategic friendship to undermine China. The British government has reversed its policy and banned Huawei from its 5G (fifth generation) telecom network. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has strongly condemned the new security law Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong.

Sharp differences between China and the European Union have been exposed over many issues such as Hong Kong, cybersecurity and human rights. The EU has thus given a signal that it will hold a “new defensive approach toward China.”

Germany was China’s most important stronghold in the EU, but it has suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong and closed Confucius Institutes in many of its universities.

Surprisingly, Australia has emerged as the leading voice pushing an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 and has announced a nearly US$1 billion investment in cybersecurity to challenge the CPC.

In response to a Chinese incursion, Japan sent fighter jets to patrol the Senkaku Islands and joined other countries expressing concern over China’s new security law for Hong Kong.

After banning 59 Chinese apps recently, India has announced a ban of 47 clones related to China-owned mobile applications. India is the biggest market for Chinese information-technology companies.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a joint press conference where they discussed a joint response to China, in Washington on July 29, 2020. Image: Pool

Do the leaders in Beijing think that they are losing the diplomatic fight? 

“If you [look] from the perspective of China, it is not losing,” Dibyesh Anand, China-India geopolitical expert at the University of Westminster, said at the Oxford Tibetan Summer School Conference. “So long as the Chinese public, out of nationalism or national loyalty, do not challenge the government narrative, they are safe.”

Indeed, Chinese public loyalty and support guarantee the legitimacy of the CPC at international platforms. “Chinese nationalism today has been hijacked by the state to indoctrinate its citizens and the diaspora, bolster the state’s legitimacy, and consolidate international support,” Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy.

But to sustain the flame of loyalty and support, the Communist Party leaders knew they had to sell the Sinocentric propaganda of China’s rise as a world leader along with the nostalgic narrative of its many years of victimization under foreign powers.

“No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead,” President Xi Jinping declared recently in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the CPC’s rule in China.

Chinese leaders are once trying to split up the unity of Western powers by targeting alliances as they did in the past. On the other hand, China calls on other countries to work together.

Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister, recently urged Russia and India to send positive signals to the rest of the world by jointly combating Covid-19. Ironically, the CPC has never allowed any collaboration to investigate the origin of the coronavirus in China.

At home, using social media and official TV channels, the CPC continuously barks and spits at Western powers for covering their weakness. Moreover, to mobilize public nationalism, the CPC applied harsh regulations on Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang in the name of combating separatism. Li Zuocheng, a general of the Central Military Commission, has warned Taiwan that “the path of Taiwan independence leads to a dead end.” 

However, the Chinese government needs the world more than the world needs China, to continue its prosperity and keep its power intact. But the problem is, China can’t make compromises to fit in the international system because that would hurt the sentiments of the Chinese public, which, in return, would destroy the public trust in the CPC. In this dilemma, China cannot find alternatives to maintain this crucial strategic balance.

So the central argument is: How long can the CPC continue with this strategy?

Kunsang Thokmay

Kunsang Thokmay (aka Darig Thokmay) is a PhD scholar in Asian studies at the University of Oxford. He has worked at many research centers such as Oxford Socio-legal Studies and the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics. His work has appeared, apart from academic journals, at Asia Times, The Times of India, Asian Affairs and The Diplomat, among others.