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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Xi Jinping Vows for More Aggressive China, Roadmap to Disturb Asia

During a Chinese national holiday in early October, some expat friends and I took our young children—who are mixed-race and tend to stand out in a Chinese crowd—to the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing.

As we climbed the restored but almost abandoned part of the ancient monument, several local families passed us on the way down. One of their children noticed our children and exclaimed, “You strangers! With Covid? Let’s get away from them…” The adults remained silent as the group quickened their pace.

That moment stuck in my mind. It strikes me as a picture that illustrates how China has changed since its strongman leader Xi Jinping took power a decade ago – becoming an increasingly closed nation both physically and psychologically – and such a transformation will have long-term global consequences.

Understanding the big picture is timely as Xi Jinping prepares to buck convention and take on a third term as the head of the Chinese Communist Party — the real source of his power instead of a ceremonial presidency — at the ruling party’s twice-a-decade national congress. , which opened in Beijing on Sunday.

The Great Wall of China, a top tourist attraction that normally draws throngs of visitors during the holiday season, stood nearly empty as we went, thanks to Xi’s insistence — three years into the global pandemic — of a zero-tolerance policy on Covid infections while the rest of the world mostly moved on and reopened .

China’s borders have remained closed to most international travelers since March 2020, while many foreigners who once called the country home have decided to leave.

With the highly contagious Omicron variant raging in parts of the country, authorities have discouraged domestic travel ahead of the bank holiday. They also adhere to strict quarantines, round-the-clock mass testing and invasive contact tracing – often locking down entire cities of millions for a handful of cases.

Unsurprisingly, holiday travel fell sharply during the so-called “Golden Week” with tourism spending falling to less than half that in 2019, the last “normal” year.

And it’s not just one industry: The pessimism covers other industries, from autos to real estate, as the world’s second-largest economy falters.

Xi’s biggest challenge

China’s economic slowdown poses a huge political challenge for Xi Jinping, whose party legitimacy over the past few decades has rested on rapid growth and rising incomes for 1.4 billion people. It’s also a harsh reality check for the international community: the world’s longtime engine of growth is sputtering just as the prospect of a global recession looms.

But Xi’s costly insistence on “zero Covid” is a natural result of the unprecedented amount of power he has amassed. For many Chinese officials, the policy is less about science and more about political loyalty to the country’s most powerful leader in decades.

Online videos abound of local health workers swabbing fruit, animals and even shoes to test for Covid, despite the absence of a solid scientific basis. China’s only Covid-related deaths in September were 27 people who were killed when their bus crashed en route to a quarantine facility. Still, state officials doubled down on enforcing the draconian rules, especially ahead of the party convention, with the help of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology.

Even before Covid, China boasted more security cameras than any other country. Now in the age of smartphones, mandatory apps allow the government to check people’s covid status and track their movements in real time. Authorities can easily lock someone into their home by remotely switching the health app to code red — and have done just that on several occasions to prevent would-be protesters from taking to the streets.

Whether physical lockdowns or digital manipulation, these measures born of “zero Covid” have proven such effective means of control in a system obsessed with social stability that many fear Xi and his underlings will never abandon the policy.

A series of recent articles published by party spokesmen reinforced such concerns by highlighting the “correctness” and “sustainability” of the policy, even before Xi hailed “zero Covid” as a resounding success in a two-hour speech on Sunday. And state media fills its coverage with descriptions of the “grim reality” in foreign countries where leaders are said to be turning a blind eye to the mass deaths and suffering caused by Covid – in contrast to China’s apparent triumph in saving lives at “minimum total cost”.

For years, Xi’s cyber police have been beefing up the country’s so-called “Great Firewall” — perhaps the world’s most extensive internet filtering and censorship system, which blocks and removes anything the party deems “harmful.” Now, with the help of artificial intelligence, censors will quickly clean up any posts deemed to be against the party line – including Covid.

This potent mix of propaganda and control under Xi appears to have had the desired effect on much of Chinese society, creating a buffer for the leadership by convincing enough people of the superiority of the Chinese system, even as millions of their countrymen feel resentful of “zero Covid .” But this approach, combined with prolonged border closures and escalating geopolitical tensions, also provides fertile ground for xenophobia.

This was echoed by a local child’s remarks about the Great Wall. But the real danger of the “blame the foreigners” sentiment comes when adults in powerful positions use it in the face of mounting pressure on the home front.

Make China Great Again?

Since his rise to the top in 2012, Xi Jinping’s governing philosophy has become increasingly clear: Only he can make China great again by restoring the party’s ubiquity and dominance, as well as the country’s rightful place on the global stage.

As China’s economic and military power grew, coexistence with the West gave way to confrontation with the United States and its allies. Gone are the days of “hiding your strength and biding your time” – China’s diplomats under Xi Jinping are proud warriors who shoot anyone who dares challenge their rule.

Bolstered by rising nationalism, China began to build military strength beyond its shores. Tensions over Taiwan pose a real threat of war in Asia, as few doubt that “reunification” with the self-governing democratic island – long claimed by the communist leadership, although it has never ruled – would be seen as the crown jewel of Xi’s legacy.

That outward power projection goes hand in hand with China’s sense of besiegement in a US-led world order, which Xi has made no secret of trying to reshape along with other autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Until that happens, though, the Chinese strongman’s instinct and demand for total control at home seem to have meant the erection of ever-higher barriers – in the real world and cyberspace – to keep out pesky outsiders, the perceived source of dangerous viruses and ideas.

A history paper released recently by a government-run research institute has gone viral as it, like Xi, upended a long-held consensus. Instead of denouncing the isolationist policy adopted by China’s last two imperial dynasties as a cause of their backward turn and eventual collapse, the authors defended its necessity to protect national sovereignty and security when faced with Western invaders.

The emperors of those dynasties, who also rebuilt parts of the Great Wall, failed to reverse their country’s decline back then. But the tools at their disposal were no match to the high-tech ones in the hands of China’s current ruler. Xi seems confident that his “walls” – among other things – will help him realize his oft-cited ultimate goal: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

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