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The world’s most powerful man

PETER O’CONNOR
Staff Writer
oconnor@lbknews.com

“Xi Jinping now has more clout than Donald Trump.

The world should be wary.” (The Economist October 14th 2017)

The cover story in a recent edition of the Economist Newspaper tells this important tale from a European perspective.  Our Cousins often like to spin competitive tales.  This one may be a factual wake-up call.  See what you think.

“American presidents have a habit of describing their Chinese counterparts in terms of awe.  A fawning Richard Nixon said of Mao Zedong that the chairman’s writings had ‘changed the world’.  To Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping was a string of flattering adjectives:  ‘smart, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly’.  Bill Clinton described China’s then president, Jiang Zemin as a ‘visionary’ and ‘a man of extraordinary intellect’.  Donald Trump is no less wowed.  The Washington Post quotes him as saying that China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is ‘probably the most powerful’ China has had in a century.

Mr. Trump may be right. And were it not political suicide for an American president to say so, he might plausibly have added: ‘Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader.’  To be sure, China’s economy is still second in size to America’s and its army, though rapidly gaining muscle, pales in comparison.  But economic heft and military hardware are not everything.  The leader of the free world has a narrow, transactional approach to foreigners and seems unable to enact his agenda at home.  The United States is still the world’s most powerful country , but its leader is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence.

The president of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad.  His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao.  And Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Mr. Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth.  His clout will soon be on full display.  On October 18th China’s ruling Communist Party will convene a five-yearly congress in Beijing.  It will be the first one presided over by Mr. Xi. Its 2,300 delegates will sing his praises to the skies.  More skeptical observers might ask whether Mr. Xi will use his extraordinary power for good or ill.

 

World, take note

On his numerous foreign tours, Mr. Xi presents  himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused  and troubled world.  Mr. Trump’s failings have made this much easier.  At Davos in January Mr. Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalization, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved.  At least, they thought, one great power  was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Mr. Trump (then president elect) would not.

Mr. Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up.  His ‘Belt and Road Innitative’may be puzzingly named, but its message is clear – hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help  vast swatches of the world to prosper.

Mr. Xi is also projecting what for China is unprecedented military power abroad.  This year he opened the country’s first foreign military base, in Djibouti.  He has sent the Chinese navy on manoeuvres ever farther afield, including in July on Nato’s doorstep in the Baltic Sea alongside Russia’s fleet.  China says it would never invade other countries to impose its will (apart from Taiwan, which it does not consider a country).  Its base-building efforts are to support peacekeeping , anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, it says.  As for the artificial islands with military-grade runways it is building in the South China Sea, these are purely defensive.”

The economist editors continue: “Unlike Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, Mr. Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to subvert  democracy and destabilise the West.  Still, he is too tolerant of troublemaking by his nuke-brandishing ally, North Korea.  And some of China’s military behavior alarms its neighbors, not only in South-East Asia but also in India and Japan.

At home, Mr. Xi’s instincts are at least as illiberal as those of his Russian counterpart.  He believes that even a little political permissiveness could prove not only his own undoing, but that of his regime.  The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences.  He mistrusts not only the enemies his purges have created but also China’s fast-growing, smartphone-wielding middle class, and the shoots of civil society that were sprouting when he took over.  He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, and to keep the commanding heights of the economy firmly under the party’s thumb.  All this will make China less rich than it should be, and a more stifling place to live.  Human-rights abuses have grown worse under Mr. Xi, with barely a murmur of complaint from other world leaders.”

 

Reasons to be fearful

Mr. Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4 bn Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favourite terms, the ‘new normal’ of Chinese politics.  But it is not normal; it is dangerous.  No one should have that much power.  One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past – think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution.  It is also a recipe for arbitrary behavior abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr. Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China.  Alas, it may get both.”

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