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The Guardian Weekly - 2021-06-11

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Biden’s greatest test of statecraft lies in the brute form of Xi Jinping’s China

The Big Story

Simon Tisdall SIMON TISDALL IS AN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR

China needs to improve the way it tells the world stories about itself, and convince people the ruling party is striving for the happiness of all Chinese people, Xi Jinping has said, according to state news agency Xinhua. The Chinese president’s comments to a Communist party meeting last week come amid growing isolation in the global community, largely driven by concerns over human rights abuses in the country. Xi said it was crucial that China develop a stronger “international voice” that matches its national strength and status. Is it too late to halt the slide towards all-out confrontation between China and the western democracies? An apparently conciliatory speech last week by Xi Jinping led some observers to suggest China’s president may want to mend fences. But a change of tone in Beijing will not cut much ice in Washington unless Xi’s aggressive policies change, too. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has overseen a marked shift towards authoritarianism at home and increased “assertiveness” – a polite word for bullying – abroad. He has established the type of personal, almost cultish dominance over the Chinese Communist party (CCP) not seen since the days of Mao Zedong. So when Xi talks, as he did last week, about the need for arrogant CCP spokespeople and the country’s antagonistic “wolf warrior” diplomats to present a more “lovable” and “humble” image of China to the world, he is really critiquing himself and his own management style. Yet Xi has never had to woo ordinary voters. He has purged all serious rivals. He lauds uniformity and exhibits a hatred of “difference”, as cruelly manifested in the treatment of Uyghur people in Xinjiang. He rules by fear, political cunning and brute force. Love has nothing to do with it. China must expand its “circle of friends”, he said. “Propaganda organisations” (meaning state media) must make clear to all that the CCP wanted “nothing but the Chinese people’s happiness and good fortune”. Does he really believe people will swallow such tosh? His words suggest startling naivety or else a shocking cynicism. Extensive state-directed schemes to “tell China’s story” are in any case already in train, according to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. “Over the past decade, the CCP has overseen an expansion of efforts to shape media content around the world,” it said. Using propaganda, disinformation and censorship, “Beijing has insinuated its content … into foreign media markets in many subtle ways, for example, through content-sharing agreements … Hundreds of millions of news consumers around the world routinely view, read, or listen to information created or influenced by the CCP.” Xi’s image-massaging and media manipulation went a drastic step further last week as Beijing suppressed coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre anniversary. Hong Kong media were told not to mention it. An annual vigil for victims was banned amid yet more arrests. The record of the CCP’s historical culpability over Tiananmen was wiped. Yet today’s crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms is a very public crime that Xi cannot airbrush away. Lovable it ain’t. Blatant and loveless, too, is the siege of Taiwan, where Chinese military forces regularly launch high-profile, provocative territorial incursions. Like a latter-day emperor, Xi sees reunification as the crowning achievement of his reign. The west’s shameful failure to defend Hong Kong emboldens him. From India and South Korea to Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia, a grim story of intimidation, impunity and aggression is unfolding, as opposed to the confected, madein-Beijing narrative of neighbourly co-existence. The list of western grievances with Xi’s China grows longer almost daily. The problem now – assuming Xi is having second thoughts – is that it may already be too late. Tolerance for Chinese boorishness is all but exhausted. Xi may not be able to alter course even if he wants to. He has unleashed wave after wave of what analyst Sulmaan Wasif Khan calls “belligerent, defensive nationalism” – political, economic and military. China, he wrote, “has poisoned itself through its own rhetoric”. A reckoning is due. The US president, Joe Biden, has stuck to his predecessor’s tough line, and is steadily reinforcing it. This weekend’s G7 summit will back him up. The Quad – an alliance of the US, Japan, India and Australia – is reviving. Defence spending is rising. Britain, following other Nato powers, has sent a naval battlegroup to the South China Sea. Punitive sanctions multiply, noisy diplomatic clashes and trade disputes escalate, mutual recriminations abound. And now, having previously dismissed it as a Trumpian conspiracy hoax, Biden has ordered a fast-track investigation into the theory that Covid-19 leaked from a secret laboratory in Wuhan and Xi covered it up. Biden’s action is legitimate, epidemiologically speaking. But it is also unmistakably political. Seen from Beijing, it looks like an overtly hostile act, even a trap, that potentially undoes all the efforts to portray China as a benign global superpower. For Xi and his legacy, the threat posed by the “Wuhan virus” story is existential. Xi is making nice as the CCP prepares to mark its centenary next month. But it won’t last, because nothing has fundamentally changed. Attitudes in the west are hardening. And Xi is not afraid of a fight. The slide towards confrontation appears inexorable.

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