Modern China begins with Deng Xiaoping, the most important man of the twentieth century westerners know next to nothing about. Deng’s story makes up the final chapter of my most recent book, To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story Of Political Risk; in it I chart his magical act of political alchemy.
Surveying the wreckage inflicted on his country by the lunacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Deng transferred the Mandate of Heaven—China’s traditional rationale for the political legitimacy—from radical Marxism to nationalism and capitalism, very organic traits in Chinese society. This ideological sleight of hand worked beyond Deng’s wildest dreams, transforming the country from a desperately poor backwater to today’s superpower status. It is still from this vantage point that Beijing views today’s coronavirus crisis, a hinge point in history if ever there was one.
This past week China’s National People’s Congress convened, offering clues as to the country’s future direction. That is because the week-long rubber-stamp parliament unveils what the ruling Politburo is thinking and doing regarding both domestic and foreign issues.
First, economically the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made it crystal clear that these are unprecedented times for its economy. For the first time since 1990, given the vast global economic turbulence unleashed by the coronavirus, Premier Li Keqiang announced the party would not be setting an actual growth goal, as to do so was unrealistic. Indeed, due to it being the first major country to be struck with the virus, Beijing recorded a GDP decline of 6.8% in the first quarter of 2020, the country’s first economic contraction since 1992.
However, given that it has just about overcome this first wave of the coronavirus—thus giving Beijing the advantage of economically emerging from the global pandemic well ahead of its western competitors—China’s economic situation is relatively good. Paramount Leader Xi Jinping, ensconced in power since 2012, has certainly lived up to Deng’s Mandate of Heaven, as China’s economy is in better shape than any other major rival.
Second, and in line with Deng’s admonition to ground CCP legitimacy in nationalism, Xi is significantly tightening the reins. The key for Deng was that Hong Kong return to Beijing and be firmly under its control, as would be western outliers Tibet and Xinjiang Province. Brutally, the latter two have remained subjugated—in the case of Xinjiang by the horrific internment of up to 1 million Uighurs.
Hong Kong has proven a tougher nut to crack. Over this past year popular local protests have broken out, initially centred around a proposed arcane extradition law, which later blossomed into a more comprehensive critique of Beijing’s rule itself. Xi’s initial response to the protests failed to placate anyone; it was too overbearing to satisfy the protestors and not tough enough to silence dissent. But with the coming of the National People’s Conference, it is clear Xi’s patience with the semi-rebellious, semi-autonomous city is wearing thin.
On its first day, the conference proposed a leadership-sponsored bill to the rubber-stamp parliament designed to prevent and punish subversion, terrorism, separatism, and foreign interference, ‘or any acts that seriously endanger national security.’ The bill goes on, saying that central government security organs can be established in the territory for the first time.
When enacted and if implemented, such a draconian law heralds nothing less than the definitive end of the territory’s 23 years of constitutional autonomy and legal separation from Beijing. Convinced that the virus has given him a strategic advantage, Xi is pushing ahead, determined to finally crack down on pesky Hong Kong.
It is in Deng’s insight that the Mandate of Heaven for the CCP is founded on Chinese nationalism and capitalism that the incipient Cold War with the US should be viewed. From China’s eyes, a distracted and discredited America—Donald Trump’s erratic ramblings during his endless press conferences have done the country’s image no favours—while still a formidable long-term rival, is too preoccupied with the Great Depression to come to do much of anything as he tightens the screws.
In essence, with the sea change in American thinking about China, Xi has for the present given up on Sino-American relations as a lost cause. Xi clearly believes that following US outrage over Beijing’s wilful misinformation about the virus, which allowed its dramatic spread to the rest of the world, ties cannot get much worse. As such, as the People’s Congress attests to, for Xi there is little downside in bolstering the CCP’s Mandate of Heaven over both economic and territorial issues. This is a Cold War that could well turn frigid.