Commentary | 29 December 2019

A vital cog in the leader's great plan

Originally published in The Sunday Times.

Originally published in The Sunday Times.

It wasn't until October, four months into the Hong Kong protests that were threatening to turn Beijing's rule in the former British colony into a train wreck, that Xi Jinping uttered a word about the upheaval.

To get a sense of how discordant Xi's silence was, imagine if Boris Johnson held his tongue for months while Northern Ireland descended into chaos, or Emmanuel Macron stayed mum as the gilets jaunes took over Paris.

Xi's first reference to the protests in October was oblique, warning of "crushed bodies and shattered bones" without naming the territory. He did not address the protests directly until November, when he backed Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed leader.

The opacity of Chinese politics as Xi enters his eighth year in power makes firm judgments about his standing in the communist echelons and among the populace difficult. But it is clear that Xi finishes the year as a leader under pressure, facing many often intractable crises.

His ruthlessness has bequeathed him many enemies at home. More visible, however, are the many mutinies abroad. Half a year into the protests, Hong Kong's youth are as recalcitrant as ever, despite multiple stern warnings from Beijing about the need to submit to party demands.

Xi also faces a hostile America and growing outrage in virtually every developed country over China's detention of more than 1m Uighur Muslims in "re-education camps".

Britain will be added to Beijing's list of enemies if it joins its intelligence partners in excluding Huawei, the Chinese telecom company, from its next-generation wireless networks, something that Congress may make a condition of a post-Brexit trade deal with America.

Xi's signature Belt and Road initiative, which aims to tie continental Asia and the Middle East to Chinese economic and technology standards, has also been pared back, a response to widespread criticism.

Within China, the spread of African swine fever has wiped out more than a third of the country's pigs, nearly doubling the price of pork, the country's staple meat.

Little noticed outside commodity markets, the price of pork is the sort of problem that Chinese leaders track daily, as it could corrode public support for the government.

Elsewhere in the system, China's technocrats remain furious at Xi's illiberal rule, symbolised in his 2018 decision to abolish term limits to keep him in office in perpetuity, a decision that has dark echoes of Maoist times.

For the moment, Xi's control of the party, and with it the military and the security agencies, means that his critics have no ability to organise themselves into a coherent, visible alternative.

Taiwan may be his Achilles heel, something that his critics could use against him unless he makes progress in opening talks on unification. Xi has already suggested the issue should be settled on his watch. Outwardly, Beijing remains confident of regaining the island that it considers part of China.

"Today, we are closer than any other historical period and are more confident in achieving the goal of our grand mission of the Chinese renaissance," said Liu Jieyi, who heads the Taiwan Affairs Office.

But the paradox for Xi's China is that, for all Beijing's economic and military power, Taiwan in many respects has never been so far out of reach. Only one in 10 Taiwanese support unification, according to polls conducted by the National Chengchi University.

For Xi's China, getting hold of Taiwan means nothing short of national redemption. For America and Japan and other countries in Asia, it would be a strategic gamechanger, definitively marking the end of Pax Americana in the region.

Almost daily within China, the forces unleashed by Xi are playing out in a variety of forums. A library in Gansu, northwest China, began burning "illegal" books after an education ministry directive to remove material that damaged national security and dignity.

This month, Fudan University in Shanghai removed "academic independence" from its charter and added "adherence" to its policies.

"For people who are willing to praise the current leadership, it's the best time to be working. But if you really want to do real research and have independent thoughts, it's tough," Peidong Sun, a sociologist at Fudan told The Washington Post. "But this might not be the toughest time. In five years, we might look back on 2019 and say that this was just the start."