Commentary |
6 May 2022

Xi Jinping steps up China’s political divorce from the West

China’s leader has dug in over his COVID-zero policy and his loyalty to Vladimir Putin – and his reasoning does not bode well for the West. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

In Australia, it’s election season. In China, it’s selection season.

Scott Morrison submitting himself to voters is a very different proposition to Xi Jinping seeking a new mandate from the “selectorate” of the ruling communist party, as he will formally do later this year.

But both campaigns, albeit in very different ways, put candidates through a searing test – or as one US political consultant described them, an “MRI for the soul”.

Whoever you are, whatever you stand for, your personality and beliefs will eventually be on display for all to see, in China, as in democracies.

Many of Xi’s local adversaries have no need to see a computer-generated readout of his political personality. They know it all too well, having been cast aside, fairly or unfairly, for corruption, or over policy differences, since he came to power in later 2012.

Xi’s quest for a convention-busting third five-year term infuriated much of the Chinese political elite, even many who might have once counted themselves as his supporters.

But such is Xi’s grip on all levers of power – the military, the security services and the broader personnel system that controls senior party and government jobs – that his critics have no room to voice their opposition.

Xi’s uncompromising views on two current policy issues, however – his insistence on a COVID-zero policy and his loyalty to Vladimir Putin – have been just as revealing for how he sees China’s future.

On COVID-19, the recent lockdown of Shanghai – population 26 million and China’s most sophisticated metropolis – was a watershed moment.

Until recently, Xi and his propaganda organs had relentlessly lauded the country’s ability to largely suppress the virus and keep the death rate in China well below that of democracies in the US and Europe.

They praised the policy as a successful public health measure, and as evidence of the superiority of the Chinese system. With nearly 570 million Chinese in various sorts of lockdowns in recent weeks, that boast is looking hollow.

To be sure, there is a rational element to China’s COVID-zero fixation. An under-resourced and in some areas non-existent public health system means that the virus, if it spread, would have deadly consequences.

Added to that, China won’t import foreign vaccines and its homegrown ones are less effective. The constant triumphalism about China’s success has induced a degree of complacency, with reluctant vaxxers, especially the elderly, not bothering to get enough jabs.

When it comes to Beijing’s showdown with Washington, Xi is making sure he has all the supporters he can get.

China has a few of its own “Dr Faucis” – in other words, articulate doctors who, like the head of America’s pandemic policy, have the credibility and standing to shift public opinion.

One of them, Professor Yang Gonghuan, a former deputy director of China’s Centre for Disease Control, recently said China could only open up after the country experiences a spike in cases, and “many of the measures that waste manpower and money will be abandoned only when leaders and people recognise that”.

But Xi, who won’t countenance such risks at the moment he is demanding another term in office, is not listening. The political cycle extends until March next year, when the new government will be formed. COVID-zero appears to be set in concrete until then.

Xi is driving a similarly uncompromising line on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese system was squirming in the immediate aftermath of the war, as Putin had driven a proverbial tank through China’s core foreign policy principle of respect for territorial sovereignty.

Beijing has got its lines straight now, standing firmly behind Moscow and parroting its position about the conflict being all the fault of the US and NATO expansion, with a few conspiracy theories thrown in for good measures.

Both policies – COVID-zero and Russia – have critics inside the system in China, but their voices have been drowned out in the official media by the on-message pronouncements of top leaders and supportive experts.

As one of the most prominent and influential foreign business leaders in China, Joerg Wuttke put it recently: “[Xi] has maneuvered himself into two dead ends at once: He can’t change his COVID policy, and he can’t change anything about his friendship with Vladimir Putin.”

Wuttke said he was meeting many “very well-informed and open-minded top politicians” who knew that the COVID policy was a disaster for the economy but they could do nothing about it. “President Xi wants to be confirmed for a third term, so he cannot change his narrative this close to the finish line.”

Wuttke, who is president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, has lived in China for more than three decades. His frankness reflects not just his own alarm about China’s direction. He was also saying what many local officials would love to say, but don’t dare.

The economic slump in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns may have a partial silver lining for economies such as Australia. Xi’s coronation requires a strong economy, so China is certain to unleash a huge stimulus later this year.

But longer-term, Xi’s policies will make China more of a fortress unto itself, accelerating its political and psychological divorce from the West.

On Ukraine, Xi’s willingness to tie himself to someone as reckless as Putin underlines his utterly dismal view of the future of relations with the US.

When it comes to Beijing’s showdown with Washington, Xi is making sure he has all the supporters he can get.