The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has achieved great outcomes over the last several decades, especially after the late Deng Xiaoping took effective control of the nation from Maoist holdovers. He set a model of indirect and collective leadership in contrast with Mao Zedong who ruled nearly absolutely for nearly three decades, while building and enforcing a cult of personality dedicated to himself. Of the top three positions in the nation, he held only one: Chair of the Military Commission, making him Commander-in-Chief. But he was never General Secretary of the Party (with his exact position there unclear), and his highest position in the actual government never above Vice Prime Minister, which he did not remain in all that long.
The system went through various changes in the 1980s, with Deng clearly running things, although after 1983 the Head of State position, President, got a 5-year term. Starting in 1993 the system established with the accession of Jiang Zamen in 1993, a new pattern appeared that the Supreme Leader (a title Deng was granted by the CCP in 1979) would hold the top three position for 10 years, two presidential terms: President, Party General Secretary, and Char of the Military Commission. This did not work perfectly as when the transition in 2003 to Hu Jintao came, Jiang delayed handing over the Chair of the Military for about half a year, while Hu got the other two on time. Their rivalry would come to dominate the hidden power struggle in Zhongnanghai with its remnant “Sitting Committee” of retired Long March and later leaders carrying on their ancient power struggles.
In any case, the period from Deng’s becoming Supreme Leader, although bearing few specifically official positions of power, led to a profoundly seriously successful period of Chinese economic growth and social and cultural achievement and advancement. It would lead by around 2014 China becoming the world’s largest economy in real PPP terms, with it now more than 30% ahead of the US on that measure, even as the US continues for a few more years to be tops in nominal GDP. In the last year China has announced achieving ending deep poverty. So, much has been achieved, and way more than I have mentioned here. It is now in many ways the world’s leading economy and society.
Which brings us to how the current Supreme Leader appears to be blowing this very seriously, and I seriously think that a non-trivial influence on what I think is a serious mistake that has been made was inspired or at least aided by former President Trump during his time in office. I see two items here. One is the replacing of the normal 10 year turnover of power with a lifetime appointment of the Supreme Leader, and the other is assuming a “We are Number One” approach to world affairs, with it looking like these two reinforce each other, and with both certainly inspired by and to some degree supported by by former President Trump while he was in office.
So in 2013 Xi Jinping, a “princeling” son of a former high official, took power as Jiang did 20 years earlier, getting all three of the top positions at the same time from his predecessor. At first things continued as they had up to about the time Xi was to be reconfirmed at the 5-year rotation time. But then, after having interacted with US President Trump, including getting to eat chocolate at Mar-a-Lago while Trump showed off sensitive videos for diners at his club, things changed. Xi made it clear that he would not step down in 2023 when his second term ended, but would remain in power indefinitely, to the end of his life, if he could pull that off.
As it was, Donald Trump’s reaction to this announcement was to comment on how “maybe we should try this in the US.” People thought he was joking, but subsequent events show he was not at all, and is very envious of not only Xi but Putin and Erdogan and other authoritarian leaders who have assumed absolute lifetime power in their nations. Indeed, he continues to actively push an end to democracy in the US and essentially him being allowed to indeed assume the US presidency for the rest of his life. Not clear who is actually influencing whom here.
But there is another important feature of what Xi has done that leads to the conclusion that he has Trumpified himself. Prior to this declaration of lifetime rule, he seemed to follow a path described by an adviser to his predecessor as “peaceful rise,” which involved avoiding angering other nations to the point they would oppose policies or actions of China as its economy and power became more and more important in the world. And from 1979 until very recently this approach was highly successful on so many fronts. Indeed, in the first years of Trump’s presidency, when his “America First” policies led to a complete collapse of favorable attitudes towards the US around the world, China stood briefly as a beacon of world leadership, supporting international rules and customs and world order. It still claims to do so, but unfortunately Xi seems to have decided to imitate Trump with a “China First” policy since he assumed lifetime leadership, with this badly carried out policy leading to an enormous backlash.
There are several issues involved here. Many involve increased suppression of human rights within China, including in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But an especially crucial one seems to be its management of its role in the origin of the Covid-19 virus and the subsequent pandemic. A free and democratic nation would be open to and assist investigations of the origin of a disease that looks to have emerged initially within its boundaries. But China has never accepted this, suggesting it came from US troops at an athletic event in Wuhan in October, 2019, or maybe on some frozen food from wherever, a theory that the WHO under Chinese influence still takes seriously, although nobody else outside of China does so. It is clear it first appeared in Wuhan in central China, but exactly how and when remains unknown and will probably remain so, since rather than being open and helpful, the Chinese government (reflecting the views of the CCP) has destroyed all evidence relating to the origin of the disease and suppressed Chinese initially reporting on it.
For awhile China got away with this because Trump politicized the issue by making exaggerated claims that China consciously created the virus and then lied about it, with all this embedded in a lot of racist anti-AAPI verbiage that he took to the campaign trail, with a major uptick of attacks on Asian Americans following this.
But changes of mind of various scientists who previously said that the “lab leak” hypothesis was highly unlikely have changed their minds, and now we see not only President Biden but much of the world demanding a more thorough and transparent investigation regarding where this virus came from. However, despite some possible new openings, such as possibly finding the originally infected people (an effort likely to be blocked by China), I think too much crucial data has been destroyed by the Chinese government for us to ever really figure this out.
Well, so more recently we have seen a change to a much more aggressive and hostile approach to the rest of the world by the Chinese leadership. When the Australian government demanded an deeper probe on the origins of the virus, instead of agreeing like an open and democratic government might do, the PRC responded by a massive attack on Australian trade with China. More recently when the EU, while not declaring that Chinese policy towards the Uighurs is “genocide,” they nevertheless raised some complaints about what is going on with those people there, the Chinese response was a strong attack that led to the EU ending negotiations on a trade and investment deal with China, which had looked to be good to go a few months ago. And, of course, there have been militarily aggressive moves against India, as well as in the South China Sea.
All this has led to the Xi becoming Trumpified. Prior to Trump becoming POTUS, the US had an fairly high approval rating around most of the world, although not in the Muslim Middle East. But when Trump came in it did not take too long for his “America First” policies, along with his personally insulting most leaders of US allied nations (Israel, KSA, UAE, and a few others excepted), for the approval rating of the US to collapse, in some nations dramatically so, with the upshot being that the US went from basically being one of the most respected and approved of nations in the world, to being barely above a pariah.
So, big surprise, when Xi Jinping decided to imitate his former chocolate cake buddy with a similarly indefensible “China First” policy, the approval rating of his nation has fallen. A column in the May 28 Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria provides some data on this collapse. I shall bring this now long post to an end by simply listing the numbers he reported in this column, which compare a change from 2017 to 2020 in negative feelings towards China in these nations:
US, 47% to 73%
Canada, 40% to 73%
UK, 37% to 74%
Australia, 32% to 81%
South Korea, 61% to 75%
Sweden, 49% to 85%.