Beijing and its Western partners can never become bosom pals because of the opaque way the Chinese are conducting their politics.
Recently I came across a commentary in the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily warning of the danger of arrogating all powers to one person. “Ultimately, he may not have a peaceful ending,” it says.
The column has gone viral with many wondering if it is directed at Xi Jinping (習近平), who, since taking office a little more than three years ago, has accumulated vast powers and authority, or “mandate of heaven”, that none of his predecessors ever did since the death of party patriarch Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
Readers are asking: Since when has People’s Daily become so outspoken that it can dish out thinly veiled warnings that may irritate the supreme leader? Or is this just another proof of the party’s factional infighting?
Other than taking the helm at the party, military and the entire state apparatus, Xi also presides over a number of top policy panels overseeing national security, external relations, Taiwan affairs as well as economic, financial and social reforms.
There’s no exaggeration that Xi has the final say on each and every key state policy, but this can also suggest that he is still far away from cementing his powers after amassing them.
He has to make every decision himself because of his deep misgivings about his comrades and advisers. He doesn’t have enough trusted lieutenants, otherwise he would just sit back and receive briefings while his men got things done.
Xi has yet to prove his statesmanship, while his subordinates resort to arrogance and condescension, as seen in how the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅) berated a Canadian journalist earlier this month.
Just like the late Lee Kuan Yew once said, China has already become conceited even before getting rich, and with its economic muscle, it would “treat you with condescension”.
The only thing Xi can be proud of is his sweeping anti-corruption drive that has ensnared many top cadres, but a systemic institution for clean governance remains out of sight.
Xi’s policy of economic containment after independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in as Taiwan president can boomerang as well since it may aggravate sentiments of estrangement among the island’s youth.
On another key front, foreign relations, Xi has only exacerbated the feud with neighbors in territorial spats across the East and South China Sea, forcing Southeast Asian nations to run to Washington for a united front.
Last week Wang and his ASEAN counterparts failed to reach a formal joint declaration during a foreign ministers’ meeting after an initial draft was retracted due to irreconcilable disagreements.
Back in the 1960s Singapore’s Lee called on Washington, which he called a lenient superpower, to police Asia.
Today, Washington’s pivot to the region is welcomed by the ASEAN, which, as a whole, is faced with Beijing’s excesses.
And as Washington holds Beijing in contempt for its territorial claims, Beijing’s contention of “sovereignty since ancient times” rings hollow.
The Pentagon really does not see Beijing as a formidable rival when it dispatches warplanes and vessels to patrol the disputed waters amid the latter’s protests.
But that doesn’t mean Xi cannot exploit a window of opportunity to his full advantage.
Beijing has started sending warships to the waters surrounding the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in recent months and Tokyo’s response has been rather meek.
Observers say Washington has warned the administration of Shinzō Abe not to respond to such provocations as the soon-to-retire Barack Obama doesn’t want a face-off with Beijing before the November elections.
Beijing may now expedite its island-building or roll out something as aggressive as the air defense identification zone it declared in the East China Sea in late 2013 if Washington opts to stay put.
One more uncertainty is that as the Chinese economy is losing steam, with its growth prospects likely to follow an L-shaped trajectory, Xi may seek to pick a fight in the South China Sea to shift the people’s focus from domestic woes.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 15.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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