Less than two months after Donald Trump completed his first year in office as America’s most unconventional president in recent history, China’s National People’s Congress amended the country’s constitution to extend indefinitely Xi Jinping’s term as president. The NPC’s near-unanimous vote to make Xi a virtual strongman was, of course, not linked to Trump’s shaking up of global politics during his first year in office.
Xi had long maneuvered behind the scenes to serve more than two terms. Rather than being a response to Trump’s America First policy, he apparently believes China’s top leader needs more than two terms to further stabilize the country and to achieve its ambition to become the world’s superpower. Despite what many believe, China lags far behind the United States militarily, economically, and in high tech. It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to surpass the US or if it even can.
But Xi – who has strong-armed his way into becoming the country’s most powerful core leader – has already set his global ambitions in motion by modernizing the military, using state funds to make China the world’s high-tech leader by 2025, and wooing developing countries into becoming allies with infrastructure loans through his One Belt, One Road plan.
Both in words and deeds, Xi has subtly hinted China’s model of government could be an example for developing nations to mimic, although Chinese leaders deny they have any intention to pressure countries to adopt their model. But make no mistake. A new Cold War is already underway for a new world order.
Unlike the last Cold War between the US-led West and the Soviet bloc which pitched democracy against oppressive communist rule, the new Cold War is a contest for global influence between a confident new-style authoritarianism and a faltering liberal democracy in a divided West.
For now at least, the protagonists in this new Cold War are Trump’s America on the one side and Xi’s China on the other, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin seemingly aligning himself with Xi. But Putin could be a wild card. Recent reports say veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger had on several occasions urged Trump to cozy up to Russia to contain China.
In this new Cold War, Xi’s China and Trump’s America offer very different values. China under strongman Xi has become more authoritarian. He is an unelected leader who offers many things – instilling national pride in a rejuvenated country, creating numerous paths to wealth, and making China’s economic success an envy of the world. But the population must pay a high price in return – hardline one-party rule, being monitored everywhere you go, restrictions on freedom of speech, political activities, and a heavily-censored internet.
America under the mercurial Trump has turned global politics upside down. Not only that, liberal democracies in the West are now in turmoil with the migrant crisis, Brexit, the rise of far-right political parties, slow economic growth except for the US, and the challenge from China for global dominance. But unlike Xi’s China, there is no iron-hand one-party rule, restrictions on free speech, political activities, and a censored internet. It’s not as easy to get rich in the West but people can choose their leaders through democratic elections.
Both models have their upsides and downsides. Low-income developing countries may well be dazzled by China’s rocket rise to economic superpower status, and disillusioned by the West’s democratic chaos in recent years. Indeed, I’ve argued before that China’s model of political stability combined with economic opportunities may well be worth considering for developing countries even though it comes at a high price paid for by the loss of personal freedoms.
But recent events in China have made me think again. I am spooked by the ever-increasing monitoring of citizens, the grading of people based on their social behavior, and the further tightening of social media. It reminds me of George Orwell’s classic book 1984. But what distressed me most is the scandal over tainted vaccines that are supposed to protect children from diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.
The scandal was exposed exactly ten years after the baby milk powder scandal which sickened and killed children. I couldn’t help wondering how a country that aspires to be a global superpower can have such scandals that threaten the lives of the most vulnerable in the population – children. Are corruption and greed so rampant in an aspiring superpower that the lives of children count for nothing?
What appalled me was the tight censorship of social media that became ablaze with the scandal. Censors deleted posts on social media that heavily criticized the scandal and demanded accountability. Is this how a superpower should behave, censoring public anger over a scandal that damages the health of babies? Is this the model China wants the world to follow?
I am no China basher. I believe it has earned its right to be at the world’s top table setting global rules for trade, politics, and international relations. But to win global admiration, economic success alone is simply not enough. To win global admiration, and perhaps to be the world’s dominant superpower, China needs to show that people matter too. When the lives of children are at stake, it should allow its people to have a voice.
Who will win this new Cold War I don’t know. But when push comes to shove, human nature will always come to the fore – whether you live in China, the West, the US, or developing countries. Human nature is repelled by innocent children being victimized by greed and the people’s voice being silenced in response to this greed.
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