Can the US live in Xi Jinping's world?

Ten days ago Xi Jinping emerged to the world's media - somewhat drained by his government's growing intolerance towards foreign journalists - as China's most powerful leader in decades.

A tradition that limited its recent predecessor to two terms has been broken. And a third term in hand, he has strengthened his power over China, perhaps indefinitely.

But even as Xi's grip tightens at home, on the international stage the situation has rarely looked more unsettled.

The more the Communist Party leader reinforces China's authoritarian model, the more he challenges a defining assumption about our era of globalization - as China gets richer, it will become freer.

That assumption fueled decades of trade and engagement between Washington and Beijing.

It is the foundation for an economic partnership that will eventually produce more than half a trillion dollars worth of goods crossing the Pacific Ocean every year.

Now as Xi begins his third term, he faces an ongoing trade war with the US and renewed efforts to deny China access to high-end American chip-making technology that, according to some commentators, is designed to slow China's rise "at any cost".

Beijing argues that the recent marked chill in relations is driven by America's desire to maintain its position as the preeminent world power.

President Joe Biden's newly released National Security Strategy defines Beijing as a greater threat to the existing world order than Moscow. And Washington has started talking about a Chinese invasion of democratic Taiwan as an increasingly realistic prospect rather than a remote possibility.

These are far from the days when US and Chinese leaders would declare that mutual enrichment would eventually outweigh the ideological differences and tensions between the established superpowers and the rising superpowers.

So how did we get here?

'Habits of freedom'

It is no small irony that President Joe Biden is increasingly treating China as an enemy. And his attempt to cut off his access to state-of-the-art semiconductors is arguably the most significant reversal of his trading and engagement approach.

In the late 1990s, Biden, then a member of the US Senate, was a key architect of efforts to welcome China into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"China is not our enemy," he told reporters on a trip to Shanghai in 2000 - a statement based on the belief that increased trade would lock China into a system of shared norms and universal values, and help its rise as a responsible power.

WTO membership - which became a reality under the auspices of President George W Bush - is the culmination of a decades-old policy of growth-involvement that has been endorsed by every president since Richard Nixon.

American companies have also lobbied hard for China to open up further, with companies like British American Tobacco looking to sell to Chinese consumers, and the U.S.-China Business Council wanting access to cheap, compliant labor.

For American unions worried about losing blue-collar jobs, and for anyone concerned with human rights, China's WTO membership is justified on ideological grounds.

Bush, then Governor of Texas, delivered perhaps his best speech to Boeing workers on the presidential campaign trail in May 2000.

The "trade case," with China, he said, "is not just a trade issue, but a confidence issue".

"Economic freedom creates the habit of freedom. And the habit of freedom creates the hope of democracy."

For the time being, China's growing prosperity seems to actually raise the prospect of at least some limited political reform. In the years following WTO membership, the internet - as elsewhere in the world - provided the Chinese people with opportunities for discussion and dissent that were previously unimaginable.

Bill Clinton famously suggested that for the Communist Party to tame the internet would be like "trying to nail Jell-O [jelly] to the wall".

Even after Xi began his first term as party secretary general in 2012, international media coverage has often focused on skyscrapers, cultural exchanges, and a new middle class as evidence that China is changing fundamentally, and for the better. .

But there are plenty of clues that, early in his reign, Xi had identified the fledgling "liberty habit" not as a welcome consequence of globalization, but as something to be fought at all costs.

Document No. 9, reportedly issued by Communist Party headquarters just months after his first term, lists seven dangers to watch out for, including "universal values", the concept of "civil society" beyond party control, and freedom of press.

Xi believes that ideological weakness and failure to maintain socialist lines led to the fall of the Soviet Union.

The ideal of universal and shared values ​​for him was the Trojan Horse that would lead the Chinese Communist Party down the same path, and the answer was swift and uncompromising - the unabashed reaffirmation of authoritarianism and one-party rule.

Jell-O on the wall

By the time of his second term, China had begun firmly nailing Jell-O to the wall, jailing lawyers, silencing dissent, squeezing Hong Kong's freedoms and building camps for the mass detention of more than one million Uyghurs in the far west. from Xinjiang.

Yet there is little evidence that Western governments are in a hurry to ditch their support for trade and engagement, much less turn to policies that actively limit China's rise, as Beijing now claims.

For decades, China's entry into the WTO offered huge advantages for companies lining their supply chains with Chinese labor, and new frontiers for businesses to sell to Chinese consumers. The embassy has long staffed - and still has many - with a trading team numbering in the hundreds.

Britain's so-called "Golden Era" with China - a major endorsement of a trade and engagement spell - launched during Xi's first term and continued into his second.

He even saw a British chancellor travel to Xinjiang, which by then was already the focus of serious human rights issues, for a photo opportunity specifically to highlight the trade opportunities offered in the region.

I saw George Osborne, wearing a hi-viz vest, unload a truck a short drive from the prison where prominent Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti recently started his life sentence.

While visiting politicians from democratic countries always voice the benefits of engagement, human rights are more often raised "behind closed doors".

During the same period, Hunter Biden - the president's youngest son - established business ties with Chinese entities with ties to the Communist Party, connections that are at the center of the political controversy that swirls around him to this day.

With hindsight, there is little evidence that American or European political elites wanted to reevaluate the engagement approach.

During my time in Beijing, company executives often told me that my journalism covering China's growing repression was somehow off target by not capturing the bigger picture of growing prosperity.

It's as if, instead of opening the minds of Chinese officials to the idea of ​​political reform as promised, trade and engagement are changing the minds of those in the outside world, gazing at skyscrapers and high-speed rail lines.

The lesson doesn't seem to be that economic freedom and political freedom go hand in hand, but that you can have all this wealth without any human rights.

A senior manager for a US multinational household products brand with large investments in China told me that "the Chinese don't want freedom" like people in the West do.

He had spoken to the workers at his factory, he insisted, and he concluded that they were not at all interested in politics. "They are happier getting money," he said.

Somewhere along the way, many merchants and businessmen - both companies and governments - seem to have simply ignored the grand promise of bringing political freedom to China.

Increasing prosperity now seems to be enough on its own.

So, what has changed?

Breaking the mold

First, public opinion. From 2018 onwards, the Uyghur diaspora began to talk about the disappearance of their family members to Xinjiang's giant prison camps, despite the clear risk that doing so could carry further costs and punishments for the relatives back home.

China at first seemed taken aback by the international reaction.

However, Western governments have long tolerated many aspects of Beijing's repression while continuing to trade and engage.

Even before Xi took office, the targeting of religious beliefs, the imprisonment of dissidents and the brutal enforcement of the one-child policy were integral parts of the political system, not just side effects.

But the mass imprisonment of whole people – defined as a threat solely on the basis of their culture and identity – had a major impact on global public opinion because of its historical resonance in Europe and beyond.

Companies with supply chains in Xinjiang are facing growing consumer concerns, and the government is under increasing political pressure to act.

There are other problems too - including Beijing's speed at cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong, its militarization of the South China Sea and the growing threat to Taiwan.

But Xinjiang seems to be crystallizing thinking and China can also feel the tide turning – it's no coincidence that many international journalists trying to uncover what's happened in Xinjiang have since been forced out of the country, myself included.

The latest Pew opinion survey found that 80% of Americans now have an unfavorable opinion of China, up from just 40% or so a decade ago.

The second significant factor that changed things was Donald Trump.

Donald Trump's anti-China message may be characteristically erratic - with his accusations of unfair trade practices softened by his open admiration for the strongman Xi's style - but he uses it to rally a disgruntled blue-collar base to great effect.

In short, he claims that trade and engagement has become a bad bet with little to show, other than outsourced work and technology.

Opponents have criticized his counter-productive methods and what they see as his xenophobic language, but the mold has been broken.

President Biden has backed away little, if any, from Trump's policies on China, including the trade war he launched. Fixed rate.

Washington realized too late that, instead of accelerating political reform in China, trade and technology transfer were being used to support Beijing's authoritarian model.

New normal

There is no clearer indication of how much of a shift there is in US-China relations than President Biden's recent comments on Taiwan's status.

Last month he was asked by CBS News whether US troops would be sent to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

"Yes," he said, "if there really was an unprecedented attack."

Official policy in Washington has long been one of deliberate strategic ambiguity over whether it will help Taiwan. Acknowledging that the US would not intervene, the argument continued, perhaps giving the green light for invasion. And saying it would bolster defenses might push Taiwan's self-governing government toward a formal declaration of independence.

The new and clear "strategic clarity" has been met with anger from Beijing, which sees it as a major adjustment in the US position.

It's hard to disagree, despite efforts by senior US officials to retract those comments.

Instead of shared norms and values, China now offers a prosperous model of authoritarianism as a winning alternative.

He worked hard in international agencies, through his intelligence services, and his broad propaganda reach to promote his system, all the while arguing that democracy was on the decline.

In some places - the German business community for example - the arguments in favor of trade and engagement have taken a completely different tone.

China is now so important to global supply chains, and so strong, the new case being made is that we have no choice but to continue trading, for fear of harming our own economic interests or provoking a “retaliation” from Beijing.

But in Washington, the view that China poses a serious threat has become one of the few topics of strong bipartisan consensus.

Perhaps, there is no easy alternative yet - the supply chain would take years to move and doing so would be expensive.

And China does have the means to reward those who continue to engage while imposing costs on those who don't.

But what was undoubtedly true at the start of Xi's third term was that the world was in a moment of great change.

And in China, as in Russia, America finds itself confronted by an enemy that is largely self-made.

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