Xi’s disappointing address

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Xi’s disappointing address

Last week, Washington hosted two guests wielding power in completely different ways: China’s Xi Jinping and Pope Francis. The pope used his moral authority to spotlight important issues demanding international cooperation, most notably climate change and migration. President Xi, by contrast, skillfully avoided serious discussion of the issues generating tensions in the bilateral relationship and anxiety within the region more generally.

President Xi’s major policy speech in Seattle began with a theme that was Deng Xiaoping’s greatest legacy: the concept of a peaceful rise. Because China is still a developing country, Deng argued, its attention would necessarily be focused on internal developments and improving people’s livelihoods.

For outsiders, the idea of “peaceful rise” signaled two broad domestic trends. The first was a gradual move toward a more open, market-driven economy. More recently, this reform path was seen to depend on a second round of reforms that would reorient the economy away from its reliance on exports and investment
toward growth driven by domestic
demand.

The second, more hopeful expectation was for gradual political reform. Few expected that China would become democratic overnight. But during the Hu Jintao years, there was open talk about strengthening the rule of law and even political experimentation with elections, for example at the village level.

However, the Xi years have been characterized by developments that cut against virtually all expectations of the peaceful rise approach. Economic reform is stalled, political reform is moving in reverse. Rather than moderation and assurance in the conduct of foreign policy, we see subtle efforts to change the status quo. You would not have any sense of these challenges listening to the well-choreographed generalities in Xi’s Seattle speech.

On market opening, the president boldly asserted that China would not discriminate against foreign firms and was committed to the rule of law. But the executives in Seattle were well aware that China has long used its market power to intimidate even the largest global firms into silence. The issues are particularly heated at the moment with respect to security demands being placed on information technology companies. President Xi made mention of negotiating a bilateral investment treaty that would set more clearly stated rules of the road, but there is substantial skepticism about how serious Chinese interest is.

Domestic reforms also appear to be stalled. China’s management of the stock market collapse of July is widely viewed as both a policy debacle and a telling indication of how the government continues to intervene when it chooses. Rather than sidestepping the issue, President Xi vigorously defended the government’s moves. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he blamed international factors for the market turbulence. At home, those involved in selling inflated shares have been subject to investigation. In fact, the government had acted as a cheerleader as share prices rose, no doubt in the belief that rising prices would validate Xi’s vision of “the Chinese dream.” The financial sector remains under tight government control.

Political developments have been the most surprising feature of Xi Jinping’s rule: he has concentrated power to an extent virtually no one thought possible in post-Mao China.

One justification for this concentration of power has gotten some sympathy from outsiders. A tough hand is required to deal with corruption in the party, which Xi openly acknowledged in his Seattle speech. But corruption is in part the result of one-party rule, a controlled press and absence of electoral accountability. The anti-corruption campaign has left Xi’s allies untouched while sewing uncertainty about who will be targeted next. Private capital is flowing out of the country.

Other political developments all point in the direction of tighter controls. Xi has limited the independence of the courts and used outright arrests as well as intimidation to silence the legal profession. He has made it more difficult for outside NGOs to operate in the country, noting in his speech that they need to abide by Chinese law just as those laws are being made more restrictive. The internal security apparatus and propaganda machinery - ultimately backed by the military - appear to be rising rather than falling in political weight.

Which brings us finally to the foreign policy issues. Knowing that its rapid rise would be unsettling, China’s foreign policy under Deng and his immediate successors was focused strongly on assuring neighbors. Cooperative efforts such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are hopeful signs that Xi Jinping might return to such an assurance strategy.

But the Seattle speech was silent or defensive on all of the most troubling security issues between the two countries. Xi openly rejected the existence of Chinese hacking operations tied to the military or government even though these have been caught red-handed. The visit may still yield a bilateral process to negotiate cybersecurity issues, but it is hard to have confidence in such a process when the very issue at hand is denied.

And there was complete silence on many of the other important security issues of current concern in the bilateral relationship and to the region: the build-up of capabilities against Taiwan and more generally, continued dredging and military construction in the South China, and ongoing efforts to develop anti-satellite capabilities and to militarize space.

Xi clearly sought to use his visit to assure an American audience with folksy mentions of U.S. TV shows and repeated references to cooperation. But the visit did not signal a serious effort to do the hard work necessary to put the bilateral relationship back on track.

*The author is Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of the University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard

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