It wasn’t a short speech – and certainly not a snappy title:
“Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.”
That was President Xi’s speech to the Communist Party Congress. As a result of this speech, Xi has been elevated to the same heights as Mao Zedong in the pantheon of Chinese leaders.
There is one conclusion to be drawn from these developments: the West should start to take the Chinese threat more seriously than it seems to have done so far. It is clear from Xi’s speech that China’s vision is to become one of the world’s super-powers.
Xi’s speech was thoroughly nationalist while clothed in the language of international co-operation. China has no time for Western-style democracy. There will be no tolerance of any kind of dissent from regions wanting their own autonomy or independence (Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan). China will use its power to control much of the South China Sea and to spread its economic and soft power across the globe. These are the fundamentals of Xi’s thought.
Looking at what China has achieved so far, this is all perfectly credible. At the last G20 meeting, China was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free trade.’ In reality it should better be called ‘free trade with Chinese characteristics’. To date, it has involved a mercantilist approach of ensuring that China has become the workshop of the world while keeping its own market largely closed and playing fast and loose with intellectual property protections.
And the West has fallen for it hook line and sinker. Egged on by those for whom ‘cheap goods today’ is the only thing that matters.
Now things are going further.
China currently has a dominant position in the mining of the rare earths necessary for most modern equipment from solar panels to smartphones and computer products to batteries. Much of it comes from China itself but Chinese owned companies now have mining franchises across the globe. Other Chinese investments, funded by all the foreign exchange that has been pumped into China over the last decades, are also spreading far and wide.
Xi has made absolutely clear that China intends to become more powerful and to leverage its power effectively. Talk of international co-operation should be understood from a Chinese perspective rather than being interpreted in Western ways – something that would allow us all to be further lulled into a false sense of security.
It is unclear how the West should respond. Or whether it is, in fact, capable of responding now that the US is in such a state of confusion.
More parochially, if China were one of the great hopes of the Brexiteers’ vision of a Global Britain, it may well be time for a re-think. Any free trade deal with China will be primarily advantageous to China itself and will doubtless involve subjugating the UK to China’s view of its own geopolitical role. Any kind of criticism of any of China’s actions will likely not be tolerated. Remember how Cameron was punished because he dared meet the Dalai Lama. And that was before the UK decided to cast itself adrift from the EU thereby severely diminishing its international clout and negotiating power.
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