Does China Want to be an Empire Again? How Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” Could Affect the U.S.
By Dawn Hoagland
China is run by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping, who has declared himself president for life. It is competing with the United States to become the richest country in the world. How did that happen?
China’s gross domestic product has been growing at almost 10 % a year for three decades under a communist regime unencumbered by the rule of law. Why is it that the richer China gets, the more corrupt it gets? Historically for other countries, the opposite is true.
Not since Mao has China had such a nationalist leader as Xi Jinping. Xi promotes a vision of a unified China that will be preeminent economically and militarily in the world. China has 5,000 years of history creating an immense pool of pride ready to harness.
China wants to build a New Silk Road
Xi Jinping continually trumpets his “China Dream,” which is code for a revitalized Chinese Empire. Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) encapsulate China’s ambition: all roads lead to Beijing. Plans to revive and expand the ancient Silk Road include 67 countries designated by China as target markets of BRI. The Silk Road is the name given to the ancient trading routes opened by the Han Dynasty of China which stretched across Asia and into Europe, lasting from 130 B.C. to around the 15th century and used to transport gold, silk and spices.
A new canal through Thailand would help Chinese ships reduce travel time and move without fearing any blockade from U.S. allies that surround the Straits of Malacca. A freight train connecting Beijing to London and modern welcome centers with clean water and refrigeration at Pakistan-Afghan border crossings are some of the BRI proposals in discussion right now. These plans require contracts with sovereign countries delineating who will build it, who will pay for it, and who will control it when it’s completed.
BRI will internationalize the renminbi
China is motivated to procure cheap natural resources from other nations, create employment for Chinese companies, and open Europe and Asia to Chinese exports. When completed, the New Silk Road will be a sophisticated matrix combining infrastructure, communications, IT and finance all disseminating from Beijing. It will internationalize the renminbi, Chinese national currency.
China is looking to replace U.S. markets with new trading partners now that President Trump has slapped tariffs on Chinese goods. Italy recently signed a BRI memorandum of understanding covering areas of transportation, trade and investment, financial cooperation, and cultural exchanges. French President Emmanuel Macron urges prudence because he suggests that BRI could make partner countries “vassal states” of China.
China makes its first inroad into Europe through Italy
China is bringing money and infrastructure into a floundering Italy with designs on the rest of the European market as well. Although China is Russia’s political ally, China’s ambition, technological capabilities, and billions available for BRI investment leave poor Russia out in the cold. Russia’s economy and its total trade volume are both roughly one-eighth the size of China’s, making competition for trade and influence in Europe uneven.
China’s offer to Italy is not dependent on personal relationships. His “China Dream” is a vision that resonates with China’s past and future. The private sector will want to see these investments continue beyond changes in leadership, making Chinese influence much greater than anything the Kremlin can offer.
Even if only half of the initiatives are ever completed, the impact on the world will be a game-changer. As remote areas are connected physically and digitally with financial hubs, all boats will rise as productive enterprises will work to diminish poverty in previously neglected places.
China aims to surpass current Western supply chains
BRI is a long-term vision that is not expected to be complete until 2050. It will eventually embody digital technologies such as embedded sensors and data analytics, which will give countries the ability to surpass current Western supply chain practices. It represents a shift in the balance of power from the West to Beijing.
If BRI is a resounding success, will developing countries that open themselves up for these Chinese initiatives be an advertisement for communism? Will it give legitimacy to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the generator of economic progress?
The fact that China’s leadership gives lip service to Marx is meaningless. Xi and his two predecessors used capitalism to make poor China rich. Coming into power after the death of Mao in 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated free-market reforms which put an end to Mao’s terrifying Leninist experiment in utopia. A Communist Party document released in 1981, after Mao’s death, admitted that the Cultural Revolution was a serious mistake.
Marxism-inspired socialist movements have all failed
We have seen the consequences of all Marxism-inspired socialist movements. Mao’s murderous Great Leap Forward and destructive Cultural Revolution, the Orwellian rule in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the genocide under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and the miserable life under Kim’s North Korean tyranny are all examples of abject failure.
Deng, by disbanding communes and encouraging capitalism, lifted more human beings out of poverty than anyone in world history. China pulled 680 million people out of misery in 1981-2010. However, Deng regarded ‘human rights’ and Western-style democracy as a threat to party rule. Xi is expanding China’s economic reach with capitalist ventures while maintaining power using surveillance, censorship and brutality.
China has never played fair
The same concerns about starting a business in China such as limiting access to lucrative markets, forced partnerships with Chinese companies, mandatory transfer of intellectual property, and restrictions on information flow persist with Belt and Road Initiatives.
India warns that China will create unsustainable debt burdens for its Indian Ocean neighbors and potentially take control of regional choke points. Sri Lanka ended up ceding a port to China to pay off the debt incurred to build it. Analysts predict that Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, and Pakistan are also at the mercy of China’s debt diplomacy. The Chinese Communist Party does more to scare away investors and provoke non-cooperation in target countries than to attract them.
Can anyone stand up to China now that it has grown so powerful? Trump views BRI negatively as a means to spread Chinese influence abroad and saddle countries with unsustainable debt through non-transparent projects. In 2013, before he was president, Trump tweeted: “China is not our friend. They are not our ally. They want to overtake us, and if we don’t get smart and tough soon, they will.”
Trump is well aware of China’s real economic power. He is also aware that China still has a ministry of propaganda which exaggerates or suppresses data, technological capabilities and actions to benefit its regime. Their military might cannot match ours yet. China’s ascension may not be as predictable as it seems.
Low birth rate, aging population, political unrest, censorship and surveillance
When a country has an extremely low immigration rate, low birth rate and aging population, and relies on surveillance and imprisonment of its own citizens to maintain control, there might be a problem.
Because of its one-child policy, which began in 1979 and ended in 2014, China has 30 million men who cannot find a wife. For 35 years, newborn girls were killed, removed by family-planning officials or abandoned by parents who wanted a boy. There will be millions of single childless old men in addition to millions of couples who will need care in their old age. The present two-child policy won’t fix this.
In China, internal security now exceeds the military budget for external defense. The protests in Hong Kong (HK) are not going to end unless there is another bloodbath like Tiananmen Square or Beijing gives in. Xi Jinping is not about to lose face.
Once you’ve tasted freedom, you can’t go back
The HK people grew up with British style common law left over from colonial days, complete with personal freedoms. China signed an agreement in 1997 to let HK have its freedoms until 2047. However, Beijing appoints and controls the majority of representatives in the HK legislature and has recently capriciously rejected the representatives elected by the people.
This leaves the people of HK with no real vote, no mechanism to effect change, and no way to express their voices except to fill the streets with millions of protestors week after week. Even really large peaceful protests are not achieving any results. The disruption of commuter trains is the latest tactic to get domestic and international attention. Protestors need the international community to stand up to Xi Jinping on behalf of their God-given right to be free.
A protestor spray painted the camera lens black which is affixed to the People’s Liberation Army garrison in downtown HK. The message they are trying to convey is: stop surveilling us, listen to our demand for free elections of our own leaders, do not attack your own people with tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, do not arrest us, do not pass a law giving Beijing the right to extradite us and imprison us for ten years for voicing our opinions.
That is a reasonable message. Beijing is being restrained so far in its reaction due to the fact that Xi Jinping does not want to jeopardize his “China Dream” with the negative publicity that would accompany a bloody confrontation with students in Hong Kong. President Trump has complimented Xi for this.
Complimenting a brutal dictator? Maybe that response is a little too diplomatic. The voiceless in China are counting on someone out there to speak up for them. Who will it be?
Dawn Hoagland is a writer and a teacher who lives in upstate New York.