In October 2017, as he prepared to begin his second five-year term as Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping said China had entered a “new era”; he should “take center stage” in a world shaken by the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.
The times have changed.
In the face of international stigma over its abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and growing military opposition in the Western Pacific, all signs suggest that instead of engaging with the world and expanding its soft power, China under Xi is turning in on itself.
The emergence of Covid-19 in one of its cities has added to the sense of disorientation – and the instinctive need to close the hatches. Economic uncertainty, brought on by rapidly aging populations, skyrocketing debt and declining productivity mean that Xi, the country’s most ruthless and powerful leader since Mao Zedong, has decided to donate priority to the stability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and its seizure of it – rather than seeking Chinese primacy on the world stage.
And in order to do so, Xi intends to rewrite history – as Mao did.
This week, at the CPC’s Sixth Plenum, 400 party apparatchiks will endorse Xi’s plans to join China’s two most notorious Communist dictators, recording his version of key aspects of recent history. For Xi, the truth is relative; the Party – and its total control over it – is more important.
As Martin Thorley, an expert on China at the University of Exeter noted this week: “Xi’s speech will demonstrate that when it comes to history, truth is secondary.
Previously, only two Chinese leaders – Mao and Deng Xiaoping – were ambitious enough to change the historic record.
In 1945, Mao, the founder of Communist China, used his statements about recent history as a political weapon to attack opponents and ensure his absolute authority.
In 1981, Deng Xiaoping made his mark by highlighting the brutal and disastrous Cultural Revolution that Mao unleashed between 1966 and 1976. Deng’s version of the story spoke of the economic catastrophe and millions of deaths caused by Mao – thus paving the way for its own reforms.
This is the direction of some of these changes – towards greater economic liberalization – that Xi wants to change. But he could also rewrite history to set aside Deng’s statement that the Chinese leadership should not stand for more than two terms. Deng had a firm mind to avoid Mao-style personality cults. Xi thinks of himself as a leader in perpetuity.
His grandiose ambitions were already apparent in 2017, when he inscribed “ideas” in the party’s statutes alongside those of Mao and Deng. At least then, the United States and China were on good terms. Four years, a trade war and a pandemic later, not so much.
The very week that Xi plans to occupy the third position in the holy trinity of Chinese leaders, the United States announced its intention to undermine Beijing’s diplomatic flagship. America will invest in five to ten major infrastructure projects around the world in January as part of a larger G7 program to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The G7 says the B3W program will help achieve the $ 40 trillion in infrastructure investments developing countries will need by 2035 – and provide an alternative to China’s coercive lending practices – thus undermining the Beijing’s central strategy to expand its influence around the world.
The United States asserts that Senegal and Ghana have welcomed assurances that, unlike China, they will not require nondisclosure or collateral agreements that could result in the subsequent seizure of ports or airports.
America promises developing countries “the full range” of US financial assistance, including equity investments, loan guarantees, grants and technical expertise on climate, health and digital technology.
Possible projects include a vaccine manufacturing center for West Africa in Senegal (although pharmaceutical companies have not yet passed on their manufacturing know-how to the existing vaccine center in South Africa) , renewable energy factories and digital start-ups.
In response yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin insisted that there was “a huge space” for cooperation on infrastructure.
“The different initiatives do not offset or replace each other,” Wang said. “The world needs efforts to build bridges… we need to advance connectivity, not decoupling. “
But all signs are that instead of looking outward and building bridges, Xi’s China, if it can overcome growing domestic problems, will rejoice in some degree of isolation – ” splendid isolation, ”no doubt, if Xi manages to write about it.