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Emperor Xi is terrible news for the world - and China

The basis of Xi Jinping's contempt for India is sadly rooted in some reality
Last Updated : 01 September 2022, 02:37 IST

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For democracies such as India and the USA – comprehending the political culture of a revolutionary country like China where the ruling party can seemingly do pretty much as it pleases evokes a bit of disbelief.

The Communist Party of China was born from struggle, bloodshed and revolution; this makes its political culture out of the ordinary. It is of the essence to understand that neither stricture, rule, or constitution binds the Party's decision-making in revolutionary states. The Party is government, the Party is the armed forces (Chairman Xi Jinping also heads the central military commission) with no other arm, neither the media nor the judiciary and certainly not the people exert any meaningful power. The confabulations at the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the nation's top decision-making body, will likely stamp President Xi Jinping as party chairman for an unprecedented third term, thereby overlooking Mao'sMao's two-term convention. This will be later converted almost automatically to a life term for Xi. The unprecedented power he will wield in a world where the cult of the personality underwrites leadership, even in robust democracies, has dangerous consequences not just for world order but also for the Chinese people.

Read | When war is easy

It brings to mind an old Congress party slogan – India is Indira, except for Xi Jinping, after the party meet, is going to be China writ large - many times over.

For Xi, at first glance, it appears the right time to be crowned emperor for life. Unpunished for wreaking havoc of the virus that originated in Wuhan, dominant in global supply chains for everything from fluffy toys for kids to iPhones and lately, a leader even in patents and technologies (many stolen from the west in a reversal of the so-called global south), this is China's hour.

The $16 trillion economy is well on the way to overtaking America and 1.5 billion Chinese are one-fifth of humanity. From menacing Taiwan to a two-year standoff in the high Himalayas with India and sabre rattling against Japan to a presence in far flung Pacific islands, China suddenly appears everywhere.

The political change of Xi Jinping as the one man making all the decisions, however, is fraught with risks. For the world, the biggest threat is a stagnant China could accelerate Xi Jinping's expansionist style of gnawing away militarily and economically globally. The faltering of the trillion dollars' dollars' one road one belt' gamble abroad and an anaemic economy at home are already frustrating Chinese elites used to having their way.

China's economy has been gradually but consistently faltering. In the quarter ending June 2022, it shrank by 2.6 per cent compared to the previous year. The estimate for this full year is likely to see the GDP grow only at 4 per cent, the slowest in three decades. Its attempt at its currency yuan offering an alternative to the US dollar looks like a cruel joke. Its unemployment rate at 20 per cent for people in the age group of 16 to 20 is the highest in three decades. Its very business model is in question as globalisation retreats China, and the world's factory still does not have enough economic structural suppleness to be a domestic consumption story like India.

For India, Xi Jinping's consistent behaviour, attitude and capability bode ill. The two-year confrontation in the high Himalayas is on a hair trigger between the two thermo-nuclear powers. Xi Jinping, to put it bluntly, has contempt for India. He believes that China is the only power in Asia and that China has bigger fish to fry – America. That India is just a local squabble, a sideshow. The basis of Xi Jinping's contempt is sadly rooted in some reality. China has insisted – and so far succeeded - in decoupling its economic interests in India with war-like pressure on the borders and expect this to intensify as Xi takes even more power in his hand. Two years into the standoff at Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, India's trade with China, according to the China Customs office in 2022, shows India's exports to Beijing at $26.46 billion while imports are $103.47, a record deficit of $77 billion.

Similarly, Chinese attitudes to the US and Europe are likely to harden. With a coterie of yes men, Xi Jinping may believe that China can now take on the world. The idea of an American decline and inevitable Chinese ascendency is deeply ingrained in Xijinping's thoughts. All this could come to a catastrophic collision on Taiwan.

Will the Russian experience in Ukraine, where it is six months into a land war without success – and Taiwan would require a complex missile and strategic amphibious operation deter Xi? Does American commitment hold, or will he determine that Joe Biden will not risk Los Angeles for Taipei when push to shove is the biggest decision absolute Xi will make. Put differently, the world's commitment to defend Taiwan is the variable for the success of Xi Jinping's next term and the world order going forward.

For the Chinese people, history is clear that absolute power brings untold catastrophes. The last time anyone in China exercised absolute power was Mao Zedong. The terrors of that time have scarred two generations. The exact number of the dead from events like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution is unknown - though estimates say at least 25 million Chinese citizens died. On the other hand, collective leadership has brought prosperity unmatched by any nation in
the history of the world, ever.

Democracies long boasted dictatorships without checks and balances can't respond to the needs of the poor. Yet China, within two decades, pulled a record 450 million people out of utter poverty to middle income in dollar terms. With Xi in absolute control, perilous decisions with unforeseeable consequences await the Chinese people.

For Xi, only one old question is troubling: Will people who demand different brands like Gucci and Armani at the towering luxury high street on the Shanghai Bund also demand different political options at the Forbidden City in Beijing? He is there to ensure they do not. The world is about to discover if one man can keep tight control over 1.5 billion people and yet deliver on their aspirations that are rising at speeds faster than the latest Chinese Hypersonic missile. It's lift-off time. The countdown has begun.

(Ninad D Sheth is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 31 August 2022, 02:27 IST

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