Photo by Contributor/Getty Images

Something in the way Xi moves

We should engage the CCP instead of being intimidated

Artillery Row

Whatever his gameplan, China’s Xi Jinping will have celebrated the symbolism of the state banquet which his “dear, intimate friend” Vladimir Putin held for him last month. In the very same Kremlin room where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signalled the end of the Cold War in my Moscow days, Xi triumphantly welcomed a new era.

“Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years,” said China’s leader. “And we are the ones driving these changes.” He may be right. Get used to the hyperbole. Xi is never knowingly undersold. More importantly, he has embarked on a course designed to make his country number one, economically and militarily, and make himself the playmaker in a new world order. 

You don’t need to be a foreign policy wonk to see what is at work here. Xi Jinping wants us to believe that he and Putin are building an anti-West alliance via their “win-win cooperation”. Both are “brimming with new dynamism and vitality”, as together they create “the compass and anchor of major powers, China-Russia relations”. If those words sound like a Communist Party press release, they are — just read the China Daily and the reams of such on Xi’s visit to Moscow. 

From Urumqi to Shanghai, demonstrations and protests have hit China

I am no China expert, but if you listen to both hawks and doves in the West, you hear some consensus. One, that Xi Jinping has seized the moment, quite brilliantly to quote one, employing the strategy that Nixon and Kissinger used back in the early 1970s when they opened up to China as a way of challenging and boxing in the Soviets. By embracing an indicted war criminal, Putin, and making clear who is the boss in that Kremlin room, Xi Jinping has put the West on the back foot. 

Secondly, Xi is using the growing standoff with the United States as a way of putting his own house in more order, using the world stage as a reminder to his own people of how his leadership abroad seeks to make this China’s century. Any view of China is surely tempered by the memory of the Tiananmen Square uprising, and massacre, in 1989. 

Back at the Kremlin, Gorbachev’s politburo had unleashed freedom of thought, even if they couldn’t put food on the table. By contrast, we saw the stubborn intransigence of the Chinese. In response to Tiananmen, beyond the bullets and the chilling crackdown, they put much more than food on the table — a house, a car, a second child — but they never unlocked the door on freedom.

Yet in the past couple of years, as Xi and his party machine struggled badly, at times ineptly, with the Covid-19 pandemic of their own making, the hawks and doves see signs of Tiananmen revisited. From remote Urumqi in the north-west to Shanghai in the East, demonstrations and protests have hit China. Eyewitness accounts on the ground report the young taking to the streets in Beijing at year’s end. They lit candles for those who died — unnecessarily, they said — in Xi’s “Zero-Covid” programme. Then take in the pensioners of Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid nightmare, protesting noisily about their health care. Or workers at the world’s biggest iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, battling with riot police to be paid their year-end bonuses. 

Then factor in an economy, set to recover in 2023, but fractured by the kind of crises Communist China has never let us see before. Youth unemployment is at a record high — 20 per cent plus in urban centres. A housing market bubble has devalued new homes owned by millions. Add climate change, and China’s worst drought in 60 years in 2022, which translated into transport networks collapsing and food shortages. 

No wonder Xi Jinping drums on the message of food and self-sufficiency. “The Chinese people’s rice bowl must be firmly held in their hands at all times,” said Xi shortly before leaving for Moscow. Then he issued one of those age-old Communist directives: “and rice contained in the bowl must be mainly China-grown.” 

Xi has served notice that there can be no peace without him

It is not surprising that he pushes another constant message at home: that the West, specifically the United States, is seeking “complete containment …encirclement” of China, so justifying his expansion of the military. 

On another critical front, oil, China is the world’s number importer. Naturally, Xi made the most of the recent peace accord between two longtime enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, given China’s role in brokering that. Indeed he oversaw the signing himself in Beijing.

Reality check: Xi Jinping has been strategically savvy, taking on the role of global powerbroker, whether it is asserting himself in the Middle East, or as peacemaker with his proposals to end the war in Ukraine. His plan didn’t even mention ceasefire or withdrawal, but it still had Ukraine’s President Zelensky seeking facetime with him. 

The shame is that the West seems reluctant to do likewise. Xi has served notice that there can be no peace without him, whatever the West wants to say about his real intentions. Here you see the hawks signalling open confrontation, the doves urging engagement.

Why not recognise what is at work here? He is a politician who perhaps diverts attention from the mood at home by launching initiatives abroad. How often have we seen that playbook in the West? Why not engage with the world’s new go-to global player? As I have argued in these pages, the climate crisis demands that conversation, given China’s lead role in impacting our planet. Why not insist that he come to the table with his Ukraine peace plan and bring his best friend Putin with him? Why not stare him down and offer serious warning of what the West can and will do if he moves on Taiwan? Quite simply, instead of being frightened by Xi’s China, why not challenge him, engage him?

Because. Because. You hear the foreign policy establishment in the West offer any number of reasons why this standoff has become a non-dialogue of the deaf. Likewise, you hear their warnings, threats, condemnations of the other side. The world then sounds black and white, right and wrong. We need to understand where the other side lives, how they view the many issues, and then — wait for it — negotiate. Xi Jinping looks and sounds like a man not so much in a hurry, but with a strategy, and he’s changing our world faster than we want to admit.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover