American presidents have a habit of describing their Chinese counterparts in terms of awe. A fawning Richard Nixon said to Mao Zedong that the chairman’s writings had “changed the world.” To Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping was a string of flattering adjectives: “smart, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly.” Bill Clinton described Jiang Zemin as a “visionary” and “a man of extraordinary intellect.”
President Donald Trump is no less wowed. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping, is “probably the most powerful” China has had in a century.
Trump may be right. Were it not political suicide for an American president to say so, moreover, he might plausibly have added: “Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader.”
To be sure, China’s economy is still second in size to America’s and its army, though rapidly gaining muscle, pales in comparison. Economic heft and military hardware are not everything, however. The leader of the free world has a narrow, transactional approach to foreigners and seems unable to enact his agenda at home. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but its leader is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence.
The president of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad. His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao—and, whereas Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth.
On his numerous foreign tours, Xi presents himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused and troubled world. Trump’s failings have made this much easier. At Davos in January Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalization, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved. At least, they thought, one great power was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Trump would not.
Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up. His “Belt and Road Initiative” may be puzzlingly named, but its message is clear: Hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help vast swathes of the world to prosper. That is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the postwar days of the Marshall Plan in western Europe, which was considerably smaller.
Xi also is projecting what for China is unprecedented military power abroad. This year he opened the country’s first foreign military base, in Djibouti. He has sent the Chinese navy on maneuvers ever farther afield, including in July on Nato’s doorstep in the Baltic Sea alongside Russia’s fleet. China says that it would never invade other countries to impose its will—apart from Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, not a country. Its base-building efforts are to support peacekeeping, anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, it says. As for the artificial islands with military-grade runways it is building in the South China Sea, these are purely defensive.
Unlike President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to subvert democracy and destabilize the West. Still, he is too tolerant of troublemaking by his nuke-brandishing ally, North Korea, and some of China’s military behavior alarms its neighbors, not only in southeast Asia but also in India and Japan.
At home Xi’s instincts are at least as illiberal as those of his Russian counterpart, however. He believes that even a little political permissiveness could prove not only his own undoing, but that of his regime. The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences. He mistrusts not only the enemies his purges have created but also China’s fast-growing, smartphone-wielding middle class and the shoots of civil society that were sprouting when he took over. He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, and to keep the commanding heights of the economy firmly under the party’s thumb.
All this will make China less rich than it should be, and a more stifling place to live. Human-rights abuses have grown worse under Xi, with barely a murmur of complaint from other world leaders. Liberals once mourned the “10 lost years” of reform under Xi’s predecessor, President Hu Jintao. Those 10 years have become 15, and may exceed 20.
Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4 billion Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favorite terms, the “new normal” of Chinese politics. It is not normal, however, it is dangerous. No one should have that much power.
© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (October 14). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.