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One man's island
As the world becomes more hostile and resources become evermore scarce, Xi Jinping may have decided that now is the right time to turn inwards.
Amid news that Xi Jinping would be attending neither the G20 summit nor climate talks in Glasgow, many outlets have rushed to point out that China’s leader has not left the country in almost two years. While this isn’t the most titillating news in isolation - especially given China’s zero-covid policy - some commentators believe that this is part of a bigger policy plan, one that will see China turning inwards in the coming years.
It may be hard to believe, given the high profile nature of the Belt and Road initiative, as well as China’s willingness to help out developing nations during the Covid crisis by sending them vaccines manufactured in the mainland. China has also been making a lot of aggressive foreign policy moves recently, and many have speculated (including this newsletter) that we’re currently in the midst of a new Cold War, and that a real war may indeed break out soon.
But do these actions necessarily suggest an open and engaged China? If seen from a functional perspective, the Belt and Road schemes could be interpreted as rather callous means for exporting Chinese goods and labour, while building a series of ports, railways and highways to bring resources back home. As for foreign policy, China sees issues such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea as domestic issues, not international ones. The fact that they’re pushing back against Western allies while trying to work with Russia to handle the Taliban in Afghanistan just serves to confuse the situation further.
Perhaps Zoom diplomacy is just the future of China’s engagement with the world, which would allow the CCP to keep other powers at arm’s length and focus on problems at home. In fact, when looking at historical precedents, one may argue that relative isolation is China's preferred state, especially as this usually involved other nations being tributary states and treating China as the ‘centre’. But is China trying to return to the old glory days by turning developing nations into vassal-allies, or is Xi just too preoccupied with keeping the party (and himself) in power to bother with anyone else and their petty issues like climate change?
A history of silence
As mentioned, if China were to adopt an isolationist policy, it wouldn’t be a new thing. In fact, previous turns inwards have followed a similar pattern to what we’re seeing now: China wishes to engage with the global system in a manner favourable to its own interests, sending out missions to possible allies, and shunning or antagonising potential enemies.
For at least 500 years during the Ming and Qing dynasties, China had been a relatively closed off country. Once it did open up, the consequences were disastrous (I feel like we’re always talking about the Opium Wars in this newsletter, but it’s relevant, I promise). Until around the middle of the 19th century, the dominant neo-Confucian ideology in China held that “national security could only be found in isolation and stipulates that whoever wished to enter into relations with China must do so as China's vassal.” Thus China did not seek “conquest or universal dominion, for it imposed nothing on foreign peoples who chose to remain outside the Chinese world. It sought peace and security, with both of which international relations were held incompatible.”
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Chinese did embark on some expeditions to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean from 1405 to 1433, known broadly as the Zheng He voyages after the eunuch who commanded them. A unique and much debated part of Chinese history, the voyages reached as far as the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, and saw China become the preeminent naval power in 15th century Asia.
Reasons for starting the voyages included: “eradicating the roots of coastal criminality, providing employment for mariners and entrepreneurs, reaching overseas markets with Chinese products, securing desired goods for Chinese consumers, enlarging the sphere of tribute states, and displaying imperial majesty in the southern seas.” If all that sounds pretty familiar, it’s because China is currently undertaking similar practices, but in a modern guise. China seeks to police the South China Sea, as we discussed in the last newsletter, as well as create jobs for Chinese contractors through Belt and Road funding, and make allies and export markets out of developing nations.
But what do the Ming voyages have to do with Chinese isolation? Well, it can certainly be assumed that China wishes to regain its place as the cultural, economic, and political centre of Asia, and its recent trade dealings with Australia, the US, and the EU demonstrate that it wishes to return to a time when China was able to deal with other nations on its own terms. This is why China always balks at perceived intervention in ‘domestic affairs’. It wants to be recognised as the biggest and baddest, and hopes that will keep the wolves at bay.
If we compare something like the Belt and Road to the Ming voyages, the goals of the two ruling states appear to be very similar. Like the Yongle Emperor, the current CCP does not seek territorial control (**over territories it does not already consider part of China**), but rather economic and diplomatic advantages. It deliberately extends credit, engages in trade, and builds projects in countries that are developing, and could be interpreted as being ‘tributary’ or ‘vassal’ states. In the past, China went out to the world, engaged as it saw fit, made sure everyone knew who they were and what they were capable of, but did not seek to influence beyond that.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), foreigners were not permitted to enter the mainland at all without the emperor’s permission. Western traders from Portugal, Holland, and the UK were forced to stay in a small, walled base in Canton during the trading season, and make a home in Macau for the rest of the year. It was only after the Opium Wars that the West was really able to engage with China on favourable terms. For the likes of the UK, it meant balancing trade deficits. For China, it meant a perceived 100 years of humiliation, the death of the imperial system, and, eventually, the rise of the CCP. Tack on the Treaty of Nanking, First Sino-Japanese War, Second Sino-Japanese War, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, and the current US-China relations appear to be less of a blip and more like a comfortable status quo.
When taking these events into consideration, China’s mistrust of the West is understandable, and perhaps even a little justified. A distant attitude and outright rejection of Western rapprochement was certainly the norm during the Maoist years. But a desire to be dominant while also being left alone is not the only reason that China is more inward looking these days. Though there are plenty of external problems to keep them occupied, China’s leaders are more focused than ever on managing emerging crises at home, as well as keeping a lid on several pots that seem like they're about to boil over.
Some of the problems the Chinese leadership is facing are long-term and ongoing. Corruption has plagued the party since it took power, and is something that Xi has pledged to actively combat. Those in the know, however, have pointed out that the party not only spares those who are in favour with the very top of the leadership, but that the anti-corruption campaign is more of a plan to consolidate Xi’s power than to actually help the people. Xi is now fighting a battle on two fronts - one for the party’s legitimacy, and one for his own. Other long-term problems include food security and the demographic crisis slowly creeping in as China’s average age crawls up. These are issues that the CCP will have to keep an eye on forever if it wants to stay in power.
Some problems are only just emerging, such as the energy crisis, an increasingly disengaged youth and young adult population, and extreme weather events taking place across the country. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is not, as it turns out, the tide that lifts all ships.
The CCP’s methods to overcome these problems are essentially to be increasingly authoritarian: stricter internet control, forced reduction of food waste, clamp down on internet companies, control of wealth, changing birthing laws, limiting youth gaming time, Uyghur ‘reeducation camps’, more grassroots party control, Xi Jinping thought taught in the curriculum.
Earlier this year, China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), held a meeting in the city of Wenzhou to discuss the creation of a “comprehensive cyber governance system” (网络综合治理体系). The purpose of this system, as one outlet puts it, “is not primarily about data privacy or security, or protecting the population from such ills as online fraud. This is fundamentally about ensuring regime security through the ideological control of cyberspace. The same section of the political report talks about “creating a clear online space” (营造清朗的网络空间), a CCP euphemism for ensuring that online content is positive and uncritical.” Slowly but surely, the CCP is getting back to its Maoist roots by being as much a part of the everyday lives of its citizens as possible.
With all these and other problems in mind, China has no time to focus on other countries’ priorities. Tackling climate issues now means hindering growth by restricting the use of fossil fuels, something that first world countries were allowed to do with impunity. From China’s perspective, the West is once again trying to force China to exist on its terms, and perhaps more insidiously, trying to undermine the regime, as they did with the Qing.
Closing the door?
I’m not bringing up China’s imperial history randomly, by the way. A callback to the successful, heroic, or impressive achievements of previous dynasties is something that modern Chinese rulers do quite often. In a speech delivered in 2018, Xi mentions famous philosophers such as Confucius and Laozi by name, lists China’s top 20 historical achievements by dynasty, and even hints at the Ming voyages by referring to the fact that China had “explored vast expanse of territorial seas” in the past.
In the same speech, Xi also said the CCP will continue “promoting high-quality economic development and developing a modernized economy to increase China's economic and technological strength… improving people's living standards, strengthening and developing new approaches to social governance, resolutely winning the battle against poverty, promoting social fairness and justice, making steady progress in ensuring people's access to childcare, education, employment, medical services, elderly care, housing, and social assistance.”
It is clear that Xi’s main aim is to turn China into a fully developed nation, a goal mentioned in all the pledges and speeches made by Xi and the CCP when discussing the nation’s outlook for 2025 and 2050. Surely this would preclude isolating oneself from international developments though? Propaganda from China to the world suggests that it plans to become more engaged, not less. Fearmongers would agree. There’s been no shortage of books, articles, and speeches written over the past decade that argue China is determined to shape the world in its image through the manipulation of trade, currency, and the internet.
In reality, China has never been completely isolated or self-sufficient. It has always interacted with states near and far, whether seeing them as barbarians, vassals, or equals. But the idea of China as a self-sufficient, self-contained state has been a dream of its rulers since the Hongwu emperor took back China from the Mongols and established the Ming dynasty. And it is a dream that China’s leaders still hold today, as shown by Xi’s speech.
To reach this ideal China, its leaders will prioritise themselves and the needs of their people over anything or anyone else. This means not closing the door entirely, but taking the lessons from both the Ming and Qing dynasties, and not letting foreigners influence the Chinese beyond what is tolerable. What Western leaders need to consider is how this attitude will impact upon their nations’ own production and consumption. We are already seeing the effect of China’s control over certain raw materials ripple down the supply chains.
Perhaps the best policy for the international community is to focus on prioritising its own needs and securing access to increasingly scarce resources, lest they risk turning into vassals of a rejuvenated Middle Kingdom.
China Media Project, Seeking Total Cyber Control
Foreign Affairs, Washington Is Avoiding the Tough Questions on Taiwan and China
George Soros, Remarks delivered at the World Economic Forum
Hamilton and Ohlberg, Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World
John K. Fairbank, “Tributary Trade and China's Relations with the West”