“Hide your strength, bide your time”
These words of wisdom were the guiding philosophy of Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy, a man often called the “Architect of modern China.” It was his policies that helped China to become an economic giant. Deng’s policy of non-confrontation and an open market helped him to achieve what economists often call China’s economic miracle. Every successor stuck to the policies laid down by Deng until Xi Jinping came to power. Right from the beginning, Xi’s policies were a complete antithesis of what Deng and his successors framed for China.
Xi’s policies can be summed up in a line;
“Show off your strength, before your time”.
Xi Jinping inherited a China with a throbbing economy, friendly foreign relations, and a global image of a prosperous nation. And, 9 years down the line, China’s economy plummeted, engaged in disputes with all of its neighbors, and a global image of a hegemonic nation. All of this changed due to Xi’s policies, or, I say, blunders. Today, we are going to talk about major blunders of Emperor Xi that proved fatal for China and the world.
Blunder 1: Xi Jinping – Dictator for Life
- After Mao Zedong died at the age of 82 in 1976, his successors deliberately crafted a system that they hoped would prevent the rise of another dictator. Mao had turned against other leaders and put the nation at risk through irrational schemes. Mao’s former comrade-in-arms Deng Xiaoping did not blame Mao as an individual. Instead, Deng targeted the systemic source of the problem: “Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of collective leadership.”
- He believed in the principle that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Therefore, Deng and his colleagues introduced fixed terms of office, term limits, and a mandatory retirement age; delegated authority from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to government agencies under the State Council (the cabinet of the People’s Republic of China [PRC]); and started holding regular meetings of CCP institutions such as the Central Committee as well as the Politburo and its Standing Committee (the inner rings of power). All these moves were meant to decentralize authority, regularise political life, and check dictatorial power.
- Yet today, after decades of collective leadership, Xi Jinping is taking China back to personalistic leadership. By the end of his first five-year term, Xi had consolidated greater personal power than anyone had ever held. Xi broke the precedent by not promoting a successor-in-training at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017. And in March 2018 the National People’s Congress changed the state constitution to abolish the two-term limit for the president. A clear sign that Xi is planning to stay on beyond 2023.
- Xi Jinping has seized control of the Party and the state (including the military and police). Within the party, Xi acts as if he is personally in charge of everything. He chairs eight of the leading small groups, including the National Security Commission. Xi also handles internal security directly, thereby reducing the chances of a coup. So practically, Xi ticked all the boxes to become the new dictator of China. And that’s bad for China and for the world as dictatorship comes with several downsides.
- Dictators are bad at hearing the persuasion of opinion. And a single-party line is particularly dangerous when an elite is trying to run an economy in a delicate world environment. The major drawback of dictatorial power is that it dissolves all course correction mechanisms, and therefore, no system of accountability and check and balance exists. Dictators are prone to believing their own propaganda. That breeds overconfidence, overreach, and poor decision-making. Most important of all, dictatorships are terrible at transition. Political stability is absolutely crucial to investment, both from within China and from the outside. China’s decades of political stability have made the investment climate in the country highly attractive. That can’t continue indefinitely – especially not for anyone who worries about what will happen after Xi.
BLUNDER 2 – ZERO COVID POLICY
- Xi Jinping’s flagship Zero-Covid strategy to defeat the pandemic is unsustainable and harmful not only for the Chinese economy but also has serious repercussions for global inflation. The World Health Organization, as well as several other economists and multinational corporations, have condemned China’s rash decision to curb the rise in COVID.
- Maersk, the world’s second-largest shipping company, has suggested that the lockdown will severely impact truck services and transport costs. It perceives a rise in transport costs at an unexpected level. Around 90% of the world’s goods are carried overseas. As freight charges increase, it could cause a negative economic impact on global trade. Businesses will not tolerate this unfortunate development and will pass the cost on to customers. Due to heavy traffic restrictions at the Shanghai port, logistics companies have advised vessel operators to offload the products at other ports. Ultimately, customers have to bear the additional shipment and storage charges. Therefore the increase in freight charges could create economic repercussions on global trade.
- China has imposed draconian measures. It trapped Shanghai’s 25 million people at home for weeks as China combats its worst outbreak since the pandemic began. The Shanghai lockdown has caused outrage and rare protests, while movement in the capital, Beijing, has been slowly restricted. Due to heavy restrictions on trade activities, forecasters say economic growth in the current quarter will fall by as much as 1.8 % over a year ago, from an anemic 4.8 % in the last quarter. The full-year growth rate is expected to be 3.8 %, well below the ruling party’s official 5.5 % target and less than half of 2021’s 8.1 % expansion.
- More than 460,000 Chinese firms closed permanently as the coronavirus pandemic pummelling the world’s second-largest economy. Shenzhen, the biggest city in the manufacturing hub of Guangdong province, often called China’s Silicon Valley, shuts production.
- Poor management and strict COVID restrictions impacted global companies from Europe, Japan, and South Korea. These companies are either based in China or have manufacturing units there, any disruption in supply chains can have a serious impact on their businesses.
- Bettina Schoen-Behanzin, vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, has described the current situation as “gloomy”. European business leaders in China have warned that Beijing’s Zero-Covid policy is threatening foreign investment. The Chinese services sector plunged to its weakest level of activity in over two years because of strict lockdown measures. Twice as many European businesses are weighing a shift of investment out of China than were doing so at the start of the year, according to a survey published by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China. Around 23 % of the 372 European companies that responded to the survey said they were considering a move out of China, the highest level in a decade, said chamber’s president Jörg Wuttke. Around 78 percent said China was now less attractive for investment because of its Covid-19 policies.
BLUNDER 3 – BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE
- Xi Jinping’s brainchild and flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is at risk of losing its momentum. The economic viability of the project has always been a bone of contention among economists. But now even the participant countries have started halting their projects under the BRI and looking for alternate schemes available in the market.
- Xi Jinping launched BRI in 2013, aiming to harness China’s strengths in financing and infrastructure construction to “build a broad community of shared interests” throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
- Through this project, Xi had a dream of reviving the Chinese silk route in the modern world. But if the trend continues, Xi’s dream will remain a dream. China’s unsustainable and economically unviable projects under BRI strangle a country’s economy into a Chinese debt trap. It also endangers the nation’s sovereignty as China grabs strategic assets of the country in case of non-payment of debt. A classic example of this is the Hambantota port of Sri Lanka, grabbed by China for 99 years.
- Concerned about the Chinese debt trap, several countries backed away from BRI projects. Over $11.58 billion in projects in Malaysia have been canceled from 2013–2021. Nearly $1.5 billion was canceled in Kazakhstan and more than $1 billion in Bolivia.
- Sierra Leone, one of Africa’s developing countries, has scrapped plans to build a China-funded $318-million airport outside the capital, Freetown.
- Myanmar’s government also cut the price for a Chinese-backed deepwater port in the conflict-ridden state of Rakhine from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion, citing concerns the initial cost would leave the Southeast Asian nation in a lot of debt.
- Bangladesh canceled an expansion of a major highway that was meant to be built by China Harbour Engineering Company. It was after the Chinese firm allegedly offered a government official a bribe.
- Even China’s vassal state Pakistan had requested Beijing to shelve a joint $2 billion coal power project. It also decided that it would be reducing Chinese loans for rail projects from $8.2 billion to $6.2 billion.
- Apart from actions taken by individual countries against Xi Jinping’s debt trap policies, the United States announced a rival G7 initiative known as Build Back Better World (B3W). It will provide financial support for developing nations to build infrastructure. B3W is going to increase choice in the infrastructure financing market, which could lead to some high-profile BRI defections.
- A united western initiative with a greater degree of viability and transparency will not only deliver utility to the developing nations but will also ensure that China’s debt trap policies are kept under check.
- Today, because of Xi Jinping’s debt trap policies under BRI, countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan are in economic crisis. They are left on the verge of bankruptcy, with Sri Lanka already bankrupt. This brainchild of Xi Jinping backfired horribly. It not only gave China a bad name in the world but also put Chinese banks under a tremendous burden of doubtful loans that they could not afford in the long run.