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Görlach Global: Hint of truth in Xi's criticism of the US

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
March 8, 2023

Chinese leader Xi Jinping recently accused the US of leading a campaign of "encirclement, containment and suppression" of China. Alexander Görlach says he is right on one point.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden
The rhetoric between China and US become increasingly dramatic of lateImage: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced rare direct criticism of the US as part of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing. He and his new foreign minister, Qin Gang, both recently accused the US of implementing a systematic policy of "containment and suppression," threatening "catastrophic consequences" if this were to continue.

For a while, China's US policy seemed headed in the direction of detente. Qin Gang, who has served as ambassador to the US, was supposed to build bridges. But as soon as a Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the US earlier this year, it became clear that relations had taken a different course. A meeting between Qin Gang and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was called off.

Now, according to Chinese state media, Xi Jinping has told the National People's Congress that the US and its allies are encircling the People's Republic and hampering its economic progress. He is clearly mixing elements that do not necessarily belong together: the power of alliances and military strength on the one hand, and economic strength on the other.

National People's Congress begins in Beijing

Economic interdependencies

It is largely thanks to the US that China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, a move that allowed it to become a veritable player in the world economy at the height of globalization in the 2000s.

Washington was not acting altruistically and always had its own economic interests in mind but the development helped China, the world's factory, lift millions and millions of people out of abject poverty. Economic interdependence has existed between the two nations ever since. China needs the free world's markets of to sell its products, while the free world needs China to manufacture its products cheaply.

The cost of growth

With or without geopolitical rivalry, the two states found themselves at a moment of crisis that Asian heavyweights such as Taiwan and South Korea have also been confronted with: When a country's productivity rises, so does the cost of living and thus the cost of production.

Alexander Görlach - Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
DW's Alexander Görlach Image: Hong Kiu Cheng

The rise of Taiwan and South Korea began with major changes in the agricultural sector, which then led to textiles and other sectors of production, until the two ultimately grew to become major high-tech players. Today, they are among the world's top microchip producers. But from Taipei to Seoul, life has become so expensive that young people are becoming less likely to have children and are beginning to fundamentally question the economic growth model of the past.

Economic power and dictatorship

China's Communist Party had intended for the People's Republic to follow a similar path but to remain a "democratic dictatorship," unlike Taiwan and South Korea, which went from military dictatorships to democracies during their economic modernization in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the plan misfired: Productivity in China is no longer rising. In Xi's surveillance state, it is loyalty that counts, not competence, and people who live in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing cannot be drivers of innovation.

The country's uniformity has long since reached the big tech companies as well. Instead of using technology made in China to promote the well-being and prosperity of the population, Beijing is developing increasingly pernicious surveillance and military technologies, which has led to the US wanting to ban them. Thus, the US is in a sense impeding the rise of China, as Xi said. But in doing so, it is doing itself and the world a favor because one look at Xinjiang shows where the country as a whole is heading. In this region of northwestern China, Xi Jinping and his cronies are effectively committing genocide against 10 million Uyghurs, who are deprived of their rights and monitored at their every turn, living in an open-air prison. Some 1 million are languishing in "reeducation" camps.

Regional neighbors seek alliances with US

Diplomatically and militarily, Xi's and Qin's statements reveal that the People's Republic is neither a regional leader nor a superpower. The US has sustained alliances with many of China's neighbors for decades: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. All of these countries have recently sought closer proximity to the US as China's ruler becomes increasingly aggressive, threatening China's neighbors with military escalation if they do support his territorial claims, building new bases in the South China Sea, and investing heavily in the military.

India and China already exchanged fire in 2020, with dead soldiers on both sides. The fear of China's vassal North Korea has also led to a rapprochement between erstwhile rivals Japan and South Korea, which are both allies of the US.

Xi Jinping is thus lamenting the fact that the countries in China's vicinity are taking their fate into their own hands and trying to shape their future in accordance with the rights granted them by the UN Charter. Enter Taiwan, whose status remains unresolved. United Nations Resolution 2578, which states that the People's Republic is the only representative of China in the UN, leaves open the future of Taiwan, which has never been under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping has said that his "rejuvenation" policy will not be complete until Taiwan is annexed into the People's Republic. But just because an autocrat wants something, that does not mean it so.

Taiwan is a key issue

Beijing's strategy regarding Taiwan can be surmised from the way the Chinese Communist Party has behaved since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine: In a strategy paper published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, it is made clear that China would prefer a Russian victory. In barely veiled terms, NATO is blamed for the war, while Ukraine and Russia are held equally responsible.

This is wrong: Russia attacked Ukraine. The free world is supporting Kyiv against the aggressor, in accordance with the Responsibility to Protect norm. But by constantly repeating falsehoods, Beijing hopes that over time it will be able to shape the debate equally and impose its view of the situation.

In the same way, by constantly referring to the US presence in Asia, Beijing wants to present China as a victim and to ensure that any future military escalation in the western Pacific is regarded as an act of self-defense.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a research associate at the Internet Institute at Oxford University. After residencies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, this part of the world — particularly the rise of China and what it means for the free world — has been his primary area of focus. He's also held various positions at Harvard and at Cambridge University.

This article was translated from German.

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