In China, Xi risks overconfidence that could stoke tensions in Taiwan

During his decade in power in China, Xi Jinping tried to inspire confidence in his people, telling them that the country is doing very well compared to the chaotic West.

He told the younger generation that China can finally look on the world as an equal. “It’s not so backward anymore,” he said last year.

“The east rises and the west declines,” he said, at a time when the United States and other Western nations seemed mired in high Covid infection rates, racial tensions and conflict. other problems.

Mr. Xi told China’s 1.4 billion people to be proud of its culture, its system of governance and its future as a great power, which add to its characteristic political philosophy, sometimes called the “doctrine of trust”.

While much of this pride is well placed, it also breeds arrogance. This gives Mr. Xi a rationale for untying the open-door policies that helped China emerge from international isolation and abject poverty under Mao. It has also given a boost to hardline nationalists who trumpet Chinese superiority and are now calling for a military confrontation with Taiwan after President Nancy Pelosi’s visit.

Their strident rhetoric shows how little they think about American power and how easily they think China would win a great power competition with the United States. This makes more moderate nationalists uneasy, raising fears that Beijing will feel compelled to act decisively.

Such posture and nationalist sentiment increase the risk of war, especially as China establishes a new status quo with Taiwan, announcing on Tuesday that it will continue air and sea exercises around island democracy.

And in the context of the US-China rivalry, this tendency to overconfidence could also prove to be a weakness for Beijing, blinding it to its own challenges. It could be a boon for the United States, if it can pull itself together.

The Chinese people, not the government, have every reason to be proud and confident of their achievements over the past four decades.

They lifted themselves out of poverty and created some of the most successful businesses in the world. They have made their country a manufacturing colossus and the largest consumer market for cars, smartphones and many luxury brands. They built new skyscrapers, subways, highways and high-speed railways, some of the best in the world.

The United States, on the other hand, seemed mired in its many domestic problems and often too paralyzed to deal with its problems.

Before the pandemic, I had grown accustomed to Chinese returning from trips to the United States and telling me how backward, crummy, and disappointing they found it.

Some of them refused to take the New York subway, saying it was dirty, smelly and full of service disruptions. They were appalled by the lack of public transportation in Los Angeles and the poor state of freeways in Silicon Valley. They didn’t understand why wealthy San Francisco was plagued with homelessness. They were very disturbed by armed violence and the inability of laws to control it.

Most of these people were not nationalists. They were educated elites who had grown up in poverty, benefited from China’s openness and saw the United States as an ideal. The United States impressed and disappointed them at the same time.

But for many other Chinese, especially the younger ones, the idea of ​​a rising East and a declining West is an accepted fact. News programs and social media are filled with such dogma, and political science classes, at Xi’s request, teach it.

Yan Xuetong, a professor of international studies at Tsinghua University with a nationalist bent, told a conference in Beijing in January that Chinese students need to know more about the world. They often hold a binary view, believing that “only China is righteous and innocent while all other countries, especially Western countries, are ‘evil’ and Westerners are bound to hate China,” he said. he declares. Students “generally have a very strong sense of superiority and confidence” in international relations, he said, and often “treat other countries with a condescending mindset.”

“They use ‘wishful thinking’ in international affairs, believing that it is very easy for China to achieve its foreign policy goals,” Professor Yan said. He added that they also tend to believe conspiracy theories and other unsubstantiated opinions found online.

Many young people criticize him in turn, accusing him of condescension.

Chinese propaganda has always tried to highlight China’s achievements and the West’s failures. On December 30, 1958, as China entered the Great Famine that would lead to the death of millions from starvation, the front page of the People’s Daily reported that the country was succeeding in industrial and agricultural production. In the international news section, stories about socialist countries like North Korea were celebratory, while those about the capitalist West were all about their economic and political woes.

I grew up reading a newspaper column called “Socialism is good. Capitalism is bad. Every week, millions of young readers like me consumed biased articles about a starving American girl or a North Korean boy living a happy life. We believed them, until China opened up and we realized that our socialist country was impoverished.

This changed to some degree in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Chinese Communist Party allowed some investigative reporting and public criticism online. But under Mr Xi, everything about China exudes “positive energy”, including economic forecasts, while the West, particularly the United States, is increasingly portrayed as bad or in decline.

State broadcaster Chinese Central Television, keen to pay tribute to the party for the country’s successes, made a documentary titled “Amazing China” in 2018. In a section on achievements in eradicating poverty, the film showed Mr. Xi sitting among farmers, talking about how their income had increased twenty-fold in 20 years.

“Who else could have done that?” he asked rhetorically. “Only the Communist Party could have done this. Only our socialist system could have done that. It couldn’t have been done anywhere else. »

But capitalist countries like Japan and South Korea had experienced similar economic transformations decades earlier.

Over the past two years, numerous state reports and theoretical essays have pitted China’s orderly governance against the “messy West,” citing the United States’ mishandling of the pandemic, its widespread protests against the racism and its many mass shootings. When the US and a few other Western countries struggled with their Covid responses, state media and many Chinese social media influencers urged them to “copy China’s homework”.

Wang Jisi, a professor of international studies at Peking University and a leading expert on US-China relations, complained at a peace forum in July that CCTV’s main news program was broadcasting at least two articles about the United States every night, and both were negative. .

“They are either about the United States having another mass shooting, another example of racial tensions, or their haphazard handling of the pandemic,” he said. “Why can’t we talk about what’s happening in Africa or Latin America and not talk about the bad things in the United States?

In an interview with an academic journal this year, Wang tried to correct the idea that the United States is in decline. He argued that after America’s international position experienced a relative decline between 1995 and 2011, its share of global output increased in the decade after 2011. There is not enough evidence to conclude that the US economy is in irreversible decline, he said, although he acknowledged that soft power had waned.

For China, the danger of drinking its own Kool-Aid propaganda is that it stops looking at its own problems while exaggerating America’s weaknesses.

The Communist Party’s aversion to truth and obsession with control backfires. Mr. Xi’s zero Covid policy, which relies on mass testing and lockdowns, is causing enormous damage to the Chinese economy. But as no criticism is allowed, the country is largely accepting tough restrictions as much of the world is getting back to normal.

Despite all its problems, the American democratic system still seems to work, with checks and balances that allow different viewpoints to prevail and new strategic approaches to emerge. The 2020 presidential election is an example of this, with the return to power of the Democrats. So did Kansas’ vote to preserve abortion rights protections in its Constitution, after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

Congress recently passed the CHIPS and Science Act to help global semiconductor makers move into the country to better compete with China. And President Biden’s administration works better with allies than his predecessor’s.

“When people stop queuing for visas in front of US consulates,” said Mr. Wang, the professor, “then the United States is in decline.”

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