This article is part of the Facing China series.
Michael Schuman is the author of Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World (PublicAffairs, 2020).
HONG KONG It is too easy to blame Donald Trump for the turmoil in the news. The trade wars of US presidents and hostility towards multilateral institutions are very visible challenges to the international order that has prevailed since the end of World War II.
The fundamental changes taking place in China, where President Xi Jinping has also radically deviated from the fundamentals that governed the country’s political, economic and foreign policies for decades, are perhaps more significant, but less obvious, leading him into a surprising new direction. .
Xi seems to believe such changes are necessary to make China a superpower capable of influencing the world stage. The implications could shape world affairs for decades to come. Yet in most European capitals, what Xi has accomplished is only weakly recognized and is a danger not only to the economic and security interests of the continents, but also to the very ideals he holds dear.
Europeans need to decide what role they want to play in a world turning in uncertain directions.
Xi, the son of a senior Communist Party politician, speaks a lot like his predecessors with promises of reform and an emphasis on peaceful development.
But the China he runs is a very different country than it was in the 1990s or 2000s, when the leaders of the United States and Europe hoped that Beijing could be pushed to open up and integrate smoothly and eventually. democratically in the world order created by the West.
Xi has all but ended pro-market liberalization, and in his place has stepped up state-run programs aimed at protecting and nurturing Chinese champions capable of excluding Western competitors from high-tech industries.
Xi also does not promote the globalization of Chinese business and finance in the same way Beijing has done in the past. He prefers more insular policies aimed at self-reliance or projects he can more easily control, such as his Belt and Road infrastructure building initiative, which is to a large extent an extension of China’s public sector.
In government, Xi, while certainly not omnipotent, has eliminated or sidelined political competitors and created a one-man personality cult unseen since the days of Mao Zedongs’ “little red book”. By removing term limits from the Chinese constitution, Xi has granted himself the right to rule for life.
His regime has even managed to further tarnish China, already with a horrendous human rights record. Xi is in control of an increasingly oppressive surveillance state that uses the latest technology to tighten its grip on all aspects of society, believes Orwell meets AI. The regrouping of around 1 million minority Uyghurs into what is essentially a gulag system in western China is one of the great abuses of mankind of recent times.
Abroad, Xi promotes authoritarianism more aggressively, whether through his support for illiberal governments in Iran, Venezuela, Belarus and elsewhere, or through his regimes in more aggressive attempts to pressure journalists, academics and foreign companies to censor criticism of China.
Beijing’s imposition of a security law on Hong Kong, which clearly violates its deal with the UK to hand over the former colonys to Chinese authorities, shows how Xi is prepared to risk international condemnation to stamp out democratic values.
And yet, despite the growing mountain of evidence that Xis New China poses a long-term threat to political and economic interests in the West, most European leaders continue to party as they did in 1999. In a recent interview with POLITICO German Economic Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier defended his government’s lukewarm response to the crackdown in Hong Kong by saying that I have always been convinced and still believe that change can be achieved through trade.
Perhaps Altmaier deserves kudos for his unwavering idealism. But the commentary also shows incredible naivety, shocking ignorance of current affairs, or worst of all, deep cynicism, which can be relied on supposedly bred Germans to sell more Volkswagens at the expense of human freedom.
Moral aside, by clinging to an outdated perception of China, Europe is depriving itself of a critical role in the evolving world order Xi is creating. Europe is becoming a victim of determined events in Beijing and Washington, trapped between the two powers which twist them to choose a side.
As the United States escalates its confrontation with China, American policymakers are spewing in frustration that their longtime European allies do not join them in their freshly dug foxhole, armed and ready to face the latest totalitarian threat. Yet European leaders have been crippled by fears that a vindictive Communist regime could take revenge on their country’s economic interests in China if they choose the wrong side.
This is exactly the wrong approach. Clearly, Europe has the clout to influence the direction this new world is taking. Taken together, the 27 members of the European Union rival the United States in importance to the Chinese economy. Yet Europe is wasting that leverage by not speaking with one voice, allowing Beijing to divide the continent on contentious issues such as telecommunications giant Huawei and Belt and Road.
The task facing Europe now is to find that voice. Europeans need to decide what role they want to play in a world turning in uncertain directions. Maybe that will mean girding yourself up for a fight for freedom in the 21st century. (Some Europeans seem ready to take a stand. Watch how the small Czech Republic fends off threats from Beijing about a delegation being sent to Taiwan.) Or maybe Europe can find a middle way between the United States and China, to play the role of broker of power, or even become a bridge.
But leaving such questions unanswered leaves Europe vulnerable to rejection into a new world order dictated by others. Living in the past will not save Europe from the future.
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