Gloomy warnings of “high winds, choppy waters, and dangerous storms” filled the Great Hall of the People, as China’s president, Xi Jinping, took to the floor, last Sunday, to kick off the Communist Party Congress. In his two-hour-long address, Xi exhorted his 1.4 billion subjects to brace for the worst as China faces what he describes as “momentous changes of a like not seen in a century.”
The highlight of the Party conference is Xi's election to a third term as president, a feat no Chinese president has achieved since the death of Chairman Mao. The Western press has dubbed the audacious power grab a “coronation.” The Wall Street Journal warns that Xi’s ascension “will confirm China’s combination of aggressive nationalism and Communist ideology that is the single biggest threat to world freedom.”
Italian sinologist Francesco Sisci, wary of Xi’s political manoeuvring, tells Die Weltwoche, “Anyone who believes that Xi is introducing something completely new does not know China's history.”
We reach the historian as he navigates Rome's pulsating traffic. Sisci is on his way to advise the Vatican on the growing power of the Middle Kingdom and its ambitious ruler.
“Vicious circle”: Francesco Sisci with Pope Francis.
Weltwoche: In his opening speech to the Communist Party Congress, Xi pledged to turn China into a “great modern socialist country” that represents a “new choice” for humanity and an alternative to the democratic West. Signore Sisci, how strong shines the Rising Sun of the East, really?
Francesco Sisci: From our side, this rising sun may look not so bright, but it is important to see things from the Communist Party’s perspective. In his speech, Xi actually spent a long time on what, in Communist parlance, is called “party building.” Party building is the strengthening of the party and its organization. Then, he introduced this idea of “people's democracy” as an alternative to liberal democracy. Xi says people's democracy listens to people, reflects the people’s will, the people’s mood, and, therefore, it is the most effective kind of democracy available.
Weltwoche: Does the Chinese one party rule merit the appellation, “democracy”?
Sisci: I think we should not focus too much on words. From the Chinese point of view, liberal democracy is faulty. In America, a whole section of people claim that elections have been stolen and that there was cheating in elections. The Chinese observe a lot of troubles in our democratic systems — the rise of the far right, for example. Compared to that, the Chinese believe that their political system it is better than ours. We shouldn't just dismiss it as propaganda.
Weltwoche: Are the 1.4 billion Chinese truly and accurately represented by the 2,300 handpicked Communist Party delegates who flocked to Beijing?
Sisci: We have to look at this again from two sides. I fully agree that, from our point of view, the selection process of these representatives doesn't seem to be very representative at all. However, in their system, they claim that they represent the real Chinese situation. Their selection is through consultations, which, of course, are organized by the party, through the party. So, it's still a party structure. However, the party is made of 95 million people. They claim the party is fully representative of Chinese society, and, therefore, their consultative method listens better to society’s needs, unlike liberal democracies.
Weltwoche: In the end, what matters most for this rapidly rising society is economic growth. But, recently, China has shown obvious weaknesses. The state direction of capital has led to excesses and inefficiencies that have slowed the country’s growth. Economists expect GDP to grow just 3.2% this year, according a recent Reuters poll. After the dip in 2020, when COVID first hit, it will be “the worst performance since 1976.” How dangerous for China’s future are those weaknesses?
Sisci: I think they are very dangerous. You're right. This is the real fault line for the party. If they cannot find a way to push growth and economic development, the Chinese system will falter. However, in his speech, Xi Jinping took a cautious approach, claiming that, in the past ten years, the Chinese economy has doubled. He didn't have a look about the past year or two years. He had a longer term approach. Certainly, this approach now can work, but if the economy doesn't pick up in a few months, then China is going to face very, very big trouble.
Weltwoche: When China embarked on its reform project under Deng Xiaoping, in the early 1980s, there was reason to hope that China might eventually leave behind its communist past and embark on capitalism. But since Xi came to power in 2012, he has tightened his grip and become the most powerful and committed communist leader since Mao Zedong. Have Xi and China definitely turned away from Western market economics?
Sisci: I think, often, we have our timeline wrong. China is very good at long term planning. In this case, the long term planning started to move and change after the American invasion of Iraq. Since 2005, it became increasingly clear that the United States was not managing Iraq. That started to dent the Chinese trust in the American and, therefore, Western mind.
The next setback came with the 2008 financial crisis. Before that, a large consensus was that the financial economic system in America and in the West was working. The 2008 financial crisis ended that and proved to the Chinese that the Western system — financially and economically — doesn't work. Not only does it not work, it doesn't even correct its mistakes. It was a big surprise to the Chinese when there were no people punished one way or another because of the financial crisis, despite all the controversies on the lack of oversight by institutions and by banks.
That gradually, over in 2009, 2010, convinced China that America was falling apart, that its system was no longer a model, and China should stick to its own guns. In a way, Xi Jinping was the true interpreter of this new mood, and he inherited this legacy.
Weltwoche: In the past decade, Xi has crushed a lot of dissident opinions and imposed a vast censorship regime. He created an intrusive surveillance regime beyond anything that we have seen in the communist Eastern Europe.
Weltwoche: Total surveillance has become apparent in the form of Xi’s “Zero Covid” policy.
Are these draconian measures necessary to tighten the grip and bring China forward economically? Or is it a threat to growth?
Sisci: Objectively, it is a threat to this growth. It is taking a huge toll on growth. However, it is working in China, and Xi has his following because they see that the West does not work. Chinese are very practical people: “If it works, we use it. If it doesn't work, we don't use it.” They see the faults of the West as proof that their system may actually work better.
Now, we know that it's not a good enough argument. We are seeing that many problems which have not been properly tackled are growing bigger and bigger and will hinder Chinese growth and even Chinese influence in the world. However, there is a lack of an alternative outside model. Therefore, the Chinese trust their model more than they should.
Weltwoche: Xi is going for a third term. In the media, his prolongation of power is portrayed as a substantial change in leadership in communist China. By clinging to the power, is Xi turning China in a more dictatorial direction?
Sisci: Actually, I think those people who think that it's totally new don't know the history of China. Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party for over thirty years, since the '40s or even '30s, until his death in '76. Similarly, Deng Xiaoping, through the role of Chairman of the Military Commission, led the party from '78 until his death in '95, '97. This idea that Chinese leadership in the hands of Xi Jinping is completely new is flawed. What is new is how Xi Jinping is trying to achieve his goal. The other two, Mao and Deng, tried to achieve this goal through different political architectures. One was the party chairman, Mao. Deng was head of the Military Commission. The military commanded the party, so to speak.
Weltwoche: The world has witnessed an emboldened China on the international stage. Xi has occupied and militarized disputed islands in the South China Sea. There are growing tensions with India, Australia, and Japan. China is threatening Taiwan, militarily. What is China’s global military strategy?
Sisci: My sense is that China feels that its space is being encroached upon. Taiwan is drifting away. Other countries around in the region have become more vocal against China. The Chinese response has not been trying to appease. This is spiralling in a vicious circle. Countries, of course, are becoming more worried. China becomes more defensive, and so on and so forth. This, to me, points out to the biggest problem: China lacks an understanding of how the world really works and what should be the most effective ways to cope with the world. This is creating a windfall of issues and problems for China.
Weltwoche: We've seen China trying to take a neutral stance towards Russia after its invasion in Ukraine. How worried are Chinese leaders, these days, about this war waging in the center of Europe?
Sisci: My impression is they are growingly worried because they took for granted Russian assurances that the war would be over in a matter of days and that the situation would return to normal. Now, it is clear that things will not go back to normal for several years, possibly. This is a totally new environment. China doesn't know how to cope with it because it made this huge mistake of this misjudgement. This is creating a huge drama.
Weltwoche: It came as a surprise to many that the West is united against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. It’s support for Ukraine is firm, and many NATO members have increased their defense budgets. What lessons does the Chinese leadership draw from the West’s reaction to Putin’s war?
Sisci: This proves to the Chinese that they got the world and the West very wrong. They assumed that the West would split up and, basically, surrender to the Russians. This didn't happen. Not only that, but the fact that most people thought the invasion of Ukraine was impossible and actually happened changes the risk assessment on Taiwan. Now, anybody thinks such an invasion is possible. Therefore, it makes the "liberation of Taiwan" far more difficult than it was before. Taiwan, now, is further out of the reach of China. Reunification with Taiwan has become more difficult, and this is all because China has a poor assessment of what is going on in the world. This is the biggest problem.
Weltwoche: Will it force China to reassess their role in the world?
Sisci: The speech at the Party Congress is all about China. There is no broad assessment of the situation of the world, as if the world, for Chinese, is out of reach. It's really difficult to understand and comprehend. Therefore, China withdraws into its own confinement, into what it knows very well. This is very dangerous. Very risky.
Weltwoche: Is this the reason why Xi, in his speech, said there are “momentous changes of a like not seen in a century?”
Sisci: This is proof that they don't know what the world is. It is not just insecurity. When you see the danger, you might become insecure. But, here, we see the difficulty to even understand what is going on.
Weltwoche: Does Xi truly believe we live in a time more dangerous than during the two World Wars?
Sisci: In World War I and World War II, China was a marginal player. The focus was Europe. Now, the Chinese see a new Cold War emerging, and they see China as the battlefield.
Weltwoche: What tension do you see emerging inside China?
Sisci: In a way, you can see that the problem inside derives from the misunderstanding of the world outside. One of the links between inside and outside is foreign trade. At the end of this year, China will have a surplus of about $1 trillion in foreign trade. This is unprecedented. No country ever had so much surplus. In the meantime, the G7 — namely the UK, Japan, Canada, and the United States — are all growingly hostile to China. China sees that its surplus is in jeopardy, and, consequently, the domestic economy will be in trouble, too.
Weltwoche: The US is initiating the interest rate turnaround. What does that mean for China?
Sisci: A big problem. Global inflation is a big problem for China because the country is a net importer of energy, of raw material. So, inflation could also hit the Chinese economy. It will be only partially balanced out by its export because its exports can grow in price. Therefore, it incorporates part of the inflation. If you make Chinese products too expensive, people will just buy Japanese, or Korean, or German products, or Swiss products. If they drop in quality, they'll go for Bangladesh, or Indian, or Vietnamese products. So, it's very hard for China to keep its production level with high inflation. We have the risk of stagflation. Inflation plus stagnation because of high gas prices.
So, objectively, China has an interest in ending the war in Ukraine as soon as possible so that we have a drop in prices of gas, and, therefore, a positive spin on global economy. But this is not going to happen anytime soon, I'm afraid.
Franceso Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author, columnist, and president of the Appia Institute, a Rome-based think tank. He has been living in Beijing for many years where he is a senior researcher at Renmin University. In 2016, Sisci was granted the first interview with Pope Francis on China, which generated enormous response in China's press.
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