Will China’s President Xi’s big bet pay off?

Chinese President Xi Jinping is making the most audacious geopolitical bet of the 21st century.

A head-spinning series of seemingly disparate moves over recent months add up to nothing less than a generational wager that Xi can produce the world’s dominant power for the foreseeable future by doubling down on his state-controlled economy, party-disciplined society, nationalistic propaganda, and far-reaching global influence campaigns.

With each week, Xi raises the stakes further, from narrowing seemingly mundane personal freedoms like karaoke bars or a teenager’s permitted time for online gaming to three hours weekly to the multimillion U.S. dollar investor hit from his increased controls on China’s biggest technology companies and their foreign listings.  

It is only in the context of Xi’s increased repressions at home and expanded ambitions abroad that one can fully understand Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision this week to enter a new defense pact, which he called “a forever agreement,” with the United States and the United Kingdom.

Much of the news focus was either on the eight nuclear-powered submarines that Australia would deploy or the spiraling French outrage that their own deal to sell diesel submarines to Australia was undermined by what French officials called a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back” from close allies. France went so far as to recall its ambassador to the United States for the first time in the history of the NATO alliance.

All that noise should not distract from the more significant message of the ground-breaking agreement. Prime Minister Morrison saw more strategic advantage and military capability from the U.S.-U.K. alignment in a rapidly shifting Indo-Pacific atmosphere, replacing his previous stance of trying to balance U.S. and Chinese interests.

“The relatively benign environment we’ve enjoyed for many decades in our region is behind us,” Morrison said on Thursday. “We have entered a new era with challenges for Australia and our partners.”

For China, that new era has many faces: a rapid rollback of economic liberalization, a crackdown on individual freedoms, an escalation of global influence efforts and military buildup, all in advance of the 20th national party congress in October 2022, where Xi hopes to seal his place in history and his continued rule.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, one of the world’s leading China experts, points to Xi’s “bewildering array” of economic policy decisions in a recent speech as president of the Asia Society.

They started last October with the shocking suspension of Alibaba financial affiliate Ant Group’s planned initial public offering in Hong Kong and Shanghai, clearly aimed at Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma. Then in April, Chinese regulators imposed a $3 billion fine on Alibaba for “monopolistic behavior.”

In July, China’s cyber regulator removed ride-hailing giant Didi from app stores, while an investigative unit launched an examination of the company’s compliance with Chinese data-security laws.

Then this month, China’s Transport Ministry regulators summoned senior executives from Didi, Meituan and nine other ride-hailing companies, ordering them to “rectify” their digital misconduct. The Chinese state then took an equity stake in ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, and in Weibo, the micro-blogging platform.

Xi was ready to accept the estimated $1.1 trillion cost in shareholder value wiped from China’s top six technology stocks alone between February and August. That doesn’t factor in further losses among the education, transportation, food delivery, entertainment and video gaming industries.

Less noticed have been a dizzying array of regulatory actions and policy moves whose sum purpose appears to be strengthening state control over, well, just about everything. 

“The best way to summarize it,” says Rudd, “is that Xi Jinping has decided that, in the overall balance between the roles of the state and the market in China, it is in the interests of the Party to pivot toward the state.” Xi is determined to transform modern China into a global great power, “but a great power in which the Chinese Communist Party nonetheless retains complete control.”

That means growing controls as well over the freedoms of its 1.4 billion citizens.

Xi has acted, for example, to restrict the video gaming of school-aged children to three hours a week, and he has banned private tutoring. Chinese regulators have ordered broadcasters to encourage masculinity and remove “sissy men,” or niang pao, from the airwaves. Regulators banned “American Idol”-style competitions and removed from the internet any mention of one of China’s wealthiest actresses, Zhao Wei.

“The orders have been sudden, dramatic and often baffling,” wrote Lily Kuo in the Washington Post. Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “This is not a sector-by-sector rectification; this is an entire economic, industry and structural rectification.”

At the same time, President Xi has launched a push to share the virtues and successes of the Chinese authoritarian model with the rest of the world. 

“Beijing seeks less to impose a Marxist-Leninist ideology on foreign societies than to legitimate and promote its own authoritarian system,” Charles Edel and David Shullman, the recently appointed director of the Atlantic Council’s new China Global Hub, wrote in “Foreign Affairs.” “The CCP doesn’t seek ideological conformity but rather power, security, and global influence for China and for itself.”

The authors detail China’s global efforts to not remake the world in its image, but rather “to make the world friendlier to its interests — and more welcoming to the rise of authoritarianism in general.”

Those measures include “spreading propaganda, expanding information operations, consolidating economic influence, and meddling in foreign political systems” with the ultimate goal of “hollowing out democratic institutions and norms within and between countries,” Edel and Shullman write.

Within President Xi’s bold bet lie two opportunities for the U.S. and its allies.

The first is that Xi, by overreaching in his controls at home, will undo just the sorts of economic and societal liberalization China needs to succeed. At the same time, the world’s democracies, like Australia, are growing more willing to seek a common cause to address Beijing.

In the end, however, Xi’s concerted moves require an equally concerted response from the world’s democracies. The French-U.S. crisis following the Australian defense deal this week provides just one example of how difficult that will be to achieve and sustain.

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