The South China Sea and China's Rights Crackdowns: Xi's Distraction Politics in Action


Over the last three years, we’ve seen an intensifying conundrums in Xi Jinping’s style of politics. Even as reform is being lauded from the rooftops and made into something approaching a signature theme of this leadership, there is another, parallel track involving more retrogressive ideas and actions.

Hybrid ownership of state enterprises is being allowed (at least on paper), and the market is being given a role in the Chinese economy it has never had. But at the same time, China is beating up on its neighbors and slamming rights lawyers (and other people broadly characterized as dissidents) into jail or house detention. For all the innovation of an entity like the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, there is the regression of cases like the imprisonment of veteran female journalist Gao Yu, a case which prompted the respected Freedom House in New York last week to raise concerns over her health and well-being.

We can speculate about the ostensibly contradictory positions the Party under Xi is taking — liberal in some areas, hardline in others. It seems to lack a core narrative that we can latch onto. Some have linked the two trends to the personal story of Xi’s rising power and sense of increasing autonomy, “He’s always been impetuous,” an analyst commented to me in May, “but now he’s impetuous with impunity.” Others see the cause in China’s rising sense of power and the Party’s feeling of being vindicated in its assertion of influence because of the collapse of moral and political authority of the U.S.-led west.

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A catch-all explanation would make life easier for outside observers. But everyone should know by now that when a continent masquerades as a straight-forward nation-state (which is, in effect, what China has been doing in modern times), simple explanations are more often than not the enemy of true understanding. China is a dynamic place. Personalizing its politics by laying everything at the door of Xi’s ambition is like putting old wine in new skin – that sort of explanatory framework worked in the Mao Zedong era, but barely relates to a China that now has the Internet, a partially modernized economy, and a geopolitical reach it simply lacked in Mao’s time.

One seemingly universal features of politics might help in understanding China’s contentious and contradictory posture now: the tactics of distraction. Sam Leith, in his book on modern political rhetoric, You Talkin’ to Me, talks of how much politicians across cultures love to put listeners off the scent. Throughout the ages, they have used the skills of pathos, exaggeration, and verbal obfuscation to achieve one very simple aim: to ensure that people don’t notice the things right in front of them, distracted instead by less important, but engrossing, issues. Scandals are brewed up in campaigns, controversy stirred over red herrings; a whole menu of tactics are used to ensure that real issues, which might prove damaging or embarrassing to leaders, are left unaddressed, or addressed in ways where their potential for harm is managed and controlled.

In Chinese politics at the moment, the art of distraction is relevant to foreign policy in China’s immediate vicinity — in particular, the constant blaming of outsiders like the United States and Japan for interfering in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other issues. China is not alone in pursuing this strategy. Russia and others have proved adept at placing the blame for problems on foreign agitators. Nor is this tactic remotely new. This trope has been going on for as long as humanity has existed in settled societies. Even so, China’s recent use of blaming “foreign forces” has proved skillful and adept, and by most evidence the Chinese public is largely buying it. The county’s well established victim mentality has proved highly serviceable to the current political elite, even if it grates somewhat against the obvious fact that on most measures (economic, military, diplomatic clout) China is the powerful one now.

The sideshow of the South China Sea and other regional external spats runs beside the clampdown within China against those labeled “enemies,” funded, it is usually claimed, by foreign forces who are trying to destabilize the country. Those 230-plus rights lawyers could hardly pose this kind of risk, particularly when they mostly did not assert their prime aim as being to bring down the state but simply to protect people under China’s law, seems not to matter much to the political leadership, who, most assume, mandated this harsh new draconian era. Once more, we can see distraction at work, with the implicit narrative being that there are forces working against the country from within and that the Party is cleaning them out. The glaring truth in this case is that it might well be the Party’s own current governance and institutional structures that are the far larger threat to future stability. But that remains broadly unsayable in domestic elite political discourse at the moment.

The foreign and domestic distractions discussed above – regional assertiveness against “foreign interference” and clampdowns on “agents of instability working within” – hint at a deeper reality. These are both risky moves, which have caused deterioration in China’s relations with key partners like the United States. Moreover, China’s actions have not really addressed the issues they seem aimed at – the country’s geopolitical security and its domestic stability. In some ways, they have in fact worsened these two objectives.

The only safe conclusion we can make, in view of the Party’s prime role now being to evaluate and control risk, is that China’s political elite feel a sense of threat, insecurity, and instability strong enough to sponsor these moves. This unease might be linked to the challenges of falling growth, or it might represent a shallow consensus within the Party about what to do about elements of political reform and how to modernize the Party so it keeps up with the country’s economy and society.

Either way, don’t expect this fractious note in China domestically or externally to disappear any time soon. The challenges that have spooked China’s leaders are evidently deep-seated and hugely complex — and whether China likes it or not, the outside world holds important parts of the solutions, but is currently largely barred from really joining in.

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