With Xi Jinping poised to lead China for another five years — and in all likelihood longer — the question of what, exactly, he seeks to accomplish is a crucial one for China and the world. And while Xi’s speeches are easy to access (collected and published in handy volumes that recall Mao’s “Little Red Book”), interpreting his often contradictory rhetoric is far more difficult.
That’s the task that Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, tackles in her latest book, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. In analyzing Xi’s goals at home and abroad, Economy shows that the foundations of the Deng era are being eroded and replaced with a new China of Xi’s own making. The world needs to prepare for the impact of Xi’s revolution. In this interview, Economy discusses Xi’s political, economic, and diplomatic objectives, and how the rest of the world should respond.
The Diplomat: China’s first two “revolutions” — the literal one, spearheaded by Mao Zedong, and the figurative revolution of “reform and opening” under Deng — each changed China almost beyond recognition in a generation. If Xi is embarking on a “third revolution,” does that mean equally drastic changes are ahead?
Elizabeth Economy: I don’t think that we need to wait to see the profound impact of Xi Jinping’s tenure on Chinese domestic and foreign policy. As I lay out in the book, Xi’s third revolution has already been transformative. He has created a China that is both more authoritarian and insular at home and more expansive and ambitious abroad. Under his leadership, for example, the Internet is more controlled, the party is far more intrusive in economic and social life; ideas and non-governmental organizations from the outside have much less access to the Chinese people; and the Chinese military is far more assertive in the region. This is not Deng’s China.
How would you evaluate the amount of popular support behind Xi’s revolution? The “Chinese Dream” has a strong patriotic pull, but how willing are average Chinese people to accept intensified Party leadership over more and more facets of life, especially after the relative freedom of the early 2000s?
It is difficult to assess popular opinion in a country that does not permit open expression of dissenting views. In most polls, Xi appears as enormously popular, and this may well reflect reality. Under his leadership, as he notes, China has “stood up, grown rich and become strong.” Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore the unhappiness around his more authoritarian policies, including the new Internet constraints, the elimination of presidential term limits, and the intrusion of the CCP into Chinese social and economic life. There are pockets of discontent everywhere: liberal intellectuals, retired PLA officials, and entrepreneurs, among them. And there are also sweeping movements, including feminists, LGBT supporters, and environmental activists that refuse to be quieted. Beneath the surface calm presented by the Chinese leadership and media, there is a fair amount of discontent swirling around.
You note that China is cutting itself off from the world even as Beijing is seeking more global leadership — as you put it, “While progressively less is permitted in, more goes out.” Is it possible for China to both isolate its domestic audience from foreign influence and itself influence the world?
From the outset of his tenure as Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping has sought to control the range of ideas and organizations that enter into the country. University professors are discouraged from using foreign textbooks; more than 95 percent of foreign NGOs present in China in 2016 have not yet been able to register to operate in China since the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs came into force in January 2017; and China’s industrial policy, Made in China 2025, deliberately creates an uneven playing field for foreign firms desiring to access the Chinese domestic market in a number of areas of cutting-edge technology. At the same time, Xi has encouraged Chinese think tanks, media, and companies to take advantage of the openness of other states to advance Chinese interests. Certainly it is not feasible for Xi to cut off all interchange between Chinese citizens and the outside world—millions travel and study abroad every year and continue to go around the Great Firewall to access prohibited information from outside the country. What he can do, however, is limit the range of ways in which Chinese citizens who don’t travel abroad or actively seek information from outside China are exposed to western thought and practices.
In another contradiction, the party-state is taking a bigger role in China’s economy under Xi Jinping. At the same time, Xi is positioning China as a champion of globalization, and promising to open China’s economy, which is incompatible with the drive to increase state control. Is Xi’s rhetoric about “opening up” all for show, or does he have a very different definition of globalization than we do in the United States?
Globalization has a very specific meaning related to the free flow of trade and capital. As I describe in the book, China does not allow for either. There also cannot be globalization “with Chinese characteristics.” It would be terrific if China were to become a beacon of globalization under Xi’s leadership as he has suggested, but the policies he has adopted over his first five years in office do not support such an optimistic projection.
Your book addresses the risk of China exporting its political values — and repression — abroad by exploiting the openness of liberal democracies. How can governments respond to this challenge without undermining important freedoms at home?
The projection of Chinese political values and repression takes many forms, and how to respond appropriately is a challenge that bedevils many liberal democracies. One issue is China’s effort to reshape global norms in areas such as human rights and cybersecurity in ways that more closely reflect Beijing’s interests; this is part of the to and fro of international negotiations. The response here is simple: states that support the values inherent in liberal market democracies will need to push back and defend those values. Similarly, democracies need to be more proactive in political capacity building throughout the still-developing world in order to ensure that the Chinese approach to individual and press freedoms is not adopted by other countries as China pushes forward with its own brand of political engagement.
A second type of challenge is China’s effort to use overseas Chinese as proxies for Beijing’s political interests. Whether Beijing is encouraging students to report on other students, to attack teachers who present a negative portrayal of China, or to protest against a visit by the Dalai Lama, this is a particularly pernicious element of Beijing’s overseas strategy. It puts a target on the back of all Chinese students, and makes others assume that they are all in service of Beijing. Universities need to fight back against these practices. And when Chinese sometimes raise the point that these are paying students, ask the question of whether foreign students in Beijing are ever permitted to behave this way?
And finally, when addressing the issue of Chinese state media or think tanks abroad purveying a Chinese government narrative—irrespective of facts—or the potential for Confucius Institutes to constrain who and what can be taught—I think there are two basic strategies: shining a bright light on the practices and limitations of China’s propaganda effort abroad and pushing China for equal access for foreign media and cultural entitites. Beyond that, the issue of Confucius Institutes deserves careful consideration. Ideally, Confucius Institutes would not be based on American campuses, and there would not be Confucius Institute classrooms in our K-12 system; instead, they would be stand alone entities where people who want to study Chinese would freely enter into the institutes, fully cognizant of their political limitations. Another alternative would be for the Chinese to allow the host universities to choose the teachers and content of language instruction. Otherwise, American students will be exposed to only those Chinese teachers and language content supported by Beijing. At the heart of this, of course, is the need for the federal government to step up to pay for Chinese language training.