At the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th congress in October 2022, the general secretary and the country’s president, Xi Jinping, emerged with more control over China than any political figure has held for nearly half a century. Xi can rule uncontested over China, and with a weak US president, the rest of the world. The Chinese leader has both the US and Russia on a leash.
By Arthur Blok
The world faces the prospect of more tension with China over trade, security, and human rights after Xi awarded himself another term as leader of the ruling Communist Party. He has tightened control at home and is trying to use China’s economic heft to increase its influence abroad.
Beijing is doing everything in its power to undermine U.S. alliances, global security, and economic rules. Xi’s government even goes as far as to deflect criticism of abuses by changing the U.N.’s definition of human rights.
Just like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi has become a stark illustration of the dangers of autocratic rule. Both leaders surround themselves with minions, suppressing dissent and invading or threatening neighbouring countries.
Interesting case studies on the dangers of unchecked power.
In their unique way, both Putin and Xi impose severe threats to the global human rights system. Each sees undermining that system’s ability to condemn their crackdowns at home as essential to maintaining their legitimacy.
On major global issues, they find themselves on the same page. On February's Beijing Winter Olympics opening day, Putin and Xi declared a “no limits” friendship between their two countries. Days later, the Russian leader invaded Ukraine.
In addition, both autocrats respond to public dissatisfaction by intensifying repression: Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine and Xi’s endless zero-COVID lockdowns are good illustrations of that.
Putin is jailing participants in protests that have broken out in dozens of cities across the country. At the same time, his buddy Xi has silenced public critics throughout the country while detaining more than a million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang - a region in northwest China - to force them to abandon their religion, language, and culture.
Facing growing international condemnation, both Putin and Xi have mounted defenses. Their approaches differ, but each threatens the global human rights system through alternative visions and fundamental attacks.
Let’s look at what happens at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Not only does China routinely vote against any effort to monitor or condemn virtually any government’s abuse, but it also opposes the very concept of pressure.
According to Xi, the council should be reduced to a forum for polite, general conversation among governments about human rights with deference to each sovereign nation’s interpretation of rights and selection of its human rights path.
In that perspective, human rights are whatever a government wants them to be, and pressure to uphold any more rigorous standard is objectionable.
Despite its efforts and support from Moscow, Beijing has not succeeded in undermining most of the council’s work, which continues to order investigations and condemn many countries, including Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Ethiopia.
At the Communist Party’s 20th congress, Xi said, “the world system is broken, and China has answers.” The Chinese leader is increasingly talking about the Chinese style as a universal model of the world order.
In other words, beyond a central position on the global stage, China fancies reshaping, altering, and redefining existing system elements to fit its views and interests better.
A vision rooted in the Leninist idea of power and domination. Leninist concepts of penetration, subversion, and access to pursue specific objectives are also used to support China’s expansion.
Xi seems to aim at only partially overthrowing the current international order. Instead, his objective seems to be building a new, partial system carved out of the existing order. A subsystem with China at the top as well as at the center.
China would be the biggest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced state, with smaller, weaker, subordinated states circling in its orbit.
With a weak American president like Joe Biden, Xi has a clear path to reach all his ideals. In his first two years in office, Biden failed on nearly every major issue. Friend and foe agree that he will go down in history as the worst president in U.S. history.
One thing became evident with Biden in the White House: he is incompetent, incoherent, and frail. His mental and physical decline on the world stage is taking unprecedented forms. America has never been so weak and helpless as under Biden.
An opportunity Xi was anticipating for years.
Mid-November, Biden sat down for talks with Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia. The last time a U.S. president shook hands with the leader of China was more than three years ago. Donald Trump was in the White House, the COVID-19 pandemic was months away, and relations between Beijing and Washington were firmer.
Today, trust has reached an all-time low, rhetoric is increasingly antagonistic, and disputes continue to worsen in almost all areas of international relations, including trade, technology, security, and ideology.
Both leaders sought to ease long-simmering tensions during a three-hour meeting in Bali, as the two countries found themselves drifting perilously close to direct economic and military confrontation.
The session led to agreements between the two world powers to revive normal communication channels and warn Russia against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Differences remain basically all key issues such as Taiwan, human rights, and trade policy.
How different would that meeting have been if Trump was still in office? If that were the case, Putin would not have dared to attack Ukraine. Xi would have made vague promises on improving human rights, swallowed his objections to American trade policies, and dared not even mention Taiwan.
But the tables have turned. With a weak US president and a Russian president caught up in a miscalculated invasion of Ukraine, Xi calls the shots.
He got both the US and Russia on a leash.