China: Insular and Controlling at Home, Ambitious and Expansive in the World, Says Eminent Scholar

Event Video

“China under Xi Jinping is more authoritarian and controlling and even insular on the inside, but far more ambitious and expansive in its global aims,” said Elizabeth C. Economy, author of The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State.

Speaking to a June 5th IPI Distinguished Author Series event devoted to her book, the eminent China scholar was outlining how the country under the freshly empowered President Xi was reversing course at home, rejecting the liberalizing reforms of his predecessors, while recasting itself abroad as an arbiter—not just a player—on the world stage.

She theorized that this effort by an emboldened Chinese leader of an increasingly illiberal state in a liberal world order constituted China’s third revolution, following the first two led respectively by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Noting that Mr. Xi, on being re-selected as General Secretary of the Communist Party last year, had declared that “China has stood up, grown rich, become strong, and is moving to center stage”, she said, “I think this one phrase better than almost anything else encapsulates the three revolutions that China has experienced over the past 70 years.”

This year, Mr. Xi has consolidated his authority by having term limits for the president eliminated and his political thoughts adopted as party doctrine and enshrined in the state constitution as the guiding principles of the state. As General Secretary of the party, president of the country, and chairman of the Central Military Commission, Dr. Economy said, “Xi Jinping has amassed an unprecedented amount of institutional power.”

Illustrating the extensive reach of the growing internal control, she said that there were currently 176 million cameras operating on facial recognition technology in the country and that China wanted 626 million of them in place by 2020. “They’re also pursuing voice recognition so they can listen in on a phone conversation and be able to identify exactly which two of China’s 1.3 billion people are talking,” she said. “While some of this can be used to target criminals, one can easily imagine that it will be a very effective mechanism for looking at what’s going on in terms of political dissidence that might be occurring or broad scale movements that might be burbling up.”

This broad surveillance feeds a growing database that enables the party to assess the “trustworthiness” of people in a social credit system that is being developed to help the state reward or punish individual behavior. She said a person’s social credit “score” can determine things like whether you can board an airplane or ride a high speed train or get on line for a popular restaurant or what school you can send your children to. “The parameters have yet to be set, but it is very much the way the party is beginning to again reassert itself in a very micromanaging way in Chinese society and political life.” Similarly, she said, the party is activating cells in state and private enterprises “so party members can get guidance from the top.”

Mr. Xi is protecting the home front from foreign competition by instituting an industrial plan known as “Made in China 2025” under which 10 cutting edge areas of technology like robotics and electric cars and artificial intelligence will be developed domestically, and then compounding this move for self-sufficiency with restrictions on foreign influences commonly disparaged as “hostile foreign forces.” Caught up in this dragnet have been foreign NGOs which once numbered 7,000 in China but now have been reduced to less than 400. “This constrains not only engagement with the international community, but really serves to constrain the development of civil society within China,” she said.

In foreign policy, she cited three examples of Mr. Xi’s moving from the low profile model put into place by Deng Xiaoping to an expansionist one where China hopes to see its illiberal views informing global governance.

The first was China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea, with the reclaiming and militarization of islands and reefs, and its confrontational assertiveness in places like Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong.

“Second,” she said, “is the Belt and Road Initiative which is China’s very grand scale initiative to connect China with at first, 68 countries, and then the world through infrastructure, pipelines, and ports and railroads and highways, and now there is a digital Belt and Road so it includes satellite systems and fiber optic cables and e-commerce, and a polar ice belt so that China will have a faster trading route to Europe. There is also a security element to this as China now has a majority stake in about 76 ports in 35 countries and, though it says they are for commercial purposes, the ports have been visited by People’s Liberation Navy ships, and there is a new logistics base in Djibouti.”

The third example she identified was China’s growing effort to export its political model to countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. “One thing that doesn’t get much attention here in terms of China’s impact on the global system is the extent to which China wants its values and priorities and policies to be reflected in the realm of global governance,” she said. “Xi Jinping in a speech in 2014 said that China should be engaged not only in helping to write the rules of the game but also creating the playgrounds on which the games are played.”

She said that Mr. Xi’s assertive expansion of China’s power and strategic competitiveness meant that American policy makers must get tougher and abandon their old assumption that if Americans remained true to their democratic values and political and economic openness, China would eventually come around to such ideal manners of behavior.

“China is so large now and its economy so big that we can’t afford to believe and to argue anymore that if we simply model best behavior and retain openness that China is going to follow suit, and that holds true whether it’s intellectual property rights or it’s Chinese providing subsidies to their companies or just the general lack of market barriers in the United States economy to Chinese investment,” she said. As better strategies for Washington to adopt, she recommended carefully calibrated (“with a scalpel not a sledgehammer”) reciprocal actions and restrictions on Chinese investment. But, she warned, “I’m afraid that’s not the path that we’re going down.”

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge moderated the conversation.