Xi Jinping’s China is preparing for a world after Trump

Almost a year ago, China was ground zero of the coronavirus. In the first couple of months of 2020, some American commentators argued the spike of infections and the initial bungling response by local authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan could constitute China’s “Chernobyl” — an epochal disaster that would expose the fundamental failings of Beijing’s opaque, autocratic, one-party state.

But as 2020 draws to an end, it’s in the United States where the shadow of Chernobyl looms, hovering over a politically-divided nation that passed 300,000 coronavirus-related deaths on Monday amid a mammoth onslaught of new cases. Whatever China’s original sin in the emergence of the disease — and the questions that still surround its official accounting of deaths and infections — its leadership has reason to believe it handled the situation markedly better than geopolitical adversaries in the West. After the outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese authorities clamped down on the spread of the virus and curtailed further community transmission when it flared up in pockets of the country.

Shadowing all was the steady decline in U.S.-China relations. The Trump administration placed tariffs on some Chinese goods, sanctions on some Chinese entities and sought to convince partners in Europe and elsewhere to block the advance of China’s growing tech sector. President Trump and right-wing allies in the West lambaste China for being the unfair beneficiary of the past couple of decades of globalization. In Washington, both Democrats and Republicans now seem convinced of the need to treat China as a systemic rival, a view likely to carry over after the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Faced with such hostility and suspicion, Xi is hunkering down as he takes his country into a propitious new year. 2021 marks the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party and the advent of a new five-year economic program rolled out by Beijing’s central planners. China’s economy may have rebounded faster than any other major country during the pandemic, but its growth is getting more sluggish and Xi recognizes the need for a deeper pivot.

In speeches through the year, capped by high-level meetings this past week, Xi stressed that China should beef up its domestic market and shift away from decades of export-oriented growth. That would be in keeping with how other more mature economic powers developed over time in the West. But the current mood also marks a reaction to the geopolitical battles of the past half decade.

Some hawks in the Trump administration pushed for what’s dubbed “decoupling,” a process by which the United States could disentangle itself from reliance on Chinese goods and supply chains. Given how intertwined the world’s two biggest economies are, “decoupling” is no easy feat. But now a similarly adversarial worldview is crystallizing in China.

The concept of “dual circulation,” first articulated at a meeting of China’s Politburo in May, emphasizes the importance of strengthening China’s internal market as well as weaning off its reliance on supply chains anchored elsewhere. In a lengthy essay on the matter, James Crabtree of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy argued that it “represents a radical new understanding of globalization and of China’s place within it.”

“The idea is that China’s economic future will be shaped not on a flat vision of seamless integration with the West, but on two distinct circuits: one domestic, the other globally orientated,” explained economic historian Adam Tooze.

“Put more bluntly, while the world was distracted by the drama of the U.S. presidential election, Xi quietly unveiled an economic strategy fit for a new Cold War,” wrote Crabtree. “Both for China and for globalization itself, the results are likely to be profound.”

The contours of this change are still a bit difficult to discern. It suggests a future where China is even less beholden to Western demands and interests than it already is. Xi, though, still casts his government as a responsible international stakeholder and over the weekend reiterated China’s aim to reduce its carbon intensity by 65 percent over the next decade.

We’re seeing a shift in China’s positioning abroad in other ways. A recent piece in the Financial Times charted how China’s lavish spending on its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — huge infrastructure projects in countries across Asia and Europe backed by massive loans from Chinese state banks — has dramatically dipped in recent years.

“Volatile Sino-US relations and more restrictive access to overseas markets for Chinese companies have prompted a fundamental rethink of growth drivers by Beijing’s top economic planners,” Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, told the FT. “Naturally, if state-owned enterprises decide to switch back to the domestic market in order to follow the leadership’s wishes, the budgeted financial resource for overseas investments will reduce accordingly.”

In China, analysts contend that the West’s fears over the “Beijing consensus” — that is, a future where countries trade and deal along rules shaped by China’s autocratic rulers — are overblown. “Even if Beijing wanted it, to imagine that China will rule the world is at best wishful thinking,” wrote Huang Jing, dean of the Institute of International and Regional Studies in Beijing. “As effective as the Beijing Consensus seems to be in promoting China’s rise so far, it has yet to be generally appreciated, let alone accepted, in the world outside China.”

On the other hand, China’s resilience over the past year and Xi’s continuing authoritarian consolidation at home tells an equally important story. Tooze sees the demise of liberal fantasies in the West that the weight of China’s global connections would inevitably lead to its liberalization.

“It is an argument that turns liberal assumptions about economic history on their head,” he wrote. “It opens a vista on the next decades, which is radical in the sense of being open-ended. It challenges us to imagine that liberal logics will not work out the way we might expect. What if China is making history, not simply playing out its end?”

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Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned by Russian state security team, report says

Bellingcat said the “voluminous” data implicates eight members of a clandestine group of Russia’s FSB, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB responsible for domestic intelligence. The unit specializes in working with chemical weapons, Bellingcat said.

“I know who wanted to kill me,” Navalny said in a video message about Bellingcat’s joint investigation with Russia’s Insider website, Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine and CNN. “I know where they live. I know where they work. I know their real names. I know their fake names. I have photographs of them.”

Navalny became gravely ill during an Aug. 20 flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk; the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, and Navalny was in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks. The Berlin hospital to which he was later transferred attributed his condition to a toxin similar to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, the same substance that Britain said Russian state security agents used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

The Bellingcat report said that “an analysis of prior travels of the FSB squad members shows they have been shadowing Navalny since at least 16 January 2017, just a month” after Navalny announced he was running for president. It added: “Navalny made over 20 campaign trips outside Moscow during 2017. Members of the squad tailed him on the majority of these, with the exception of a few day trips. . . . In total, the FSB squad made 37 trips to the same destinations that Navalny travelled to by plane or train between 2017 and 2020.”

But most incriminating in the report are the phone records and travel logs that indicated intense communication between the purported FSB officials tailing Navalny and their superiors in Moscow, suggesting that the August attempt on his life was directed by the Kremlin. Russia has ignored calls from Western leaders to investigate the case, citing a lack of evidence.

“Of course an operation of this scale and such duration could not be organized by anyone other than the head of the FSB, [Alexander] Bortnikov, and he would never have dared to do this without [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s order,” Navalny said.

The European Union imposed sanctions on Bortnikov in October, banning travel and freezing his assets, for his suspected role in Navalny’s poisoning. A separate investigation from Bellingcat in October claimed that Russia continued its Novichok development program long beyond the officially announced closure date, disguising it behind a network of state-run institutes.

The Bellingcat investigation doesn’t say how Navalny was poisoned, but it indicates that it could have been at Tomsk’s Xander Hotel bar the night before his morning flight to Moscow. According to Bellingcat, at about 11:15 p.m., Navalny ordered a bloody mary, but the bartender told him he didn’t have the ingredients for that and suggested a Negroni instead. Navalny told Bellingcat that he couldn’t take more than one sip because “the cocktail tasted like the most disgusting thing I’ve had in my life.”

In his video message Monday, Navalny revealed what he believes was an earlier attempt to poison him. On a vacation to the Russian province of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast on July 6, Navalny’s wife, Yulia, felt ill during a walk to a cafe. At the cafe, she was too sick to eat and returned to their hotel, she said. She described being barely able to walk, resting on benches and leaning on trees. At the hotel, she rested and later felt better, according to Navalny.

“A whole FSB department under the leadership of high-ranking officials has been conducting this operation for three and a half years, during which time they tried to kill me and my family members several times using a chemical weapon obtained in a secret state laboratory,” Navalny said Monday. “So it is already an irrefutable fact that we are dealing with a government operation.”

He referred to it as “state terrorism.”

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Southern Africa leaders mull Mozambique’s extremist threat

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa flew from Harare to meet with the leaders of South Africa and Botswana, at the invitation of Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, according to Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper.

The summit is part of the efforts by the Southern African Development Community, the 16-nation regional body, to determine how to best respond to the extremist threat to Mozambique.

The regional leaders also met in Botswana last month to discuss the same matter, and agreed to “direct the finalization of a comprehensive regional response.”

Although he continues discussing the deadly conflict with the 16-member regional grouping, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi has not officially asked for help, which is necessary for the group to intervene militarily.

Mozambique has so far relied on its own troops and a private military contractor to combat the extremists.

The extremists’ three-year insurgency in Cabo Delgado has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. More than 355,000 have been forced to leave their homes, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The extremist violence is also threatening the multi-billion dollar investment being made by international companies to exploit Mozambique’s massive deposits of liquified natural gas along the Indian Ocean coastline of Cabo Delgado province.

What started as a few dozen unemployed and disaffected young men inspired by radical Muslim ideology has grown to a force estimated at 3,000, according to experts.

Further south, the provincial capital city of Pemba and the surrounding areas are inundated with families fleeing the violence. International aid agencies including the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders are working to provide emergency food and services to the displaced.

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