China is a methodical nation that cautiously plays the long game. That’s the story China likes to tell about itself and the one it would like the world to believe. Unfortunately for China, that once-credible narrative is now a full-blown myth.
A common trope about a historically hyper-aware and confident China is that it thinks in millennial terms. But China’s traditional long view and patient plan for global domination has just accelerated, even as parts of the country steadily continue to plod along on in their “Hundred-Year Marathon.”
The rise of President Xi Jinping, however, is accelerating China’s long march pace to a fast-paced sprint. The dizzying velocity of change has China rapidly implementing a tech AI and robotics “Made in China 2025” plan and a strategy to make China a leading global power by 2050.
As a result, President Xi’s picked-up pace in his nation’s marathon might hit the wall because a patient plan requires one key element: Patience.
Xi Jinping, however, is impatient.
He is clearly a man in a hurry and with a vision of his historic destiny and importance as a Core leader. Xi now requires institutes and organizations to promote, teach and enforce “Xi Jinping Thought” — a doctrine for China to increase its power and standing and to do it double-time. The father of modern capitalist China, Deng Xiaoping, advised his nation’s future leaders to “hide your strength, bide your time.” Deng’s call for calm and calculated global ascendance has given way to Xi’s 21st century demand for instant gratification.
Xi is reacting, in part, to a global moment he perceives as opportune. Through his lens, he likely sees President Donald Trump as a feckless and ineffectual U.S. president wantonly abandoning global leadership. In Xi’s world view, Trump has abased America’s post-war role as the world’s policeman while showing indifference to promoting universal rights and liberal values, all while rejecting allies and embracing totalitarians.
Trump’s disruptive behavior is interpreted by Xi as America dumping its global primacy and its alliance-built world order. Instead, Xi sees a world evolving to accommodate an unexceptional, cynical and fully transactional America that elevates interests over values. Any moral advantage America once embodied, in Xi’s reckoning, has been bone-sawed to pieces. Xi sees this as the time to make his — and China’s — move to fill the global leadership vacuum at whatever cost. It may, however, all be a gross miscalculation both for his leadership and his country.
Internally, he has cracked down on Chinese domestic dissent and consolidated power. Xi, the Communist Party and the state are unifying to become one unholy trinity. In the process, Xi purges disloyal and untrustworthy party members and pursues an anti-corruption campaign that allows fewer and fewer non-Xi loyalists to enjoy the illicit spoils of power.
Xi’s “re-educating” a non-Han minority Uighur population who, from his perspective, poses a threat to China’s western provinces and must be made an example, lest other ethnic-minority areas get anti-Xi Jinping “Thoughts” of autonomy or - Xi forbid - separatism!
Xi recognizes his party and popular power is fueled by an economy based on the promise of near endless growth. This is an economic impossibility, of course, but that economic promise is what has built and reinforced a contemporary national narrative of China’s destiny. That narrative? A popularly reasserted and deserved national pride in a Middle Kingdom that has regained its historic and rightful role as a global power to respect and fear.
Unfortunately for Xi, his nation’s seemingly endless, fast-paced growth has relied in part on a continuation of unfair global trade and tariff practices, intellectual property theft, an industrial policy that picks winners and losers, and a banking system that is unchecked and over-leveraged. If China’s economy stumbles, Xi’s dream could easily become a nightmare.
Xi’s betting a lot and he’s raising the stakes at a time when the rest of the world is raising more questions about his country’s intentions and the very real downside of China’s “one belt, one road” projects. Aggressively building abroad could keep China’s domestic economy humming for a while, but new Chinese-built and funded bridges, roads, and ports around the world may turn debtor nations into debt-trapped vassals.
China’s underwritten belt-and-road investments may seem like a boon to foreign nations needing new infrastructure and financing but may ultimately be boondoggles that mortgage those nations’ futures. Further, an economic blip in China’s economy could lead not only to a more restive populace at home, but also a less outwardly friendly China.
Xi’s clear impatience is further enabled by Donald Trump - an equally impatient leader who relies less on strategic planning and more on instinctual behavior to conduct foreign policy. Our 2018 tension-filled world is defined by an impatient Chinese leader trying to take advantage of an impatient American leader at a an impatient and fraught time in world history. Xi’s radically speedy political, economic and military maneuvers both at home and abroad may ultimately prove shortsighted, not 20/20 vision for a rapidly arriving 2020.