Features Australia

The Last Emperor

Xi’s subjects are in danger of getting old before they get rich

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

As Australians now know, hell hath no fury like a dictator scorned. They have learned the hard way that Canberra’s recent behaviour has not been up to the standard demanded by China’s President, Xi Jinping. Conspicuously, they have been singled out for punishment as a lesson to other nations who may fancy exercising their independence.

Prior to Xi’s appointment in 2013, Beijing was a good friend. Australians applauded China’s extraordinary economic progress and increasing personal freedoms. Indeed, despite Australia and the United States being allies for a hundred years, Canberra resisted pressures to choose between Washington and Beijing. It welcomed China as its major trading partner and significant investor and accepted the pro-China narrative.

But President Xi harbours ambitions of global hegemony. Chinese investments in major foreign infrastructure and business enterprises have assumed a more politically strategic tone. Influential foreign nationals have been recruited to well-paid positions on Chinese company and government advisory boards. Massive donations to political parties along with lavish entertainment and travel junkets for journalists, academics, and others, have all formed part of a subversive charm offensive. So seductive has it been, that many countries have become virtual Chinese colonies.

This cynical influence-peddling has proven particularly effective within the United Nations, which President Xi has fashioned into a tool to suit his own authoritarian predilections. How else, with a reputation for blatant human rights abuse, could China join the UN Human Rights Council? And, with a Mars landing to its credit, the world’s second largest economy, and the biggest standing army, how does China continue to be accepted as a developing nation? It is a status devoutly to be desired and exempts China from meeting stringent, economically ruinous, emissions reduction targets which Beijing’s developed adversaries struggle to meet. A virtue-signalling Xi Jinping reassures the world that China will be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2060.

Such is China’s influence inside the UN, that the World Health Organisation collaborated in downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic, right up to declaring it a pandemic. The WHO’s sycophantic repeating of Beijing’s disinformation bought the Chinese time to cover their tracks and hoard medical supplies while it watched the virus race around the world.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison clearly misread his Chinese tea leaves when he pushed for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. While he was ultimately backed by another 110 countries, Beijing was furious.

In the event, and demonstrating its unchallenged authority, China vetted the WHO investigation team ensuring almost half of its four weeks was spent in quarantine. Time at the Wuhan Institute, the most likely source of the outbreak, was restricted to around three hours and access to crucial data was denied.

Canberra’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID came after an earlier, ‘politically motivated’, exclusion of Huawei from our 5G roll-out. Beijing treated these actions as hostile and responded with crippling tariffs on Australian barley, followed by similar punitive tariffs on other imports. So much for an economic co-operation agreement signed in 2015 to boost trade between the two countries.

But this is not just an Australian story. Following a joint communique from a meeting of Australian and New Zealand leaders, a Chinese spokesperson ominously warned Wellington, ‘We have taken note of and are deeply concerned over the relevant statement’. Relations between China and Canada have also soured.  Canada’s criticism of Chinese human rights abuses and  Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, resulted in reprisals including trade sanctions. Beijing has now slapped sanctions on ‘relevant institutions and personnel of the EU’ for spreading ‘lies and false information’ about its human rights abuses. And this is not to mention incursions into Indian, Philippine, Japanese and Taiwanese sovereign territory.

The evidence is clear. A gullible, complacent world has been outsmarted by a strategic and expansionist state actor. From slavery to stealing intellectual property, to exporting social division, Xi Jinping has demonstrated that the end of achieving ‘China’s dream’ justifies the means.

Yet making China an enemy of the world may be a sign of growing discontent at home. Xi has just unleashed yet another purge ahead of the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations next month. He rules by fear and in his first five years in office brought down 1.34 million officials over ‘corruption’.

Notwithstanding, Xi faces multiple economic and social challenges. Even before the pandemic, Beijing had called for local governments to ‘go to all lengths to prevent massive job losses this year’. Plant closures have left growing numbers of jobless workers unhappy and unpaid. China already has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality and a wealth gap worse than America’s and widening. Even more worrying, its population is growing at the slowest pace since the 1950s and is about to decline. It is the legacy of the onechild experiment and bears directly on Beijing’s ability to sustain economic growth. Relaxation to two children six years ago has had no effect. Now, with 13.1 percent youth unemployment and rising living costs, the recent relaxation to three children is unlikely to register.

Maybe asserting dominion abroad wins favour at home? However, Xi’s disdain for democracy means he underestimates how grass roots sentiment can shape Western politics. How outraged international consumers are boycotting Chinese goods and chastened governments and businesses are busily responding by building new supply chains. This should worry China’s policy makers.

The purge notwithstanding, Xi faces a growing number of enemies at home, where he is being likened to a ‘mafia boss’ and, a less tolerant, post-G7 alliance, abroad. He must also fret that history is against him. The Soviet Union lasted 69 years and, after 62 years, Cuba’s communist party is unravelling. Now, 72 years on, his adoption of the Mao variant of Chinese communism, is accentuating the CCP’s deep-seated, possibly terminal, social and economic conflicts. His ambition to ‘reunify’ Taiwan could prove to be his legacy and his demise. It is time the world’s democracies hastened that day of reckoning.

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