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Beijing is following Vladimir Putin’s aggressive playbook. The US can counter the march of the autocrats, but only if it stops feeding their paranoia
Sun 12 Mar 2023 09.00 GMT
Is there a school for autocrats? As if by rote, authoritarian leaders around the world trot out remarkably similar justifications for their repressive actions, democratic deficits and policy failures. These typically include scary claims that their country is under attack by foreign forces and saboteurs or is the victim of a global conspiracy.
Perhaps they have all taken an online correspondence course for aspiring dictators. Tyrants R Us.
China produced classic examples of the genre last week. Accepting a third term, President Xi Jinping urged the country to unite behind him. “In the coming period, the risks and challenges we’re facing will only become more and more numerous and grim,” Xi warned. The US and its allies were trying to “encircle, suppress and contain” China.
Only he, Xi, could ensure victory in the coming “struggle”. “Après moi, le déluge,” as King Louis XV supposedly said.
Qin Gang, China’s hawkish new foreign minister, hammered home the aggressively paranoid message of his all-powerful patron. He accused the Biden administration of orchestrating “hysterical neo-McCarthyism” with the furore over last month’s shooting down of a Chinese balloon and accusations that Beijing is about to supply arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
A lot else of what Qin had to say made dismaying listening for analysts who thought they discerned a softening of tone after Xi’s meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, in November.
Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and a China expert, argued recently that an economic slowdown was forcing Xi to take a conciliatory line and rein in abrasive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
Confounding such optimistic assessments, Qin claimed Biden’s assertion that Washington sought competition, not conflict with China was a big lie. The US, he said, was bent on “malicious confrontation”. Channelling Vladimir Putin’s unsubtle threats, he hinted this could ultimately lead to nuclear war, placing “the future of humanity” at risk.
“The US side’s so-called competition is … a zero-sum game where you die and I live. If the US does not hit the brakes but continues to speed down the wrong path … there will surely be conflict,” Qin warned.
To underline the point, he stressed China would take “all necessary measures” to seize Taiwan, which, he claimed bizarrely, the US was trying to destroy. He said “an invisible hand” – presumably the US and Nato – was deliberately exacerbating the Ukraine war in order to serve its geopolitical agenda. And he accused rearming Japan of colluding in a “new cold war” – even as China raises defence spending by 7.2%.
Again speaking on Xi’s authority, Qin last month also effectively rejected the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which China signed. “The right of all countries to independently choose one’s own path of human rights development should be respected … Imposing one’s model upon others would entail endless troubles,” he said.
It’s an old line, but it’s the kind of disingenuous thinking that has facilitated horrific abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Imagine if this approach were applied globally.
All such statements may be seen as pure school-of-autocrats dogma. They reveal a generic mentality that mixes insecurity and hubris, twisted by distorted realities, outright lies, immorality and self-deception. Scapegoating of outsiders for policy own goals is habitual. Oppression, discrimination, censorship and corruption are built in. An Iranian ayatollah, Burmese general or Syrian secret policeman would instantly recognise the paradigm.
Yet these are the internal mechanics of the global model that Xi and his emulators want to foist onto the 21st-century world in place of the autocrat’s pet hate, the UN-endorsed international rules-based order.
And this is why it is so important, as Charles Dunst argues in a new book, Defeating the Dictators, that western democracies fight for their values and fulfil their peoples’ expectations. “How can we become the world’s model once again?” Dunst asks.
In hailing Xi’s “exemplary” alliance with Putin, Qin described a nightmare vision of global hegemony, run on authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-human rights lines. “With China and Russia working together, the world will have a driving force,” he said. “The more unstable the world becomes, the more imperative it is for China and Russia to steadily advance relations … The strategic partnership will surely grow from strength to strength.” What a truly terrible thought. Is such a Big Brother-ish future inevitable?
Not if western leaders can positively engage with China rather than feed its paranoia and resentment with more sanctions and sabre-rattling. If Xi feels “contained” and “encircled”, he partly has himself to blame – but he is not technically wrong, commentator Ed Luce argued. Perhaps the US should try harder, post-balloon, to find ways to talk.
Dividing the international community into good and bad guys in a crusade for western-style democracy, as Biden advocates, will not eliminate the threat of a world run by thuggish tyrants – and could make it worse.
Harvard professor Stephen Walt suggests a more balanced, mutually respectful multipolar world might better suit American interests. The US had been “loath to abandon a position of unchallenged primacy” since the Soviet collapse, he wrote. It’s time that changed.
Yet the problem, ultimately, is not China or Russia or their people. It’s their violent, none-too-bright autocratic leaders and evil systems they represent.
As long as Xi and Putin, with their “no limits” relationship, threaten or use force to impose their will at home and abroad, and encourage other leaders to behave likewise to the detriment of free peoples everywhere, the prospect of an east-west collision grows. To avoid such an outcome, the highly personalised Xi-Putin axis must first be broken.
It’s possible to hope. Autocrats are feared but rarely loved. History teaches that when it all goes wrong – and it will – they are on their own.
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