Can the US live in Xi Jinping’s world?
By John Sudworth
November 3rd, 2022
Ten days ago Xi Jinping walked out in front of the world’s media – depleted somewhat by his government’s growing intolerance of foreign reporters – as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
A tradition that limited his recent predecessors to two terms had been broken. And third term in hand, he had cemented his power over China, perhaps indefinitely.
But even as Mr Xi’s grip tightens at home, on the international stage the situation has rarely looked more unsettled.
The more the Communist Party leader has reinforced China’s authoritarian model, the more he has challenged a defining assumption of our age of globalisation – as China got richer, it would become freer.
Mr Bush, then the governor of Texas, perhaps put it best in a speech to Boeing workers on the presidential campaign trail in May 2000.
“The case for trade,” with China, he said, was “not just a matter of commerce, but a matter of conviction”.
“Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy.”
For a while, China’s growing prosperity really did seem to raise the prospect of at least some limited, political reform. In the years following WTO membership, the internet – like elsewhere in the world – gave Chinese people an opportunity for discussion and dissent previously undreamt of.
Bill Clinton famously suggested that for the Communist Party taming the internet would be like “trying to nail Jell-O [jelly] to the wall”.
Even after Mr Xi began his first term as the party’s general secretary in 2012, international media coverage often focused on the skyscraper-studded skylines, the cultural exchanges and the new middle class as evidence that China was changing in fundamental ways, and for the better.
But there were plenty of clues that, early on in his rule, Mr Xi had identified those fledgling “habits of liberty” not as a welcome consequence of globalisation, but as something to be fought against at all costs.