The EU & China: Systemic Rivalry_I

Poster: long lasting friendship, cooperation and development ( 传承友谊合作发展: Chuancheng youyi hezuo fazhan), 2015, designer unknown © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

July 16 2022_The CCP under Xi Jinping has been reinventing dictatorship with the means of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data and has given autocratic rule a merciless digital update. Xi nevertheless likes to present himself as a benevolent and compassionate confucianist father proudly looking after his 1.4 billion children. Unfortunately in China’s communist governance confucianist ideals are hard to find. The golden rule of Confucianism is “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.” It is based on humanism and sound and close human relationships, on social harmony. The way to morality and an ethical life lies through men and women who are good and do good to others for the sake of goodness.

Emperor Xi

Under Mao Zedong, who considered Confucianism to be at the root of the decline of the ‘despicable imperial China’, family relationships were destroyed and people urged to denounce, humiliate or even kill each other in the name of communism. Xi Jinping has meanwhile fallen back upon China’s glorious past to provide an ideological foundation to his 21st century rule, presenting himself as a sage emperor, while calling upon his citizens’ patriotism and their pride of their country’s imperial history. As the government’s Marxist rhetoric around ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ had begun to sound hollow for the majority of the population,  the Party reacted and claimed to be the natural successor to and promoter of fine traditional Chinese culture. The CCP is no longer afraid to depict itself as a new dynasty, whose leadership knows best how to protect the prosperity and welfare of its population, restoring China to its ‘rightful place in history’.

For emperor Xi that sophisticated confucianist culture  and wisdom apparently equals the right to invade people’s family- and private life as well as private thoughts with modern technology. Algorithms monitor the internet to delete – or report to security authorities – even single words and actions. Algorithms also track the use of prescribed reading (such as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’), while cameras enable AI tools to recognise individuals and punish or reward them for their behavior and follow their every move in public spaces. Xi’s surveillance regime defies even George Orwell’s predictions. The social harmony on display in modern China is predominantly a façade, masking a society that is permeated by distrust, fear and terror.

Digital dictatorship

These modern, digital technologies are being exported to like-minded governments around the world  by pseudo private and heavily state-subsidized companies like Huawei and HikVision as part of the Belt and Road initiative. ‘Confucianist’ institutes have been set up globally to promote the ‘confucianist’ historical interpretations and ramblings of the CCP, that even states to bring ‘true democracy’.

Every Chinese institute and organization, be it in the executive, judiciary, administration, media, economy or civil society realm, is supervised by means of very strict guidelines, surveillance or direct CCP presence. All of these characteristics no doubt resemble the ambitions of authorities in other totalitarian, dictatorial or autocratic states too, but with one important difference: none of those governments do possess China’s economic strength. It is this strength that makes the totalitarian character of Chinese governance appear so effective and appealing to many of them.

China’s greatest success has been the former Soviet Union’s biggest catastrophe: the economy. While the Soviets bankrupted their economy through unsustainable defense spending during the Cold War, a brutally pragmatic and mercantilist PRC leveraged U.S.-led globalization to enrich the foundations of its power while rapidly developing its indigenous military-industrial complex. The CCP cunningly exploited the West’s infatuation with its centuries old China dream.

In 2018 Xi Jinping, perhaps inspired by Putin, overturned the two-term Presidential limit inserted into the PRC under Deng Xiaoping to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition also sealed the dawn of a new era under Xi: the resurgence of severe repression, well-known from pre-Deng Xiaoping days. In Xi’s view Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika were responsible for the spectacular collapse of the Soviet empire. The Chinese President sees Western democracy as an existential threat to the survival of the Party.  

The Lesson of 1989

This has been the lesson of the Chinese student demonstrations of 1989, which were accompanied by a fierce internal political battle in the CCP, as some Party leaders were sympathetic to the demonstrators, under the influence of the developments in the Soviet Union. The demonstrations brought the Party leadership close to the brink of collapse. Consequentially Chinese leaders today have or see no choice but to concentrate power and establish authoritarian positions by surrounding themselves with followers and yea-sayers. All that ultimately matters is preserving the power of the CCP dynasty.

Xi has promised himself to never allow another incident like Tiananmen that threatens to split the party’s central leadership. The Chinese President surely must have feared that if he would stick to the Sino-British joint declaration and grant Hong Kong another 27 years of autonomy, the majority of its population would no longer accept to live under the whip of the CCP. No wonder that he did not want to wait till 2047 to end the city’s autonomy, but intervened the moment the democracy movement got to a level it could even endanger the CCP’s legitimacy, unity and ambition.

In November 2022 President Xi is expected to be re-appointed for a third time. Xi’s moves have had a profound effect on the world order. His massive consolidation of personal power has allowed him to act more boldly on the international stage, while it has increased the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in foreign policies: Putin has set an ominous precedent.

A Hegemonic China

China today deliberately tries to entrap smaller and weaker countries through one-sided ties of trade, financial flows and currency arrangements so as to turn them into politically dependent, pliable vassal states. While the Chinese market is systematically blocking foreign enterprises, the circumstances are different in Western and third countries’ markets and in other international settings. There, too, Beijing is trying to define and bend the rules, regulations and institutions to its own advantage, in all kinds of legal and illegal ways.

Some in the West say that the actual goal of Chinese policy has been purely ‘defensive’ and ‘normal’ superpower behavior: i.e. to solely make the world safe for the Party and its hold on power inside China. That China will never threathen any other country or seek a sphere of influence as Beijing preaches its principle of ‘non-interference’ in the domestic affairs of other sovereign countries. Increasingly, however, the PRC plays a very offensive and expansionist game, with the expectation that the rest of the world will just follow the country’s narrative and interests: it has now reached a level that all free countries ought to find completely unacceptable. The spectre of such a hegemonic and bullying China shouldn’t be attractive to any democracy around the globe, one would hope.

The EU mantra

The EU and the Dutch government have since 2019 reduced the China challenge to a rather elegant sounding mantra:  China is a partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. From the start mijngroeve has argued it would become extremely complex to maintain a balance between these three elements:  that formula implies that relations with Beijing can be neatly compartmentalised, or that the three aspects of the relationship are equally important.

Mijngroeve is of the opinion that  systemic rivalry is at the heart of the relationship with communist China and that it pervades the other two dimensions. The model of liberal democracy that puts individual human dignity and liberal markets at the centre of its politics poses a severe threat to the neo-totalitarian alternative cherished and pursued by the CCP leadership. That leadership will always assess international cooperation through the lens of its implications for this systemic rivalry and for its own power position inside China.

The liberal market and capitalism are for the CCP not the end goal but a means towards accomplishing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation under the leadership of the almighty Party. The CCP is not concerned with win-win with the free world, but with the indivisible victory of the PRC. The “multilateral world order” that China propagates is just communist code language for an order that is economically, technologically and regulatory dominated by Beijing.

As has described in multiple posts, in China’s economic partnership with Europe, the two sides dream very different dreams. The PRC leadership views the pursuit of wealth as a way to amass international power, status and influence, which, in turn, helps to support the CCP’s legitimacy at home and thus to cement its firm grip on power.  Whereas China’s communist leadership is determined to give its people a material standard of living similar to that found in any successful liberal economy, it has never really embraced Western values. After seeing the anger of the students and the public in 1989, the CCP leadership concluded that any easing of control could lead to an explosion of dissatisfaction that would be impossible to contain.   

The West’s infatuation with China

The West, chasing its own China dreams, either failed to recognize or chose to conveniently ignore and downplay the lessons the CCP took from the dramatic events in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union. The West adhered to a ‘wandel durch handel’ (change via trade) approach, whereas the CCP had already come to the conclusion that true political reform shouldn’t be the standard path to follow. China’s continued economic success despite the lack of any substantial political reform has even made the Party under Xi feel triumphant as the Western democracies have been struggling at the same time. The ‘Great Helmsman’ has become a man on a mission, who not only wants to demonstrate that he can realize ‘the China dream’ and ‘rejuvinate the Chinese nation’, but also can offer the world an alternative and successful form of government that can guarantee economic success. doubts that those different dreams will ever converge as long as China is a one party communist state. It’s hard to predict what the future of this rejuvinated communist China will be. But one thing we know from Chinese history is that every dynasty will come to its end, be it after 50, 100, 200 or even more years….

The pressure to constantly deliver economic growth hangs as a sword of Damocles above the CCP. The Party has little to offer its population or the world in terms of values or inspirational ideals other than empty slogans. It needs to constantly rewrite and falsify history to justify its hold on power and claims to infallibility.  Ironically, China’s true confucianist ‘brethren’ in Taiwan have demonstrated that a confucianist society can actually transform into an open, democratic one provided the confucian golden rule is followed. It shouldn’t be suprizing that Xi has become so hostile towards the democratic island: ultimately Taiwan has more to offer to East Asia and the world than just economic success or a market. Ultimately, Taiwan’s path to democracy and economic success offers East Asia and the world more inspiration and hope than the paranoid totalitarian state capitalism of the PRC.

Incompatibility with the liberal world order

China has benefitted the most of the opportunities provided by the liberal international order. However, China’s domestic and external economic policies are not really compatible with the spirit of the WTO and that liberal order. There is a fundamental contradiction between the realities of a globalised, open world and the recurrent impulse and desire of the Chinese leadership to always exercise control, as exemplified under Xi Jinping by his digital dictatorship and his goal to achieve a high degree of economic and technological self-reliance.

Xi’s policies of civil-military fusion, designed to put all civilian economic resources at the service of China’s military power, as well as the so-called dual circulation approach, intended to minimize vulnerabilities and strengthen the resilience of the Chinese economy against external shocks or sanctions, all symbolize that obsession with control.  It will therefore be extremely difficult if not impossible to get China to comply with international rules for the sake of the world order, as long as the CCP believes it would undermine its own authority and all the advantages it currently enjoys.

China’s ‘pro-Russian neutrality’ in the war in Ukraine has again put into focus the strategic implications of China’s influence in Europe, after the  Corona crisis exposed major vulnerabilities in Europe’s dependence on medical equipment and supplies from the PRC. Obviously many European countries consider Russia the biggest short term threat, yet China is already affecting European security through joint military exercises with Russia, buying into critical European infrastructures, or by influencing the discourse about the PRC by limiting academic freedom through pressure on academics and institutes. Beijing’s long arm has been able to stretch into European societies without much opposition from European governments.

No limits Russian-Chinese partnership

Whereas the Russian-Chinese ‘partnership with no limits’ is an uneasy alliance beset with conflicting interests and distrust, it’s nonetheless not implausable that f.e. Russia and China could further endanger Europe’s security by loosely co-ordinated or parallel hybrid warfare activities and disinformation campaigns. Both countries are among the top cybercriminals worldwide. Worst case China and Russia will widen their military co-operation, and Beijing will agree to eventual Russian requests to supply weapons and ammunition if the war in Ukraine will drag on.

Moreover, China’s belligerence on Taiwan is a major threat to the economic well-being of the EU and all its member states, irrespective of the democratic island’s remote location from Europe . The idea held by some European politicians and business executives that Europe could and should remain neutral in the geopolitical technology war between the USA and China and in the Taiwan conflict was mostly wishful thinking from the start, but has become an illusion with China’s ‘pro-Russian neutrality’ stance.

Sadly, communist China has turned into a pressing & long-term security threat, which needs to be addressed rapidly. Despite the understandable priority of the conflict in Ukraine, there is also an urgency to deal with the rise of China, the systemic rivalry and the related security risks. It doesn’t mean that the EU has to stop talking to and trading with China and completely decouple from the PRC, but European leaders should fully acknowledge the urgency, act upon it and stop downplaying these security threats or calling for even deeper economic engagement with Beijing.

It will be a major challenge for the EU to forge a unified response, yet some tough proposals and decisions will have to be made and taken soon. These will likely upset those business and political leaders who irrespective of continuing concerns about the absence of a level playing-field in China’s huge market and increasing risks of economic bullying by Beijing, have remained fiercely committed to it and have even wished to further expand their China market shares and sales.

These proposals and decisions could therefore face strong opposition within Europe, the more so since they could have an impact on an economy already sliding towards recession.  But to wait another 2,5, 10 years and continue to act or pretend it could still be business as usual with the PRC would be a catastrophic failure.

In part II will introduce a list of actions Europe could/should take in this context of the predominance of systemic rivalry in the relationship with the PRC in order to counter the CCP’s policies & actions

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