In a speech Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hailed the centenary as a moment to recognize “a new historical starting point,” as “the Chinese people will soon complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects” and shift toward deepening “cooperation” and “partnerships” with other countries. He reiterated China’s belief in “mutual benefit and win-win,” what’s now Beijing’s stock language whenever discussing its expanding global economic and political reach.
Yet Wang’s rhetoric belies the far angrier nature of the moment. On various fronts, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats are locked in nasty fights with foreign governments. Meanwhile, under President Xi Jinping, China has repeatedly rattled its saber at Taiwan, deepened its campaigns of repression in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and steadily dismantled Hong Kong’s liberal freedoms.
The latter reality was on view in newsstands across the former British colony — where shelves no long carried Apple Daily, the brash, anti-Beijing tabloid that was forced to shutter after local authorities arrested its owner, intimidated its journalists and froze its assets. In remarks Thursday, President Biden said it was “a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world” and called the newspaper “a much-needed bastion of independent journalism in Hong Kong” amid “intensifying repression by Beijing.”
Chinese officials often decry the “Cold War mentality” of their counterparts in the West, particularly in the United States. They bristle at foreign censure over China’s human rights record and dismiss Western concerns as bad-faith hypocrisy or even envy of China’s success. As the U.S. government and others more directly take issue with aspects of China’s behavior on the world stage, from its trade practices to its military maneuvers, Beijing has grown more convinced that the West’s fading powers are bent on undermining its rise.
“The G7 and NATO have been distorted into anti-China platforms,” Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-backed think tank, told the Financial Times. “There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the U.S. wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the U.S. have an enemy.”
That bravado is a reflection of an emboldened regime that has long moved on from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s strategic mantra of “hide your strength, bide your time.” But it also belies a possibly deeper insecurity about the party’s own political future — Xi and his loyal cadres are known to have closely studied the fall of the Soviet Union and, as the crackdown in Hong Kong shows, are deeply sensitive to any perceived challenges to their rule.
“Few really grasp that this great power is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mind-set — perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others,” outgoing Australian Foreign Minister Frances Adamson said in a speech this week, referring to China.
The Australian government is locked in a number of disputes with Beijing, ranging from a ban on Chinese telecom firm Huawei operating 5G networks in the country to Canberra’s calls for investigations into the Chinese origins of the coronavirus pandemic to sweeping Chinese tariffs on Australian goods. A poll released this week found that 60 percent of Australians see China as a “security threat”; only 18 percent did in 2018.
The Biden administration seems of the view that a more conciliatory approach to Beijing won’t soften the Chinese regime. “China would likely have embarked on a more assertive foreign policy even if Xi had not assumed his paramount position in 2012,” wrote Rush Doshi, a China expert on the White House’s National Security Council, in a collection of essays on China’s place in the world published this month by the Brookings Institution. “Accordingly, the increasing tension in U.S.-China ties is likely to remain robust with changes in Chinese leadership, relatively unaffected by American concessions, and immune to efforts to reassure or socialize China. Instead, it is likely to endure into the future.”
At the same time, experts caution against a wholesale embrace of a narrative of a new “Cold War,” which is being pushed particularly by Republicans who want the administration to ratchet up its confrontation with China. “If, amid the triumphalism that attended the Soviet Union’s fall, the United States was too quick to dismiss China’s competitive potential, it may now be at risk of overstating it,” wrote Ali Wyne and Ryan Hass in Foreign Policy. “Beijing is neither on the precipice of disintegration nor on a path to hegemony; it is an enduring yet constrained competitor.”
“Americans must not be naive about China’s repression, disregard for human rights, and global ambitions,” wrote Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a Foreign Affairs op-ed last week. “I fear, however, that the growing bipartisan push for a confrontation with China … risks empowering authoritarian, ultranationalistic forces in both countries,” while distracting from areas where the countries can cooperate, including on climate change.
Sanders’s perspective is more prevalent in Europe, where politicians are more comfortable separating their political grievances with Beijing from their willingness to cooperate and collaborate in arenas where it makes sense. European leaders of various political stripes counsel a more calibrated approach, even as President Biden talks up a looming ideological clash between democracies and autocratic states around the world.
“I’m not sure the American president wants to create a new cold war with China,” Armin Laschet, the heir apparent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel should their Christian Democrats win elections later this year, said this week. “He has some very strong positions where he shows a competitive attitude [where] we as Europeans can be allies. But if somebody wants to start a new war, that would be the wrong answer.”
Xi, meanwhile, is loftily looking to the future. As part of the celebrations ahead of his party’s centenary, he spoke via video call with a group of Chinese astronauts deployed on the country’s Tianhe space station. They stood before the flags of both their country and the Communist Party. “The political message is hard to miss,” wrote Politico’s Stuart Lau.
For dissenters and independent media in Hong Kong, it’s a different story. “It is regrettable to see it end like this,” an Apple Daily reporter told The Washington Post. “Some colleagues have been coming to the office with red, puffy eyes. I’ve heard that many are not sleeping well these days — I, myself, too.”