Xi seems not to realise that a nation’s influence is not based just on its weapons and troops, or its economic might, or its foreign exchange reserves. Above all, influence, like leadership, must be accepted, even wanted, by others.
New York: On 23 November, President Donald Trump’s core team finally conceded defeat (without explicitly saying so) and began the transition to a new Presidency.
The irrepressible American eagle has soared again.
What is the difference between President Donald Trump and God, my seven-year-old granddaughter asked me. She had learnt it in her very pro-Democrat school in New York, where I am at present.
I do not know, I confessed.
She looked at me with pity. God does not think he is Donald Trump. The President thinks he is God!
A seven-year-old saying this?
I began to think. Would this question not have been more relevant to Xi Jinping?
My granddaughter has never heard of Xi, although she does know China (that’s where the noodles come from).
What went wrong with the man whom only a few years ago his country had adored, the world at large had admired, and rivals at home and abroad had feared?
I began to look for an answer.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had patted himself on the back for “peace for our time” upon returning from the Congress of Berlin in 1878. And the First World War came.
60 years later, another hapless Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, also known as Appeasement Man, boasted of “peace for our time” (with a fellow called Adolf Hitler), in the Munich Agreement that sacrificed large parts of Czechoslovakia. He also claimed “peace with honour”.
But Hitler laughed all the way to the bank.
Less than a year after Chamberlain’s claim (perhaps lament), Hitler’s Wehrmacht swept through Poland. Britain and France went to war with Germany. The Second World War devastated Europe, Asia, and large parts of Africa. It changed everything.
The demented fellow who started it all put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. Be warned, Xitler!
The futility of appeasing expansionist totalitarian states was demonstrated yet again. Will we never learn?
How does a state turn totalitarian? Why do normal people (who are like you and I), willingly abandon their intelligence and accept fictions created by mad leaders? Forget the big guys suffering from burgeoning megalomania, what ails the “little fellows”? These are the aam aadmi for whom the mass media (now social media) messages and demagoguery are specifically designed.
I read again “They Thought They Were Free”, the 1955 classic by American journalist Milton Mayer, based on his interactions with several German ordinary folks (for whom the Volkswagen was designed) soon after the Second World War. He wondered why Germans did not stand up for their rights, even as one mesmerizing demon drove them to their destruction. What did they see around them? That nobody went hungry or cold or ill? And what about the horrors that they could sense? Those were willingly relegated to the realm of hearsay.
The conclusion was that totalitarian regimes remain in power only if they keep moving and set everything around them in motion—perpetual motion mania.
During the Nazi era, people were constantly fed with continuous changes and “crises” provoked by enemies of the Fatherland within and without, so they had no time to think of all the dreadful things happening around them or to object or protest.
These malignant methods of deception come one pill at a time, one step at a time, till the volks (people) become inured to them, profoundly affecting their judgement.
The inexorable momentum towards autocracy and tyranny is measured in drips, not as a flood, and accelerates step by step till those who don’t understand what is happening, their brains excised, respond mechanically.
A system slowly manifests itself in which hate and fear supplant sanity and reason, and ordinary people are willing to kill and to die. In the body politic as in the body personal, non-resistance to the minor affliction opens the door for non-resistance to the deadlier.
Think of the Long March (Mao Zedong running away from the Nationalist Chinese forces), the Hundred Flowers Blooming, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the devastating Cultural Revolution (Smash the Four Olds), Seek Truth from Facts (facts provided by the Communist Party), the “To be Rich is Glorious” mantra, the Four Modernizations, One Child Policy (now rescinded), Three Represents, Three Supremes, Three Dreams, the Circular Economy (latest madness).
Nazi Germany (like today’s China) emphasised non-intellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, duty, purity, labour, simplicity) elevating the self-esteem of the little man. Intellectuals, especially those who questioned the spreading poison, were effectively silenced, respect for the teacher metamorphosed into resentment, trust into suspicion (remember the Cultural Revolution in China during which Xi denounced his parents?).
In October 2020, Xi asks PLA troops to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable”.
The similarity frightens me.
Is Xi PingPong’s favourite read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”? It expressed Hitler’s racist ideology, identified the Aryan as the “genius” race, and declared the need for Germans to seek living space (lebensraum) in the East. China’s landgrab is all around.
Through his four turbulent years in office, President Donald Trump (who once wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal”) fingered his friends and allies, withdrew from multilateral institutions and agreements, and cozied up to dictators and wannabe Sultans.
He faltered badly on the Chinese pandemic, not seeing the evidence hiding in plain sight. He called out China only after the virus had begun its deadly destruction.
Suddenly, America’s leadership of the free world looked shaky.
How could the Can-do nation that organised the yearlong Berlin airlift to bring food, fuel and medicines to 2 million Berliners, put a man on the moon, invented the world-changing personal computer, and created Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, and has 40% of the world’s Nobel Prize winners, be so clumsy?
The universal message of the Statue of Liberty seemed lost in America’s chaos, polarization, and dysfunction.
In a recent Pew Research Center poll in 13 major economic powers, over four of every five respondents agreed that the United States has done a poor job of handling Covid-19.
People across the world, including America’s closest allies, began asking if the US could provide the leadership to tackle pressing global issues such as climate change and other shared challenges whose solutions required expertise, ability and effective coalition building.
According to what I have read, a journalist on a 24-hour Bosnian news channel commented wryly: “The Vice President is wearing a mask, while the President doesn’t. Some staffers wear them; some don’t. Everybody acts as they please. As time passes, the White House begins to look more and more like the Balkans.”
With trust in America at record lows over the past few years, it was Chinese master Xi Jinping’s magnificent opportunity, his moment to expand Chinese influence at America’s expense by stepping gracefully into America’s worn out shoes.
It became increasingly common to hear people contrast Washington’s debilitating partisanship and gridlock with the ruthless efficiency of Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
Flush with tainted money and having linked three quarters of the world to the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, Xi grandly launched his global Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI) and touted it as a win-win proposition. Over 100 countries succumbed.
And then hubris intervened.
He began to believe that the word was begging for socialism with Chinese characteristics. Is lunacy the prerogative of only one leader?
Xi blew it.
If the global can-do nation, the United States faltered in dealing with the Chinese pandemic, China fumbled badly. With its great information firewall, it could hide the truth from its own people, but in this age of nano-second information transfers, it could not hide its culpability.
The world quickly saw (even if not many said so) China’s deadly cover-up of the pandemic (abetted by its faithful slave in the World Health Organization), its abusive diplomacy and ridiculous territorial claims, its damaging approach to development, and its revolting human rights violations, including the mass internment of its Uyghur Muslim population.
A recent Pew Research Center global survey revealed that China’s image is sinking rapidly, plummeting to all-time lows in nations such as Canada, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The man who would be king (remember the 1975 movie with Sean Connery?), Xi himself did not fare much better.
Over three out of four respondents had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in global affairs. A year ago, it was six out of ten.
In the countries polled, Xi’s negative image reached the highest levels on record.
With Joe Biden about to become the next US President, Xi has little chance of fixing his mistakes (even if he were perspicacious or honest enough to realise them).
For China’s political system is the biggest barrier to its role as a global superpower.
The USSR collapsed because its massive military strength could not be supported by its crumbling economy. Its repressive political system appealed to no more than a handful of exhausted autocrats.
Soviet citizens celebrated its collapse as much as anybody else.
Xi and his sidekicks seem not to realise that a nation’s influence is not based just on its weapons and troops, or its economic might, or its foreign exchange reserves. Above all, influence, like leadership, must be accepted, even wanted, by others.
I have been in diplomacy 47 years and counting. We believe in quiet discussion and persuasion and gentle dialogue. We do not threaten Armageddon every time another country disagrees with us. Which is why our diplomacy is so successful, sceptics notwithstanding.
China’s default response to international or domestic opposition is intimidation rather than persuasion, leaving a miasma for those who are forced to agree to Beijing’s demands.
But Xi clearly believes that his objectives can be realised by coercion, blandishments, and threats. This confirms that he is an imbecile.
The Chinese Communist Party places more emphasis on being feared than being loved, which severely limits its ability to be a benign global leader.
Probably it has never heard of Caligula who famously said of his conquered subjects 2,000 years ago: Let them hate me as long as they fear me.
The fear usually dissipates, the hatred lingers. The Chinese Communists are not smart.
China will never replace the US, no matter how much Trump pulled back on the world stage.
The emphasis on denial, deterrence, and bullying sabotages Beijing’s efforts.
Just ask the victims of China’s land for loans scam, garbed as the Bilk and Rob (sorry Belt and Road) Initiative.
Ask Sri Lanka, and Kenya, and Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea, and Argentina and the Maldives, and the people of India’s Gilgit-Baltistan, presently under Chinese-Pakistani occupation. When they cannot repay China’s loans for useless white elephant projects, China simply gobbles up their real estate.
Do not even go that far. Just talk to the Tibetans and Uyghurs about how “soft” China’s power is.
Xi and his devotees (remember every Chinese must memorise Xi’s divine speeches) are too consumed by domestic concerns, and too insecure in China’s standing at home and abroad.
So, Xi tries to redefine diplomacy, by encouraging his officials to use abuse and threats over discussion and debate.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.
This is the first of a two-part article on China.