China risks riding the nationalistic wave into troubled waters

Beijing’s economic recovery has helped fuel rising military jingoism amid the Covid-19 chaos

Blood and sweat were the raw materials that built “China’s Miracle.” 

But the sacrifice of generations of low paid workers will probably resemble a footnote in history when the ruling Communist Party celebrates its centenary later this year.

The yawning gap between rich and poor still exists in the country despite eradicating extreme poverty. Unemployment is another colossal challenge.

“Existing national wealth, including the US$3 trillion in foreign reserves, has been accumulated through the blood and sweat of several generations over the past 40 years,” Xu Zhangrun, the acclaimed law professor who worked at the prestigious Tsinghua University before being barred because of his outspoken views, said.

“These are fruits that were harvested by the Chinese people, one generation after the other,” Xu, a vocal critic of President Xi Jinping, wrote in his seminar essay Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes in 2018.

Covid-19 crisis

Nearly three years later, his voice is like a soft breeze in the wilderness drowned out at home by “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and the unshakeable belief that this is China’s century.

Economically, the headline statistics make compelling reading.

Despite initially bungling the Covid-19 crisis when it first surfaced in Wuhan, Beijing has overseen positive GDP growth of 2.3% in 2020. Foreign investment into the country has also jumped to $163 billion, surpassing the United States. 

Trade deals with the European Union and the 15 Asia-Pacific nations involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership have been hailed as diplomatic “coups.”

A strong yuan has even dented the dollar amid the rubble of the Covid-19 catastrophe and the chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency in the past 10 months.

Staggering cost

“The most profound changes in the global power structure is that the western world is experiencing a prolonged downturn, which can be condensed into a single sentence: ‘East rises and the West falls,’” Yuan Peng, of the influential China Institute of Modern International Relations, said in an interview with The Beijing News earlier this month.

Economies across Europe and the United States have been crippled by the deadly coronavirus. To underline the staggering cost of the pandemic, up to $10 trillion could end up being wiped off global GDP, The Economist reported.

Apart from the financial shockwaves, political upheaval in the US after the presidential elections last year has emboldened China. A wave of nationalistic propaganda has rippled across state-run media outlets such as Global Times, the People’s Daily and the Xinhua News Agency.

Allegations of appalling human rights violations against Uighur Muslims have been branded as the “lie of the century” by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Similar comments are in stark contrast to a United Nations dossier confirming that up to 1.5 million people from ethnic groups have been detained in Xinjiang internment camps.

A crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has also prompted international outrage as China’s leadership dismantles the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.

Sporadic clashes on India’s border have added to the diplomatic rhetoric along with growing military tension in the South China Sea. But, perhaps, the most chilling flashpoint has centered around Taiwan. 

Berlin by the sea

In the past six months, the island has started to resemble Berlin by the sea, a grim reminder of the beleaguered West German city during the height of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Last weekend’s multiple incursions by at least 24 Chinese fighter jets and bombers only underlined the gravity of the situation. 

Condemned by the new administration of US President Joe Biden, Beijing responded in the usual fashion. Democratic Taiwan is considered a renegade province, and Chairman Xi and the Communist Party have vowed to unify the island with the mainland by force if necessary.

“If Taiwan [continues to] place [its] bets on increasing support from [the US] and Biden’s administration follows former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s extreme [position], the situation is doomed to deteriorate … Sooner or later, PLA fighters will appear over the island of Taiwan,” Global Times warned in an editorial.

Military spending

Economic strength has fueled military spending amid a deafening chorus of “peace.” The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy is now the largest in the world, according to a US Pentagon report released last year, despite being inferior in carrier groups.

In part, this is simply the drum roll of nationalism which has even filtered through to academia. 

“The present-day world has seen irrevocable changes. Despite the difficulties and harm wrought by the pandemic, China has brought the situation under control while managing to achieve continuous economic growth,” Huang Jing, the dean of the Beijing Language and Culture University, said.

“This demonstrates that China’s peaceful rise continues with unstoppable momentum. The gap between China and the US will continue to narrow, and the role China has to play in world affairs will become increasingly significant and prominent,” he wrote in a commentary for China-US Focus.

Expect similar comments from China’s state-controlled universities, institutions and media in the months ahead. A fanfare to herald the centenary party for the Party.