China and the US are caught in an ideological impasse

Beijing fears ‘confrontation and conflict’ if the ruling Communist Party’s ‘legitimacy’ is questioned

Welcome to the 16th edition of Between The Lines. This week we look at the “Clash of Worldviews” entangling Beijing and Washington. An ideological mind field waiting to explode. Also, we focus on British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly’s controversial visit to Beijing and how China staved off an “air-pocalypse.” Let’s get started.

Beijing and Washington are hovering dangerously close to the great “divide.” For the ruling Communist Party of China, “strategic competition” between the United States must not define Sino-American relations.

President Xi Jinping and his inner circle see this doctrine as a “win-lose” dynamic that brings “tremendous uncertainty,” according to Nathan Levine, the assistant director at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.

Inside the Party, there are even fears it could spiral into “confrontation and conflict” if its “legitimacy” is questioned. As Levine pointed out in an absorbing commentary, entitled A Clash of Worldviews, in Foreign Affairs:

The CCP is genuinely worried about its legitimacy. It faces a slowing economy with alarmingly high youth unemployment, as well as a weakening of the unspoken bargain between the government and the people: that a lack of political liberalization would be offset by steadily increasing economic prosperity.

“Precisely because of their ideological worldview, Xi and other top CCP leaders understand that any serious economic setback could further open the door to liberal ideas and pose an existential threat to their rule,” he said.

In short, this is the Achille’s heel of Comrade Xi’s regime, leaving Levine to argue that these “two great powers” are now “at a serious impasse” of “an ideologically driven security dilemma.” As well as being Homeric in its grandiose scale and gravity.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Vice-President Han Zheng. Photo: Xinhua

British red lines and Cleverly’s balancing act

Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly walked a thin red line during his trip to China. He smiled and sat down with Vice-President Han Zheng and top diplomat and Politburo Bureau member Wang Yi earlier this week.

But while insisting it would not be “credible” for the United Kingdom to “disengage” from the world’s second-largest economy, he called out China’s suppression of human rights. Cleverly messaged on X, formally known as Twitter:

Engaging with China doesn’t mean that we shy away from tough conversations. It’s about voicing our concerns directly – face to face.

“In Beijing, I challenged China on  Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai [the jailed media tycoon] and the treatment of UK Parliamentarians. But we cannot just ignore China on everything else. We have got to work with China on issues that will impact us all,” he added.

Still, his visit came amid a damning report by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee on Beijing’s behavior.

It accused the Chinese government of “genocide in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs, human rights abuses in Tibet, and imposing its foreign policy beyond” China’s “borders.” It also took aim at “violations to agreements reached with the UK to uphold the rights of individuals in Hong Kong,” a former British territory.

“The problem with our position is it smells terribly of appeasement,” former Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told the British mediaSo much for red lines.

Pollution plagued Beijing in 2013. Photo: Flickr

Nothing but blue skies … for now 

It must be in the air. Pollution in China’s major cities is falling, a study by the annual Air Quality Life Index revealed on Tuesday. In simple terms, that means the average Chinese citizen’s lifespan is now 2.2 years longer.

Back in 2013, “dense yellow and gray smog” would shroud the capital of Beijing, a harbinger of an “air-pocalypse.” Eight years later, China’s pollution levels have nearly halved, the report released by the University of Chicago confirmed. Cue CNN, the global media network:

Chinese cities used to dominate global rankings of the world’s worst air quality; while some are still on those lists, in many cases they have been overtaken by cities in South Asia and the Middle East.

“But while China’s particulate pollution levels are within its national standards, they ‘significantly exceed’ the World Health Organization’s guidelines,” the report said.

Still, before everyone bathes in Beijing’s blue skies, there could be polluted yellow clouds rolling in. A report by The Guardian media group this week reported that “China is approving new coal power projects at the equivalent of two plants every week.”

And finally …

Never mind a land grab, this is a sea grab. In a new map rolled out by Beijing, China claims nearly the entire South China Sea. “[We] hope relevant parties can see this in an objective and rational way,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said as reported by the Reuters news agency today. Brace for choppy diplomatic seas in the weeks and months ahead.