The leader of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, proposed an image of friendship and peace across Asia—with the People’s Republic of China at the center—at a major address Sunday, conveniently setting aside what a number of neighboring countries regard as China’s provocative behavior in the region over the last several years.
Xi’s speech at the Boao Forum for Asia, a major annual event sponsored by China meant to mirror Switzerland’s World Economic Forum, was titled Towards a Community of Common Destiny and A New Future for Asia.
The speech was heavily laden with such commonalities as, “We have only one planet, and countries share one world.”
A good portion of the remarks were spent narrating the shared difficulties of the world: low growth, low demand, high debt, and more. “Geopolitical factors are more at play and local turmoils keep cropping up,” were among the choice observations Xi shared with his audience.
Amid all of these difficulties, Asia needs to “build a community of common destiny, we need to make sure that all countries respect one another and treat each other as equals,” Xi said. This includes “respect[ing] other countries’ social systems and development paths of their own choice, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns …”
Comments of this sort, while superficially unobjectionable, have previously been scrutinized by analysts, and understood to really mean that other countries should never publicly criticize China’s human rights abuses, and should bow to China’s expansive territorial demands in the East and South China seas.
Conflicts that China is at the center of include staking a claim to waters and resources normally understood as belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other nations ringing the South China Sea; regular sabre rattling with Japan, which experts have suggested may lead to conflict; a standing threat to conquer Taiwan; and incursions into disputed territory with India.
Among the proposals that China submits as part of its vision for a jointly prosperous Asia—and one in which Beijing plays a more prominent role than does Washington—is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The bank has caused a great deal of consternation in Washington recently, after U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged his support for it, against the wishes of American policymakers.
At the heart of the dispute are questions of how the bank would be governed: whether according to transparent, established standards of investment as accepted in institutions such as the World Bank, or according to more opaque measures that may result in unproductive or narrowly served capital allocation decisions. But even after the Obama administration chastised Cameron for joining the bank, Australia soon also pledged its interest, resulting in what was seen as a minor diplomatic embarrassment for the United States.
Some of Xi Jinping’s other remarks at the Boao forum serve as a reminder of the potentially difficult economic straits that China is likely to face in the near and medium term, which could in any case set back grand plans for massive overseas expenditures.
“Now, the Chinese economy has entered a state of new normal,” Xi said, pointing out that growth in 2014 was officially recorded at 7.4 percent, the lowest in recent memory (though still likely an inflated number, some economists argue). “It is shifting gear from high speed to medium-to-high speed growth, from an extensive model that emphasized scale and speed to a more intensive one emphasizing quality and efficiency,” he continued.
At the heart of Xi Jinping’s attempted reform agenda is allowing a more market-oriented and liberal economy that generates growth organically, by shifting wealth back into the hands of homeowners, for consumption, and out of the clutches of grasping regime kleptocrats, who over the last decade or more have been the dominant beneficiaries of China’s breakneck growth and natural exploitation.
The anti-corruption campaign that he has launched, and which is still very much underway, is meant to be one part of this process. It has also been accompanied by a broader crackdown on freedom of speech and thought, as well as the appearance of a return to Maoist orthodoxy, complete with the expulsion of Western textbooks, enhanced indoctrination in Marxism, and self-criticism sessions.
Whether genuine economic transformation can take place in a country that is so saddled by the political and ideological burdens that Xi has been so keen to heap on is far from clear.