Australia is in trouble with China — again. This week the Chinese ambassador in Canberra, Xiao Qian, came close to threatening war over Australian support for Taiwan. So much for Labor’s China honeymoon.
But don’t start work on that backyard bomb shelter just yet. A simple online search of ‘China threatens Australia’ turns up 25 million hits, or about one for every Australian. It’s nothing personal. China’s gonna China.
What is personal is Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s deepening isolation and paranoia. Xi is clearly still in charge, but he rules through a balance of enemies, not a preponderance of friends. He must continually stoke conflict in order to maintain his authority, and that includes international conflict. Australia is only an incidental factor in his domestic political balancing act.
Xi has held the top job in China for 10 years and his mandate is currently up for renewal. Some call it a ‘mandate from heaven’ on the model of the old Chinese emperors. Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, that mandate has come from the Chinese Communist Party, with the leader of China governing through a broad consensus of the party elite.
But these days, the mandate to rule China seems to come from the leader himself. Xi does not rule by consensus. He is surrounded by enemies, both internal and external.
It may be his own fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that Xi Jinping can only really depend on the support of one person: Xi Jinping.
The son of a Chinese revolutionary who fell out with Mao in the 1960s, Xi spent much of his teens and twenties in reeducation camps. He clawed his way back into the Communist Party, then rose to the top by being as bland as possible. When he was elevated to the supreme leadership in 2012, international China experts generally described him as a loyal party man.
Having no support base to call his own, Xi consolidated his power by setting China’s major political factions against each other. He demoted his fellow ‘princelings’, the children of Communist China’s first generation of revolutionary leaders. He tore apart the ‘Shanghai Gang’, targeting the clique of former leader Jiang Zemin with corruption investigations. He instigated an ideological challenge to the Communist Party Youth League faction of Premier Li Keqiang, accusing the League of straying from true Marxist thought. He even attacked the CEOs of China’s new high-tech champions, jeopardising China’s economic future for the sake of domestic political advantage.
If China’s economy were growing like gangbusters — as it was in the early 2000s — Xi could have bought off all these rival power bases with proceeds skimmed from the export economy, foreign investment, and land sales. But today, all these revenue streams are flatlining.
The coronovirus pandemic has only made things worse. The taps are dry, and Xi can only maintain his position by ensuring that no one else is in a position to challenge him.
The result is a leader who is trapped in China and can hardly leave Beijing. Xi isn’t the spider at the centre of China’s political web. He is the web.
All of this has important international implications, not only for Australia, but for the entire world. The most obvious is that under Xi’s leadership China has gone from being a rock of stability to a fountain of instability on the global stage.
Xi has exported China’s internal political tensions as he looks farther and farther afield for disturbances that make him politically indispensable. As a leader who has alienated everyone, he needs to be needed, not loved.
And he is needed — not just at home, but abroad as well. Xi has created a furore over Taiwan, pressuring China’s electronics manufacturers, which rely heavily on Taiwanese chips. He has set Vladimir Putin among the pigeons in Europe, apparently giving his blessing to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. And he either greenlit or was surprised by a 2020 advance on India by China’s Western Military Command, a deadly skirmish that has divided China’s multiple military power bases.
Each of these crises (and many more besides) can only be resolved with Xi’s blessing, and none of them will be resolved until it behoves him to resolve them.
It was inevitable that Anthony Albanese, Richard Marles, and Penny Wong would fall out with Beijing; no matter how hard they might try to return Australia’s China relations to some degree of normalcy.
That is neither to fault them for failing, nor to condemn them for trying. It is entirely appropriate that a new government would try to repair relations with such an important economic and diplomatic partner as China. But no Australian government will allow the country to be bullied for the sake of a foreign leader’s domestic political gain.
They used to say that being president of the United States was the loneliest job in the world. Today there are at least three jobs that are lonelier: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, and President of the People’s Republic of China. Xi holds all three.
In September, the Communist Party is expected to renew these appointments, cementing Xi’s position as China’s leader for life. How long he can remain leader for life is open to question.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, Xi now has the People’s Republic all to himself — but it’s up to him to keep it. All Australia can do is manage the consequences, and if things do fall apart, help pick up the pieces.
Salvatore Babones is director of the China and Free Societies program at the Centre for Independent Studies.