Despite holding more power, wealth and influence than ever before, China’s government is rotting from within. Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus makes that clear. Such an outbreak would have taxed the resources of any nation, but Xi Jinping’s China is not just another country. It is a high-tech authoritarian state experimenting with complete social control. To succeed it requires lies, intimidation and obfuscation. These very ingredients have exacerbated a public-health crisis and laid bare a government that fears the truth. Worse yet for the Chinese president, China's people know it.
The telltale signs of a panic-driven cover-up are clear: Despite an outbreak that likely began before December 2019, the Chinese government allowed no hint of a problem until a month after that. It silenced whistleblowers who knew the extent of the problem and took its time trying to contain the outbreak. Worse still, Beijing worries that accepting Washington’s continuing offers to help would be to admit it has failed.
For those who noted Xi’s obsession with dictatorial control during the Hong Kong protests, his use of concentration camps to control the Uighur Muslims, and his Mao-like clamp down on intellectual, religious and cultural life, it is no surprise that the Chinese dictator has exacerbated the health crisis in his desire to exert absolute control. In the current climate of fear, Chinese healthcare and other professionals are afraid to communicate even basic facts. Indeed, those Chinese who did warn international media and their fellow citizens have been punished by the Communist Party of China.
Last week a prominent Chinese law professor, Xu Zhangrun, was swiftly punished and banned from writing after he wrote that the virus "revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance," and that "groundless decisions from authorities have pushed powerless citizens to despair, and the disease to the globe." Unlike so many Westerners who assume Xi’s omnipotence, growing numbers of Chinese know what Xu knows: that Xi’s increasingly harsh rule is a hallmark of weakness, not strength.
Since it massacred its own people in 1989 on Tiananmen Square, the Party has been struggling to find a new basis for legitimacy. High levels of economic growth quieted the masses for a time. But China’s growth has been slowing for quite a while now, and it faces manifold demographic and social problems. It is unlikely that Xi’s nationalistic promise to rejuvenate the nation will inspire the people for very long either. Nor has Xi’s bungling of high-profile challenges been missed.
Xi overplayed his hand in Hong Kong, using heavy-handed tactics to force Hong Kongers to accept unwanted laws. The gambit failed, and protests continue to fester. Horror at Beijing’s tactics in Hong Kong propelled the CCP’s sworn enemy -- Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party -- to victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections in January, crushing the pro-Chinese party.
Other signs have only underscored what many of us hear from Beijing -- that the Communist Party Secretary General is “arrogant and incompetent.” China’s rich are so eager to expatriate cash that new capital controls were imposed over the last few years, in addition to greater surveillance of banks and limits on investment in foreign bonds. Those who can are buying real estate in the West and sending their children to Western prep schools and colleges: The future in China looks bleak to them.
There’s money trouble. There’s health trouble. There’s political trouble. And under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States has finally begun to push back on Chinese military expansionism in the South and East China Seas. So what exactly does Xi’s version of the Party have left to recommend it? Total social control and widespread purges throughout the government. Coercion is a last-ditch effort to maintain Communist Party rule.
For many outside China, its outward signs of strength -- military, economic and political -- indicate a Beijing inexorably on the march to global supremacy. But Xi’s mishandling of protests in Hong Kong and the brutal actions against China’s Muslims are not the actions of a confident regime. The Wuhan outbreak further reveals the worldwide consequences of Xi’s politics of fear.
It is precisely this mix of external strength and internal weakness that makes China such a difficult and dangerous problem for the United States. But this is hardly a reason for Washington to drop its vigilance. History teaches us that when powers fail to meet their grand aspirations, they can cause global crises -- think Imperial Japan. Surely Xi will soon want to use a show of China's strength to distract from this embarrassment. For the foreseeable future, the United States will be dealing with a China that swings from internal crisis to external aggression.
Americans can only hope that their government is ready for Xi’s next moves.
Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.