Xi Jinping’s turbulent year marked by trade wars, detention camps and an economic slow down – China power
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ended the year with a number of international controversies. (AP: Ng Han Guan)
In the grand narrative of China’s rise, it’s easy to ascribe a type of exceptionalism to the China model that renders normal standards for political analysis unsuitable.
- Xi Jinping has had a turbulent year domestically and internationally
- Foreign nations are still unclear about Beijing’s intentions
- 2019 could be another difficult year for Beijing if its economy continues to slow down
After all, the free media, opposition parties and civil society groups that highlight the shortcomings of democratic leaders elsewhere are missing from the day-to-day coverage in China.
But if you try to judge President Xi Jinping’s performance over the past 12 months by the standards of any other country, 2018 was a troubling year.
It started so well for the man dubbed China’s “chairman of everything”, as he managed to contain signs of discontent among his Communist Party colleagues when changing the constitution to allow him to stay on as president indefinitely.
Even in a one-party state, controversial motions usually receive dozens of dissenting votes among the 3,000 delegates at the annual March meeting — sometimes even hundreds — but Mr Xi’s power is such that the motion sailed through with just two dissenting votes.
And no, we don’t know who those two were.
Chinese liberals were generally horrified but the world’s most sophisticated censorship and state security apparatus ensured their voices were muffled.
State media gushed how the change would bring stability, but it predictably brought international headlines about China returning to the strongman era at a time when the world needed reassuring about Beijing’s intentions.
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have been at odds over their countries’ ongoing trade war. (AP: Andrew Harnik)
Then there is the trade war.
From a nationalist Chinese view you could see it as strong leadership that Xi Jinping has made minimal concessions to Donald Trump in persisting with China’s higher tariffs, restrictive investment environment and subsidised state-led growth model.
But Mr Xi’s efforts to maintain a protectionist-heavy domestic economy while telling the world that China is a champion of free trade isn’t going well.
The European Business Chamber, representing industrial giants that have transferred vital technological know how to China over the past 40 years of opening up, issued a statement in November describing yet more promises to “open up” as “constant repetition, without sufficient concrete measures or timelines being introduced”.
A pre-Christmas proposal to outlaw forced transfers of technology was greeted with scepticism among the foreign business community here.
End-game for Uyghurs still unclear
Satellite imagery captured over a remote and highly volatile region of western China lifts the lid on the size and spread of internment camps. (ABC News/Google Earth/Digital Globe)
And then there are the “vocational training centres”.
For the first half of the year, Chinese officials were ordered to simply reject Western media reports of mass incarceration of ethnic minority Muslims in the country’s far west.
By the end of the year, Chinese media outlets had changed tune, claiming the policy has brought an end to the sporadic terror attacks that used to happen and is an exemplary model of human rights.
But UN and Western media scrutiny aside, the year ended with Islamic groups in Turkey and Indonesia trying to pressure their own governments to raise concerns with China, something so far majority-Muslim nations have largely avoided.
The end game for the estimated hundreds of thousands of detainees is far from clear — they reportedly will be released after sufficiently completing training programs — and it’s likely Mr Xi will have to contend with further concern from the Muslim world that previously wasn’t a big issue in Chinese diplomacy.
China also ends the year in a heated spat with Canada, and with a growing backlash in the West to the country’s flagship tech company Huawei over spying concerns.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been good moments for the Chinese President.
His pressure campaign on independently-run Taiwan saw more diplomatic allies of the democratic island flip to recognising the People’s Republic, and Beijing was thrilled when Taiwanese voters overwhelmingly rejected the independence-leaning incumbents at the mid-term elections.
Distrust of economic figures
President Xi Jinping sits alongside African leaders at the 2018 FOCAC Beijing summit. (Twitter: PresidencyZA)
The sight of more than 40 African heads of state in the Chinese capital in September for a major summit also reaffirmed China’s political grip on the continent.
Overall though, it’s the domestic economy that has defined the rise of modern China, and if you believe the official figures, it only slowed a little this year.
But one liberal economist believes China’s real growth rate is less than a third of the official figure, and while few support that view, there are ample signs that things are not chugging along as fast as China’s Government would have us believe.
Censorship guidelines discouraging talk of bad economic news, local officials in China’s manufacturing heartland withholding economic data and reports of factory workers being put on holiday leave earlier than normal.
Diminishing returns from China’s debt-fuelled growth model more than the US trade spat is causing the slowdown, which has long been on the horizon.
But Xi Jinping, like his predecessors, takes every opportunity to lavish credit on the Communist Party for China’s economic rise.
If the slowdown worsens in 2019 as many predict, it’ll be difficult for the Party and its leader not to wear the blame.