Ten years ago on Wednesday, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics showcased a fast-growing, economically powerful China with unmistakable ambitions to be a major global player. Just a few days ago, the Chinese authorities demolished the studio of artist Ai Weiwei, designer of the Games’ iconic “bird’s nest” stadium and now an exiled dissident in Germany. It was the latest sign of how the world’s most populous country has evolved under President Xi Jinping – simultaneously more self-confident yet paranoid, and no longer nearly so bothered what the rest of the world thinks.
While once China’s leaders openly flirted with copying the West, they now see themselves on a different route – even if that brings real risks of confrontation. In Johannesburg at the BRICS meeting of leaders of the world’s largest emerging economies last month, Xi outlined his robust worldview that China – with its unashamed focus on economic growth and disregard for electoral choice and civil rights – offered a different vison than Western capitalist democracy.
In the South China Sea and beyond, Beijing’s military has become ever more assertive. At the same time, its Belt and Road initiative – a multibillion-dollar set of global infrastructure investments explicitly aimed at redrawing global land and sea trade routes in China’s interests – has both boosted Beijing’s international clout but also hit some trouble. In countries like Colombia and Malaysia, among others, local politicians and governments have pushed back against major Chinese projects, sometimes canceling them altogether amid complaints over corruption and Beijing’s heavy handedness.
Beijing is also seen by some as being increasingly on the defense in its dealings with U.S. President Donald Trump, failing to gain the initiative in what looks to be an increasingly damaging trade confrontation. At home, meanwhile, Beijing’s Communist Party rulers are showing signs of nervousness amid a growing crackdown on dissent and minority groups.
In its northwestern Xinjiang province, Beijing’s clampdown against the Muslim Uighur minority has seen between 100,000 and 1,000,000 imprisoned in “reeducation camps,” described by rights monitors as probably the world’s largest mass incarceration program. Xi’s high-profile anticorruption crackdown has seen hundreds, probably thousands arrested, including senior Communists party and business figures.
In both cases, China has been keen to use its international clout to help support the clampdown, pressuring a host of other nations to deport those it wishes to arrest or seize their assets. If anything, though, domestic problems and international criticism only seem to intensify China’s conviction – and enthusiasm – for pushing ahead with its plans to reshape the world. With the United States and European nations mired in their own domestic political and economic crises, Beijing may well feel it offers something both different and more sustainable.
In addition, China, long one of the world’s largest arms exporters, is increasing its support for authoritarian governments, with Xi recently promising another $23 billion in loans to Middle Eastern states to build their economies and “social stability” – a move widely seen as a pledge to help their governments retain control of sometimes restive populations.
Intimidation, however, is increasingly one of China’s first tool of choice. Attempts this year to force international airlines into stopping listing Taiwan – which Beijing classes as a “rogue province” – as an independent country have been among the most obvious signs of this. International airlines responded in a variety of ways, with the U.S. State Department expressing “strong concerns” over China’s attempt to dictate the language used by foreign firms on their own websites and products.
Inevitably, that heavy-handed approach is yielding mixed results. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and a host of other emerging markets, Beijing’s raw economic power – coupled with its willingness to work with often corrupt local governments – continues to buy it access. Crucially, China retains the flexibility to finesse its approach from nation to nation. In South Africa, China has largely avoided importing its own labor due to pressure from the government.
Chinese migrant populations remain high in a host of smaller countries, including Zambia and Angola – although official Chinese data last year suggested an economic slowdown on the continent was prompting some to return home.