China is a nation held captive by one man. A regal creature, she covers her bruises with jewels and keeps quiet at international dinner parties, ignoring concerned friends gossiping over champagne glasses. Xi Jinping keeps a light touch on her wrist. He is the cave-to-riches son of a revolutionary and president in perpetuity. It is not only his wife that he watches but all the guests too. They are followed home by lines of code or left wandering through mazes that decorate the palace grounds – hedges draped in veils of light that lead diners straight back to Xi’s table.
You may wonder how three thousand years found itself imprisoned under a solitary will, but the answer is deceptively simple. Civilisation orbits autocracy. The end of Chinese imperialism saw warlords and emperors replaced by generals and comrades. Taiwan was ejected from the cataclysm before the Communist victor collapsed into darkness, dragging its manifesto off course into Diyu. Geopolitics remains distorted around this gravitational mass, obstructing our view of what lies behind the Jade Curtain.
Astronomers predict the movement of celestial carnivores via their effect on surrounding bodies. When the United Nations howls, a signatory of the Shanghai Cooperation shushes them. Their pact of non-interference outranks the world’s untidy stack of treaties, commissions, agreements and acronyms. Xi Jinping understands that true power bides its time in silence. He is a student of antiquity and threads its lessons through Party ranks.
Asian political philosophy spawned on the battlefield. Its masters practice restraint. To be seen but not moved. As Genghis Khan’s Tatar hoards enticed overconfident armies with a show of false retreat, businesses like Huawei are the modern mangudai and plenty are riding their horses in hot pursuit over open cut mines and poisoned ground. Upon realising you have become the prey in this relationship, safari guide Peter Allison has the best advice. “Whatever you do, don’t run. Food runs.”
It is probably wise to remind ourselves that pure Communist economics do not work. Chairman Mao Zedong gave it a go and summoned an apocalypse. When he was safely buried, China experimented and proved that a few brush strokes of Capitalism could perform miracles. Unfortunately, Communism makes business rather beige. The perks of corruption fuelled an inevitable system of favour and influence as people grew tired of smacking their heads on glass ceilings placed at shoulder height. These officials in the prefectures became Machiavelli’s Princes, swindling illicit profit from the State.
As the savannah’s apex predator, Xi Jinping swore to go after these ‘Tigers, Flies, Rats and Wolves’. At least four million party members were punished under this pledge, wiping his political opposition off the menu. Brutality has left Xi Jinping with a gathering squall of powerful families, businessmen, social reformers, citizens and scholars – all wronged by a man who does not stop at the kill but digs his paws into the ash.
Today’s China is an empire of modernity and monstrosity in equal parts. Its cities are inhabited by the religiously persecuted, quietly conquered, relentlessly surveilled and those like Hong Kong who live under the shadow of her leathery wings. In Eastern philosophy, water flows downhill in a metaphor for humanity’s inherent goodness. Reality is sharper, seeking out the paths of least resistance that pool at the feet of China’s easy money.
Despite a subsiding landscape of belts and roads, Australia overindulged, selling off vital organs until our neighbours laid letters of condolence on the sand, assuming the worst. Australia cannot influence the Pacific from this deathbed with scavengers picking millions off in the name of Climate Change. Xi Jinping ignores these squawks. He is busy manufacturing forbidden islands in the South China Sea, filling the ocean with concrete. Intrigued, green-tinged politicians bend every which way to appease China and avoid giving offence, like manoeuvring themselves into a risky sexual position with props and a blindfold better left on the page.
Despite the virtue signalling, cracks have appeared in Xi Jinping. He is not a moderate. His ambition is to be the reddest of red – a devout worshipper of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. The fall of the Soviet Union is his private obsession. Xi blames Western ideas for the massacre of Russia’s Marxist utopia; forgetting of course, that the Soviet Union collapsed because it wanted to. Regardless, he has no interest in embracing reform.
Democracy is not an efficient form of power nor is it the most successful viewed purely through the lens of conquest. Empires are frequently built by lunatics and destroyed by well-meaning senates. All countries require tasks to keep occupied and ambitious despots have them in surplus. Meanwhile, peaceful nations amble, turning Liberty into the artist of history. Drunk – frequently broke and forever lost in self reflection, they wonder at their priceless masterpiece until the curtain falls.
Xi Jinping is a builder, not an artist.
His project is the consolidation of absolute power for China’s Communist Party and the construction of China as supreme. Everything that is said and done works toward this end. While the last few decades have seduced economic experts, Xi Jinping has subverted their naive expectations and styled himself as an emperor, half a step from deity. Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma of Alibaba said, “Be in love with the government, but do not marry them.” Too late. Xi Jinping sits on the board of every business and their CEOs pen him love letters to survive.
The best way to deal with rigid strategists is to be an unpredictable nightmare. If China is a mountain range growing over a political fault – Trump is mining its flanks without UN permits. Even optimists admit that China is a sleeping dragon but she is also an old house that collapses when moved. Her size, depth and complexity make tyranny the choice of governance but I suspect it will also be her exit from Xi’s dinner party.
There is some hope. The roar of the outside world cannot be countered by propaganda forever. China remains an unfinished saga, but Xi Jinping is an essay. He can be understood, predicted and outplayed like any man.