OPINION - Xi Jinping had as bad a year as Vladimir Putin and now China is paying the price

Ben Judah (Handout)
Ben Judah (Handout)

At the start of last year, when Xi Jinping met Vladimir Putin for their most sensitive talks in Beijing, they had high hopes for 2022. The Russian president, Western intelligence believes, informed his host of his intentions to imminently attack Ukraine. Xi then asked Putin to wait until after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, he was hosting in his capital. Both men promptly announced a “no-limits friendship” afterwards.

Historians will come back to this meeting behind the ceremonial gates of the Diaoyutai Guest House, a complex where Mao himself used to live, as the pinnacle of a delusion. A shared geopolitical misread between the two autocrats: that the West, routed in Afghanistan, was not only in accelerating decline but could now easily be pushed around.

Instead, it turned out to be both men’s annus horribilis. Putin’s armies were ravaged at the gates of Kyiv and driven out of occupied Kherson by an army rallied by a man he mocked — a comedian-turned-Ukrainian Churchill who once played the piano on live TV with his penis. Xi’s comeuppance has been just as dramatic.

Last year shattered two illusions in China. That the Chinese Communist Party, alone in the world, could navigate its population through the pandemic unharmed. And that Xi himself was immune to discontent.

Last October a lone man draped a banner proclaiming: “No to Covid Tests! Yes to Freedom. No to lies! Yes to dignity.” Two months later, this erupted into large scale protests across several major cities and over a hundred Chinese universities calling for “Zero Covid” to be stopped and, if sporadically, for Xi Jinping himself to resign.

Since then his totalitarian system of checks, quarantines and surveillance that kettled the virus for so long has been abandoned. The pain is staggering — an estimated 250 million people have caught Covid in China in the last few weeks as overwhelmed funeral homes are giving families just minutes to mourn their loved ones.

Millions of elderly are expected to die due to poor-functioning vaccines and low take-up. Suddenly Xi’s “Zero Covid”, relentlessly lauded as a triumph at every opportunity, looks like a senseless mistake.

Among China analysts, the idea Xi could eventually be removed by the party, the way Nikita Khrushchev was eventually by the Soviet Communist Party for his mistakes, has gone from simply inconceivable — to a very small, but suddenly present, possibility.

In 2021, Xi hoisted a new slogan on China: “Time And Momentum Are on Our Side.” In a lot of ways this no longer feels the same. China’s population, long the world’s largest, will be overtaken by India this year and will fall precipitously in the decades ahead.

Economic growth has fallen from double digits to three per cent last year, leading many analysts to predict that China will, in fact, never replace the United States as the world’s largest economy — pulled down by bad demographics, no immigration, building debt and bad bubbles in the property and financial sector the party seem incapable of addressing.

When it comes to foreign policy, Xi’s signature style of “Wolf Warriors,” as his belligerent online diplomats have been called, add up to failure. In Asia itself, his tenure has seen India and Indonesia drop warmer attitudes towards Beijing by pushing for territorial concessions. And globally, it has neutered the influence of the corporate China lobbies in Australia, Canada, Japan and Britain with hostility and aggression.

Xi’s policies have also pushed a reluctant European Union to drop a planned investment deal. Even the craven World Health Organisation has finally begun criticising China for faking its Covid numbers.

All this has helped the United States. Xi has done as much as Donald Trump and Joe Biden to sharpen Washington’s commitment to serious economic competition. New export controls banning the sale of US semiconductor technology to China were avoidable — and are going to hurt. This is just the beginning of what the White House has planned.

China, rather than being on the verge of taking over the world, now finds itself powerful but isolated within it — once again with a bad leader whose instincts don’t help it. The question is for how long.

Ben Judah is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council