China’s message is loud like thunder but what would softer voices say?

China’s leaders used the National People’s Congress in Beijing this March to send several clear messages to the world. The most significant is that President Xi Jinping is centralising power, based on an uncompromising ideology through which the Chinese Communist Party leads everything. Limits on the terms of office of China’s leaders have been removed, meaning that Xi could in theory be in power for the rest of his life.

Another message from the Congress is that China intends to spend a fortune on new weapons and warships because it believes that military power is an integral part of the Chinese Dream. Rival nations, especially Japan and India, are inclined to ramp up their own defence capacity in response, but cannot compete with China financially. Japan and India have a combined annual defence expenditure of around $100 billion, compared to China’s official figure of $174 billion – a number which most experts believe is greatly understated.

The prime ministers of India and Japan will hold summits with Chinese leaders this summer. They hope that diplomacy will prevent territorial disputes flaring up and enable trade to keep flowing. Economic ties between them are strong.

Meanwhile, Taiwan remains in the eye of the storm. Chinese warships encircle the island and ballistic missiles are aimed at its capital, Taipei. President Trump has tested Beijing’s patience by almost ignoring the One-China policy and recognising aspects of Taiwan as an independent nation. Trump’s new foreign policy advisor, John Bolton, has called for increased arms sales to the island.

Like President Trump, Bolton has also been highly critical of the US trade deficit with China, which Washington says hit a record figure of $375 billion last year. Bolton supports Trump’s trade dispute with China, which started with tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the US but is starting to escalate into a bigger dispute.

The television coverage of the National People’s Congress revealed how China approaches its media. Viewers watched many hours of men giving speeches beneath the hammer and sickle, with no hint of debate or dissent, or even analysis. The Communist party already exerts huge influence over news and entertainment and from now on the Department of Propaganda will take direct control of state-run radio and television broadcasters – both domestic and international – and merge them into a single conglomerate, called the Voice of China.

President Xi’s closing speech to the Congress gave an indication of the tone the media will adopt. He was fierce on territorial issues, warning that ‘all attempts or tricks aimed at dividing the motherland are doomed to failure and will receive the condemnation of the people and the punishment of history’.

On the other hand, he promised that ‘China will never seek hegemony nor engage in expansion’ and said that the nation plans to ‘promote lasting peace, universal security, common prosperity and an open, tolerant, clean and beautiful world’.

For much of Asia, the Chinese Dream is exported through the Belt and Road Initiative, a grandiose project to build infrastructure and trade routes in more than 80 countries. China sets its own rules of engagement, based on a deep conviction that its development model is superior to any other. Some countries, such as Pakistan, foresee great benefits from involvement in the project and readily comply with China’s wishes.

But there are others in Asia who have reservations about the Chinese approach. Their message is usually softer than China’s thunderous rhetoric and not all the speakers concur. However, their collective voices express a conviction that political systems based on consultation and discussion allow everyone to express their views and guide a nation’s choices. These are fundamental freedoms which are still denied to the citizens of China.

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