Xi’s growing power poses risks for New Zealand

Foreign Affairs

As Xi Jinping begins an unprecedented third term in charge of China, the world is eagerly waiting to see how his growing power will affect the country’s path – and New Zealand will not be immune to the effects of a new slide towards authoritarian rule, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: As Xi Jinping opened the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last week, he issued a grim warning to those gathered at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The country must be “prepared to withstand strong winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms”, Xi said, with problems deep at home and “a new period of turbulence and change” across the world.

At first glance, reappointing China’s leader for another five-year term may seem like a welcome step towards stability in such a turbulent world – but many fear the nature of his renewed government could be a sign of new clouds. storm to come.

When Xi’s third term as CCP general secretary was confirmed, the Chinese government officially broke with decades of precedent that had limited the term of one-person leadership.

Xi must wait until next year to be confirmed as president by the National People’s Congress, a position that had formal term limits until they were removed in 2018, but that is only a fait accompli given his reappointment as party secretary and army chief.

While the decision to grant Xi a third term would be significant enough in isolation, the Chinese leader has also managed to further consolidate power in his own hands.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, seen by some as a restraining influence on Xi’s regime, has indeed been pushed into retirement, while the Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s top governing body – is now fully staffed. loyalists with long ties to their leader.

Xi Jinping Thought was anchored more firmly in the country’s constitution, with amendments establishing Xi Jinping and his policies as “the core of the Party Central Committee and the whole Party”.

The changes provide additional fuel for those who fear that the ruler is establishing a personality cult similar to that displayed during the disastrous reign of Mao Zedong, and preparing to rule for life regardless of the consequences.

These anxieties were barely allayed by stunning images of Hu Jintao, one of Xi’s predecessors, be escorted out of the convention hall although he seems visibly reluctant to go. Chinese state media eventually reported that Hu’s departure was due to health issues, but the initial period of silence – along with the apparent censorship of comments about the incident on Chinese social media platforms – led to speculation about a potential “purge”, truth or otherwise, which may remain unclear for some time.

“The relationship with New Zealand will continue to be strong because trade is important, but let’s also be clear that he is the autocratic ruler of a communist state and is further entrenching his power.”
– National MP Simon O’Connor

Of course, concerns about China’s growing assertiveness on the world stage and the challenges it poses to the rules-based order are not new. The increased crackdown on dissenting voices and minority groups in China – most strikingly, Uyghur Muslims in its Xinjiang province – has led to international condemnation, while the country’s attempts to use its economic power against smaller nations like Australia and Lithuania have also proved controversial.

The fear is that what little handbrake remains in place will be released entirely, with potentially disastrous results both for the rest of the world and for those in China.

“Xi now really owns the system, but any mistakes will be his own as well – no doubt about it,” said Dali Yang, a professor at the University of Chicago. say it New York Times. “Until now, if there were problems in the economy, he could blame others.”

Speaking on Xi’s reappointment, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta acknowledged its “unprecedented” nature, but avoided expressing any concerns about China’s potential trajectory.

“What the world needs now is more stability and leadership, and we all need to play our part in trying to minimize the harmful effects of conflict.”

National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee applied the same diplomacy, suggesting little would change in New Zealand-China relations as a result of the decision.

“President Xi is very conscious of New Zealand and what we stand for: we will continue to speak with our Chinese counterparts as we always have, making it clear that while we appreciate the business relationship, we have significant differences in human rights. “said Brownlee.

But his national colleague Simon O’Connor, a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, offered a firmer view of what could happen.

“The New Zealand relationship will continue to be strong because trade is important, but let’s also be clear that he’s the autocratic ruler of a communist state, and he’s still building his power…that certainly has considerations regarding our national security and our cooperation with partners across the Pacific.

“All measures” on the table for Taiwan

While O’Connor said it would be difficult for China to back down much further on human rights abuses, he expressed concern about one area of ​​great uncertainty – Xi’s plans for Taiwan. .

Although Xi emphasized peaceful reunification in his speech to Congress, it came with a crucial caveat: “We will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the possibility of necessarily taking all measures.”

The Chief of the US Navy warned of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could take place by 2024, and while that timeline has been dismissed by some as too pessimistic, the reality is that tensions in the Taiwan Strait seem unlikely to dissipate in the foreseeable future.

Such a conflict would almost certainly draw an American response, leaving New Zealand in a difficult position should either superpower ask for its support.

Then there is the long-standing issue of Aotearoa’s economic dependence on China, which poses a risk not only in terms of potential geopolitical retaliation, but also the consequences of an economic downturn involving our main export destination.

The country’s continued adherence to a Zero Covid policy has strained its businesses in the face of ongoing lockdowns. And with no signs that the Chinese government is considering abandoning its elimination approach, the economic effects look set to last for some time.

Predicting what the next five years hold for Xi’s China is undoubtedly a wild ride, given how difficult it is to read the tea leaves in the Chinese system.

But one thing is certain: the concerns about China’s rise that have taken root in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world will only grow as its leader gains more and more power.