LONDON: All Hail the Emperor! Standing next to the most powerful man on the planet, US President Donald Trump cut a strangely subdued, deferential figure. This was a political novice standing next to one who was imbued with political mother’s milk. Gone were the election claims of China “raping” the US, instead the world heard a stream of compliments from Trump, recognising the need to “change the chemistry between the two countries”. Even the vexed question of the South China Sea, where US vessels frequently challenge the claims of Chinese sovereignty, was hardly mentioned. “The Pacific Ocean (sic) is big enough to accommodate both China and the US”, said President Xi, with Secretary Rex Tillerson later claiming that behind closed doors the two Presidents had “frank, open and productive discussions” on the issue. China both metaphorically and literally put out the bright red carpet to flatter Trump and it succeeded brilliantly. In return, Trump exuded compliments on Xi, emphasising the “good chemistry between us”. By giving credit to the Chinese for “taking advantage of other countries for the benefit of its own citizens”, Trump implicitly criticised his predecessors for, in his eyes, their weakness. This insult was later crystallised by a tweet on 9 November. It was noticeable that the sphinx-like Xi failed to offer Trump personal compliments throughout the visit, thus emphasising the one-way nature of the visit. Even $250billion in trade agreements claimed by Trump was later treated with deep suspicion, as analysts considered them as either re-packaged deals of the past or non-contracted promises for the future. Although US officials insisted that behind closed doors Trump forcefully confronted Xi about the chronic trade imbalances between the two countries and pressed China to take tougher measures towards North Korea on oil shipments, in neither case did China make significant concessions. The visit was a huge success for Xi, while, despite the Chinese attempts to superficially give Trump a victory, he came over as a supplicant. Xi’s stature on the world stage was considerably enhanced.
President Trump’s visit to China was hot on the heels of the six-day 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last month, attended by 2,280 representatives, which was also a resounding success for President Xi. Of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, considered to be the most powerful decision-making body in China, five were replaced, joining Xi and Li Keqiang, who renewed their terms. China-watchers consider that the new members are strong supporters of Xi, who could now extend his term of office to exceed the normal ten-year maximum. Of the five newcomers, Wang Huning, a professor who has been a member of the Central Committee secretariat, is expected to be given the vital ideological and propaganda portfolio. The hard-line Wang will strengthen Xi’s hand not only in ideological control of state media, but is also likely to increase the intensity of state censorship and cybersecurity. Only last week were new rules issued that require social media and news applications to conduct regular self-assessments to ensure that they are not hosting any undesirable content. It is also expected that the emphasis on culture in Xi’s speech will lead to a greater emphasis in the aggressive promotion of official viewpoints in the entertainment and educational system. Already textbooks are being revised to include Xi’s “thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era”. A rigorous attention will be increased on undesirable aspects of history which do not conform to official accounts. In this, Xi is showing himself to be as authoritarian as any Soviet leader of the past.
A shocking example of this crackdown was illustrated by the recent threatened boycott of Cambridge University Press (CUP) publications. It emerged that the world’s oldest publishing house had humbly complied with Chinese instructions to block online access to more than 300 politically sensitive articles from its highly respected Chinese Quarterly journal. The blacklisted articles included topics such as Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre and the cult of personality, which some claim is emerging around Xi Jinping. In a petition published in August this year by academics around the world denouncing China’s attempt to “export its censorship on topics which do not fit its preferred narrative”, the CUP was urged to refuse the censorship request on this and other journals or publications that have been demanded by the Chinese government. If CUP acquiesced to the demands of the Chinese government, academics would reserve the right to boycott the CUP and related journals. They argued that CUP was complicit in the fine art of censorship, with Chinese intellectuals in particular limited in their access to foreign research. Faced with this pressure, CUP editors changed their mind and reinstated the “offending” articles. Reacting angrily to the criticism of China’s tight internet controls, the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, claimed that the policy was designed to protect the country’s security and was “within the scope of Chinese sovereignty”. The tabloid added that “those who complain are arrogant and absurd. China is powerful now and is able to protect its own interest.” This put the CUP in a no-win position between a rock and a hard place; either comply and lose business, or not comply and lose business. Thus is the increasing strength of an unchallenged Xi; do it my way or suffer. How President Donald Trump would love to have the power of President Xi Jinping.