While McCarthyist-redux Americans look for Russians under their beds, Brits breakfast on Brexit, and the International Monetary Fund perpetuates neoliberal fundamentalism while admitting it is a failure, Xi Jinping is re-creating the world in his own image.
The general secretary’s speech at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) laid out some of the details of the “Chinese dream”, but its main elements were already well known. Xi focused on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a hugely ambitious scheme to make the entire Eurasian continent an extension of China’s back yard, not through force of arms but by an even more formidable weapon – investment in infrastructure development. Yet that is only part of the picture.
In 1996, while Xi was still a “princeling” rising through the ranks of the CPC’s provincial tentacles and Jiang Zemin was president, China and four former Soviet countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan – signed the “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions”. The signing took place in Shanghai, and so these countries became known as the “Shanghai Five”.
After another “stan”, Uzbekistan, joined the grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Charter was signed in June 2002. From the onset, China was the primary power behind the SCO, and Beijing, backed by Moscow, used its influence to create a security base in Central Asia utterly outside the reach of the American Empire. In June this year, India and Pakistan joined the SCO.
While BRI, SCO and BRICS may be the biggest (or at least the most obvious) chunks in the alphabet soup of China’s growing global dominance, there are many others
Independently of the SCO, in 2006 another grouping led by China – this one primarily concerned with economics – began to form, and ironically was named by the chairman at the time of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Jim O’Neill: BRIC, for Brazil, Russia, India and China. South Africa joined in 2011 to expand the grouping to BRICS, but once again, it was the “C” in the acronym that was the driving force.
And yet, while BRI, SCO and BRICS may be the biggest (or at least the most obvious) chunks in the alphabet soup of China’s growing global dominance, there are many others. Its control of the economies of many African countries has been worrying former (Britain, France, Germany) and would-be (the US) colonial powers for years. While Western media wring their hands over “disputes” over chunks of rock in the South and East China Seas, Beijing pours billions of yuan in foreign direct investment into Southeast Asia – another increasingly flourishing piece of its “near abroad”.
Unlike the US and other Western powers, China (and its only rival in Asian economic-based expansionism, Japan) has demonstrated no interest in getting involved in the politics of its FDI beneficiaries. That is not to say Beijing has no political influence, or that it is not just as willing to push its projects forward with the help of that age-old Asian lubricant, palm grease, as Western corporate interests are. But China’s is the slow yet relentless power of a mighty container ship, not of a tank, a missile, or a drone.
The upshot, then, is an utter reinvention of global geopolitics. The venality of the Western “liberal order” becomes more obvious by the day, as wealth is shoveled into the already bulging pockets of bankers and CEOs while ordinary people struggle to pay for housing, taxes, medical care, education for their kids. As hopes are shattered and long-seething anger erupts, reality-star clowns are placed in power, corporate-friendly transnational organizations lose the trust of those they would manipulate, and desperation fuels independence movements that threaten national integrity.
Many great people have had dreams, and pursued them with greater or lesser success. The names of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and until recently Aung San Suu Kyi are spoken with reverence. But alongside theirs, other dreams were being pursued by the likes of Mao Zedong, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan. And now Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, as the promises of Western liberal democracy ring hollow.
Xi took three hours last week to explain the “Chinese dream”, but the fact is no one knows for sure how “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” will play out on the world stage. The global economic system remains on extremely shaky ground, the fundamental flaws laid bare by the 2008-09 crisis never really dealt with. Nuclear weapons remain in the hands of unstable governments, and of military establishments corrupted by dysfunctional ideologies and plain old greed. Billions pursue lives motivated by superstitions, old and new, as the resulting poverty and fury spawn new and deadlier wars. And the weather is getting worse.
Hope, of course, springs eternal. But if it really is to spring from the Beijing dictatorship, more firmly than ever in the hands of one man – well, we’ve seen that movie before.