A new se­ries on China and its in­creas­ing global dom­i­nance be­gins to­day. In the world’s sec­ond big­gest econ­omy, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is ex­tend­ing his pow­ers, in­tro­duc­ing tough in­ter­nal security mea­sures and wag­ing an ag­gres­sive trade war with the US

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Clif­ford Coo­nan

The sun is set­ting above Yan’an, where the 1949 rev­o­lu­tion in China that swept the com­mu­nists to power un­der the lead­er­ship of chair­man Mao Ze­dong sprung into life. Some lo­cals and “red tourists” along the Yan River are sing­ing “With­out the Com­mu­nist Party there would be no New China,” a pop­u­lar re­frain from the 1965 mu­si­cal The East is Red.

Yan’an is the dusty birth­place of an epochal story of so­cial change, where an agrar­ian, in­ward-look­ing coun­try evolved into the world’s sec­ond-big­gest econ­omy, cur­rently over­seen by Xi Jin­ping, China’s most pow­er­ful leader since the Great Helms­man him­self.

Nearly 70 years af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion, China is poised to take its place as a su­per­power with global in­flu­ence to match its sta­tus as an eco­nomic colos­sus. Na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment is rid­ing high, hun­dreds of mil­lions have been lifted out of poverty, and the Bei­jing govern­ment con­fi­dently preaches Xi’s core pledge of sta­bil­ity, the China Dream.

But at the same time, a ground change is tak­ing place. China is re­vert­ing to cen­tral- ised sys­tems of con­trol and Marx­ist-Lenin­ist fun­da­men­tal­ism, against a back­drop of a tit-for-tat trade war be­tween Xi’s resur­gent China and Don­ald Trump’s un­pre­dictable US ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has seen tar­iffs im­posed on hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of each other’s im­ports.

China is in­tro­duc­ing a security and sur­veil­lance state un­like any­thing the world has ever seen, clamp­ing down on Uighur Mus­lims in the trou­bled prov­ince of Xin­jiang and flex­ing its mus­cles in the South China Sea.

While China reaches out to Europe, Cen­tral Asia and Africa with a New Silk Road of trade, the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), some of its new friends or client states are find­ing them­selves forced to choose be­tween China and the United States.

There is talk of a new cold war and ques­tions of whether China is over­reach­ing. Eco­nomic growth, long the foun­da­tion on which the party’s rule is built, looks al­most cer­tain to slow as the trade con­flict bites.

Po­tent sym­bol

The jour­ney to Yan’an is by high- speed train, a po­tent sym­bol of China’s progress, and on the train I fall into con­ver­sa­tion with a po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cer from a Bei­jing col­lege. She is happy to talk but not in a po­si­tion to give her name, an in­creas­ingly com­mon phe­nom­e­non when re­port­ing in China.

She de­scribes Xi as wen­zhong (steady), a phrase you hear very of­ten from Xi’s fans, ty­ing into the con­cept of wen­zhongqi­u­jin or “mak­ing progress while en­sur­ing sta­bil­ity”.

“Xi Jin­ping is steady and his logic is that ev­ery­one can live to­gether. You west­ern­ers think of ev­ery­thing in terms of time lim­its, but we Chi­nese think about the qual­ity of the leader. We work hard to get to the tar­get, but you think about the rules, about the process. If we get a leader who is num­ber one, we will keep go­ing back to that num­ber one leader,” she says.

“Chi­nese and west­ern­ers use the same in­gre­di­ents – yeast, flour, wa­ter, salt, milk – ex­cept we pro­duce man­tou [steamed buns] and you in the West get bread. Sim­i­lar in­gre­di­ents pro­duce dif­fer­ent things.”

A small city set among the parched yel­low- brown loess hills and gul­lies of Sha’anxi prov­ince, Yan’an is where the Com­mu­nist army pitched up in the 1930s, ex­hausted from the “Long March”, a dev­as­tat­ing 9,600km tac­ti­cal flight from their bit­ter ri­vals, the na­tion­al­ist KMT.

The Long March started with 100,000 troops, and ended with 8,000, of whom only 7,000 had started the trek.

The Com­mu­nist Party made Yan’an their wartime strong­hold from the mid-1930s to 1949. From here it went on to de­feat the KMT, wea­ried by war against Ja­pan, ul­ti­mately driv­ing it to the is­land of Tai­wan. Yan’an is now a cen­tre of pil­grim­age for cadres to study doc­trine.

Yan’an is pep­pered with sites where the rev­o­lu­tion was fo­mented – ac­cord­ing to the mayor there are 464 – and lots of peo­ple are walk­ing around with Com­mu­nist Party badges. Some vis­i­tors like to dress up in rev­o­lu­tion­ary-era uni­forms. A pop­u­lar site is the Press Mu­seum – this is where the of­fi­cial Xinhua news agency, Peo­ple’s Daily and pro­pa­ganda out­lets be­gan, a sign pro­claims. The Yan’an Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Memo­rial Hall has a large statue of the Great Helms­man in its cen­tral square.

“Mao Ze­dong is great, very strong,” says a su­per­an­nu­ated Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army vet­eran who is manning the gate of a fa­cil­ity which once was the defence sec­tion for the party. “Mao came here for meet­ings all the time, [Mao’s deputy and for­mer pre­mier] Zhou En­lai too. And [for­mer supreme leader and Mao’s suc­ces­sor] Deng Xiaop­ing. The caves were very se­cure.”

The down­town area is a tra­di­tional blend of so­cial­ist re­al­ism and com­mer­cial­ism that de­scribes the arc of China’s de­vel­op­ment in the past 40 years.

At the heart of the city is a large mon­u­ment ded­i­cated to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary he­roes, in front of which is a display where a dozen women in base­ball jack­ets from a Chi­nese cos­met­ics com­pany are pro­mot­ing hand creams and lo­tions.

Large LED screens out­side the shop­ping cen­tres and hy­per­mar­kets show shelves packed with goods, and you can find most things from Korean del­i­ca­cies to Aus­tralian wine to McDon­ald’s ham­burg­ers.

Some 50 mil­lion peo­ple vis­ited Yan’an last year, spend­ing 30 bil­lion yuan (¤3.8 bil­lion). There is even a quirky ho­tel and cafe down­town called the James Joyce Cof­fe­tel, and while no one seems to know who the Ulysses au­thor is, a big screen in the li­brary-like lobby of­fers karaoke all day.

For the first 30 years af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion, China re­mained a doc­tri­naire place, with a slug­gish econ­omy trail­ing the rest of the world, punc­tu­ated by dis­as­ters such as the Great Leap For­ward, Mao’s agri­cul­tural col­lec­tivi­sa­tion ex­per­i­ment in which mil­lions starved to death, and the ide­o­log­i­cal f renzy of t he Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion (1966-1976), which pit­ted cadre against cadre each other and all but wiped out the in­tel- ligentsia.

In­side one of the cave head­quar­ters, pho­to­graphs de­pict the lead­ers of the rev­o­lu­tion at a time when rev­o­lu­tion teemed with prom­ise – be­liev­ers gath­er­ing their strength af­ter the Long March and plan­ning the rev­o­lu­tion that would give them man­date to rule. One shows the fa­mously wily Deng Xiaop­ing, who died in 1997. Al­though a close ally of Mao, he was “strug­gled against” dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and ban­ished from Bei­jing.

He was the ar­chi­tect of eco­nomic re­form in 1978. Un­til 2013, the econ­omy grew an av­er­age 10 per cent a year, lift­ing 800 mil­lion out of poverty and cre­at­ing a mid­dle class that num­bers about 430 mil­lion to­day and is fore­cast to rise to 780 mil­lion by 2025.

Many of his re­forms were aimed at mak­ing sure that no Chi­nese leader would ever have un­tram­melled power again, that no Mao-style cult of per­son­al­ity could ever pre­vail again.

In the Xi era, there are signs the party is again mov­ing back to­wards cen­tralised power, and in March this year the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress abol­ished terms lim­its on Xi’s rule. Younger peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar have ex­pressed dis­quiet at the lack of a term limit on a Chi­nese leader, and there are grum­blings among the elite too.

“Xi Jin­ping has moved to strengthen the role of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party in gov­er­nance in China. Where in 1980 Deng Xiaop­ing be­gan the process of sep­a­rat­ing the roles of the party from the state, the last few years have seen the party play­ing more of an or­gan­i­sa­tional role in China’s state and so­ci­ety,” says Carla Free­man, di­rec­tor of the for­eign pol­icy unit at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

This is aimed at in­tro­duc­ing “greater dis­ci­pline” and re­duc­ing cor­rup­tion but it also means that the de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion of power un­der Deng’s re­forms, which were aimed stop­ping too much power be­com­ing con­cen­trated in one per­son, is be­ing rolled back and Xi is be­ing placed in a much more prom­i­nent po­si­tion of power.

Urg­ing cau­tion

Some of those urg­ing cau­tion are in the top ranks of the party, in­clud­ing Deng’s el­dest son. “We must seek truth from fact, keep a sober mind and know our own place,” said Deng Pu­fang, who was beaten so badly by Red Guards dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion he was left in a wheel­chair and now runs China’s Dis­abled Per­sons’ Fed­er­a­tion.

“We should nei­ther be over­bear­ing or be­lit­tle our­selves,” he said in the speech, which was not made pub­lic but was ob­tained by the South China Morn­ing Post news­pa­per.

Fast for­ward to Novem­ber 2018, four decades af­ter the be­gin­ning of open­ing up and re­form and Pres­i­dent Xi is launch­ing the world’s big­gest trade fair, the China In­ter­na­tional Im­port Expo, in Shang­hai.

It’s a glit­ter­ing event, with 3,600 com­pa­nies from 172 coun­tries, 18 heads of state, dozens of se­nior govern­ment of­fi­cials from all over the world, in­clud­ing Ire­land’s Min­is­ter for Busi­ness, En­ter­prise and In­no­va­tion, Heather Humphreys.

Xi is hail­ing China as the fu­ture of glob­al­i­sa­tion and promis­ing win- win for those who op­pose pro­tec­tion­ism and uni­la­ter­ism. “As glob­al­i­sa­tion deep­ens, the prac­tices of law of jun­gle and win­ner take all are a dead end,” he says.

But the ab­sence of ma­jor world lead­ers from the western na­tions is ev­i­dence that busi­nesses in Europe and the US want China’s fine words to be matched by ac­tions and gen­uine re­form. There are fears that grow­ing cen­tral­i­sa­tion and a re­turn to core Marx­ist-Lenin­ist val­ues run counter to calls for more open­ness on state-owned en­ter­prises.

Xin­jiang’s minority Uighurs and other Mus­lim groups have been the most ob­vi­ous vic­tims of the grow­ing security crack­down in China. Uighurs, Kaza­khs and other Mus­lim mi­nori­ties are be­ing held in large num­bers in mass de­ten­tion cen­tres in Xin­jiang.

In Au­gust, a United Na­tions com­mit­tee was told that up to a mil­lion Uighurs were be­ing held in camps, and the scope of the clam­p­down goes be­yond ef­forts to deal with a ter­ror­ist threat.

China in­sists the Uighurs are be­ing held in vo­ca­tional cen­tres where they are ed­u­cated away from ex­trem­ist views, and ac­cuses the West of op­er­at­ing dou­ble stan­dards on

There is talk of a new cold war and ques­tions of whether China is over­reach­ing. Eco­nomic growth, long the foun­da­tion on which the party’s rule is built, looks al­most cer­tain to slow


The bur­geon­ing sur­veil­lance state is spread­ing far be­yond western China. “There is strong ev­i­dence and even if the more vis­i­ble re­sult in places like Xin­jiang is al­most en­tirely co­er­cive, the most wor­ry­ing part of this sur­veil­lance state is that it is not just re­liant on po­lice-con­trolled security cam­eras,” says Samantha Hoff­man, a vis­it­ing aca­demic fel­low at the Mer­ics in­sti­tute in Ber­lin. “It is also in­te­grat­ing tech­nol­ogy that sup­ports ful­fil­ment of ev­ery­day gov­er­nance tasks, and is built into nor­mal so­cial and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment projects like traf­fic con­trol or pub­lic heath man­age­ment,” says Hoff­man.

The govern­ment has also stepped up so­cial man­age­ment tech­nol­ogy. “This is likely to mas­sively in­crease the reach of the Chine Com­mu­nist Party’s so­cial man­age­ment ef­forts, in­clud­ing be­yond China’s bor­ders. Tech­nol­ogy, there­fore, will likely sig­nif­i­cantly am­plify the im­pact of the state’s ef­forts to shape and man­age day- to- day be­hav­iour and de­ci­sion-mak­ing of Chi­nese cit­i­zens, or for any in­di­vid­ual, busi­ness or en­tity, deal­ing with China,” she says.

In the six years since he came to power, China’s for­eign pol­icy has be­come more stead­fast than his pre­de­ces­sors. A plank of Xi’s for­eign pol­icy is the BRI, which lends money to gov­ern­ments in cen­tral Asia, south­east Asia, Africa and cen­tral Europe.

China is cer­tainly try­ing to ex­tend soft power with th­ese projects, but no more so than the West and Rus­sia do with sim­i­lar projects in their own ar­eas of in­flu­ence. How­ever, coun­tries such as Kenya, Pak­istan and Sri Lanka have ex­pressed fears about debt sus­tain­abil­ity in the face of such mas­sive Chi­nese lend­ing.

Some­times this new as­sertive­ness can take on a dra­matic di­men­sion. Last month, a Luyang de­stroyer came within 40m of the bow of the USS De­catur, which was car­ry­ing out what the Amer­i­cans call “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” op­er­a­tions in the South China Sea. The in­ci­dent hap­pened near a for­ti­fied man-made is­land in the Spratly chain of is­lands, built by China.

While the in­ter­na­tional mar­itime court in The Hague ruled the ar­chi­pel­ago is part of the Philippines, China has ig­nored the rul­ing and built a run­way, with anti-air­craft mis­siles and bar­racks, even a cin­ema, on this re­mote coral reef.

Ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions

China’s ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions in the South China Sea and other ar­eas have seen Bei­jing alien­ate its neigh­bours, in­clud­ing the Philippines, Malaysia, Viet­nam, Brunei and Tai­wan – tech­ni­cally not a neigh­bour as China claims this as a rene­gade prov­ince.

It’s not j ust in mil­i­tarised man-made atolls in the South China Sea that Bei­jing’s in­flu­ence can be felt. China’s sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ments in Europe’s more vul­ner­a­ble economies may in­flu­ence the po­si­tions gov­ern­ments of those coun­tries take with re­spect to China’s poli­cies, says Free­man.

China’s in­vest­ment in the Greek port of Pi­raeus has played a crit­i­cal role in eco­nomic re­cov­ery there. Soon af­ter, Greece blocked a state­ment to the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil crit­i­cal of China.

Turkey has also re­ceived bil­lions of dol­lars of in­vest­ment from China into in­fra­struc­ture projects as part of the BRI.

“Turkey, which could be ex­pected to be con­cerned about Xin­jiang – and in­deed Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan at one time was crit­i­cal of Bei­jing’s poli­cies in that re­gion – has muted its crit­i­cism. This, even as Er­do­gan has spo­ken force­fully about the treat­ment of the Ro­hingya,” says Free­man.

Else­where there are signs the US-China trade war is hav­ing an im­pact on pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment. The jam­boree im­port expo in Shang­hai was all about try­ing to woo for­eign com­pa­nies from other mar­kets to con­sider China’s im­pres­sive pur­chas­ing power.

Mar­ket sen­si­tiv­ity

The Bei­jing-based sub­sidiary of a US elec­tronic mea­sur­ing equip­ment man­u­fac­turer, which asked not to be named be­cause of mar­ket sen­si­tiv­ity, says the trade war has yet to really have an im­pact but it was com­ing.

“Our busi­ness is fo­cused on re­search equip­ment, cus­tomers made their pur­chase plans one year be­fore and run it in the next year nor­mally,” a spokes­woman said.

“But we really are hearing cus­tomers pre­par­ing to give up or change from US prod­ucts for next year’s pur­chas­ing. So I think the ef­fect of the trade war will be seen next year,” she

China’s ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions in the South China Sea and other ar­eas have seen Bei­jing alien­ate its neigh­bours


While she hoped there would be some kind of deal be­tween the US and China, she was not op­ti­mistic that it could be struck quickly enough to stop af­fect­ing the busi­ness. She does not see a ma­jor im­pact on the econ­omy, just on spe­cific mar­kets, no­tably those who do not have Chi­nese ver­sions of im­ported prod­ucts.

On the train to Xi’an, I am sur­rounded by a group of mid­dle-aged women from Yan’an who are on their way to the an­cient city for a few days’ hol­i­day. Like ev­ery­one in Yan’an, they are friendly and hos­pitable. They travel to­gether all the time, and list off the tourism hotspots they have vis­ited, all the while prac­ti­cally force-feed­ing me or­anges and raisins.

One wo­man shows pho­to­graphs of her son, who is in the army, and then shows me pho­to­graphs of two of the group who have won prizes in spe­cial beauty con­tests for re­main­ing so youth­ful look­ing. “Can you bel i eve she i s over 60? Doesn’t she look 35?”

For them, the best thing about open­ing up and re­form has been the free­dom to move around the coun­try at will. They are huge fans of Xi, and show me pho­to­graphs of Liangji­ahe, where the pres­i­dent and Com­mu­nist Party sec­re­tary was sent as a teenager in the 1960s dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion. The place where China’s trans­for­ma­tion took on a new di­men­sion.

Read more on Mon­day in World

News: Clif­ford Coo­nan vis­its Shen­zhen to see how a US-China trade war has dam­aged re­la­tions be­tween the two su­per­pow­ers

High­ways in­ter­sec­tions in Yan’an in cen­tral China; and (be­low) US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with and Xi Jin­ping, China’s most pow­er­ful leader since Mao Ze­dong. PHO­TO­GRAPH: SIYI QIAN/GETTY, QILAI SHEN/BLOOMBERG/GETTY

Cadres and work­ers mark the 97th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Com­mu­nist Party of China in Yan’an. PHO­TO­GRAPH: HE QINGPING/HUA SHANG/GETTY

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