Beyond Hong Kong, an Emboldened Xi Jinping Pushes the Boundaries
China’s leader has taken bold steps on issues where he’s often faced international pushback
Updated May 29, 2020 6:29 pm ET
BEIJING—Less than four months ago, Xi Jinping faced the biggest crisis of his leadership, as it was bruised by China’s initial, bungled response to the coronavirus.
He has since pulled off an extraordinary turnaround, buoyed by Beijing’s reported success in curbing the virus while the U.S. and many other democracies wrestle with it. Mr. Xi has seized the moment to gain ground in areas central to his “China Dream” of a strong unified nation, on par with—if not surpassing—the U.S., while brushing aside government shortcomings.
With Washington and its allies distracted by the pandemic and its economic fallout, Mr. Xi is taking bold steps on issues where he’s often faced international pushback, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and a disputed border with India.
“The top leadership thinks China is relatively strong compared to the U.S. at the moment,” said Shi Yinhong, a Chinese government adviser and professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. “Of course they see this as a strategic window of opportunity.”
Mr. Xi has made establishing control of territory China claims an integral part of his agenda, and now faces mounting pressure from the public—as well as from more hawkish elements of the political elite—to make progress on those goals as the pandemic limits economic advances he also pledged, experts on Chinese politics say.
His moves seem to be paying off for the moment, they say, but risk galvanizing international antipathy toward China, which has sharpened during the pandemic and could translate into concerted action once the crisis subsides.
The most dramatic of China’s moves came last week when it announced it would impose new national-security laws on Hong Kong, granting Beijing broad powers to target critics in the former British colony.
On Friday, President Trump threatened to put sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were “directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.” It followed a response by the U.S. State Department Wednesday declaring that Hong Kong no longer has a high degree of autonomy from China, paving the way for a range of potential U.S. measures, such as revoking the city’s trade privileges.
At the opening of a yearly parliament meeting last week, China’s Premier Li Keqiang also flagged a more aggressive posture toward Taiwan, a self-ruled, democratic island that Beijing sees as its territory. In references to dealing with and assimilating the island in an annual policy speech, he dropped China’s usual calls for a “peaceful” approach—a departure from nearly 30 years of precedent. Other senior leaders also renewed warnings against efforts to seek Taiwan’s independence, saying that a forceful takeover remains an option even though they prefer a peaceful solution.
Chinese military ships and planes have staged several drills near Taiwan this year in what the island’s defense ministry says are attempts to intimidate Taipei into making concessions on sovereignty, and to distract from Beijing’s early coronavirus missteps.
China’s Defense Ministry has said its drills were aimed at safeguarding national sovereignty and protecting Taiwan’s residents from independence activists there.
In an indication of China’s determination to close the gap with the U.S. militarily, last Friday it announced a 6.6% rise in defense spending. That’s lower than its increase of 7.5% for 2019 but still a substantial amount given this year’s projected 0.2% drop in total government expenditure.
A long-running border dispute between China and India flared again in the past few weeks after Chinese troops moved into a contested Himalayan area close to where India has been upgrading infrastructure, prompting fistfights between the two sides.
Beijing has further upset the status quo in the South China Sea in recent weeks. It created two new administrative districts in contested areas, named 80 geographical features there—the first such Chinese move since 1983—and sent ships into waters off Vietnam and Malaysia.
Chinese diplomats have meanwhile adopted more confrontational language toward the West, along with trumpeting China’s assistance to other countries and stepping up efforts to portray Mr. Xi as the new champion of globalization and multilateralism.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement that Beijing would always protect its sovereignty and security, warning against U.S. meddling in China’s internal affairs. It said Beijing put humanity first during the pandemic and “did not have the slightest interest in political manipulation.”
At a news conference last Sunday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended his diplomats’ right to push back hard against “malicious slander,” denied Beijing was using the pandemic to make advances in the South China Sea, and accused Taiwan of exploiting the situation to seek independence from China.
Last week Mr. Xi called for China to seek opportunity in adversity, warning that China faced multiple challenges, including the pandemic’s economic fallout and a backlash to globalization.
“We must pursue our country’s development in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world,” Mr. Xi was quoted by state media as telling government advisers last Saturday. “We must work hard to nurture new opportunities during crises.”
The recent spurt of Chinese activity suggests to many observers that Mr. Xi is seeking to bolster his image, lock in strategic gains and deflect attention from China’s early handling of the pandemic.
“For Xi Jinping, the pandemic was initially a disaster,” said Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor at the Study Times, a newspaper published by the Central Party School, which trains China’s political elite. “But reversals in the contagion situations between the East and West have now strengthened his authority.”
Mr. Xi’s actions on Hong Kong in particular have helped to reinforce his self-styled image as an ardent nationalist and decisive leader. The party’s main newspaper embellished that image this week, taking the unusual step of hailing him on its front page as “commander-in-chief.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping has acted aggressively this year on sovereignty issues central to his ‘China Dream’ program.
Chinese military planes
stage rare night-time
drill near Taiwan.
Chinese aircraft carrier task
group sails near Taiwan as part
of naval drills.
China’s premier omits the
word ‘peaceful’ in outlining
policy on Taiwan.
Chinese and Indian troops
scuffle on disputed border.
China later moves troops and
equipment into the area.
China says it plans to impose
on Hong Kong.
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Vietnamese fishing vessel sinks
after collision with Chinese
coast guard ship.
Chinese survey ship, escorted
by other Chinese vessels,
enters waters off Vietnam
EAST CHINA SEA
Chinese coast guard vessels
pursue Japanese fishing boat in
waters claimed by both countries.
Mr. Xi laid out his “China Dream” shortly after he took power in late 2012, pledging to build a strong, wealthy and modern global power by 2049, the centenary of Communist rule in China.
Policy experts say that goal doesn’t mean China becoming the dominant world power, but it does mean establishing pre-eminence in Asia, matching—or surpassing—the U.S. in many spheres. It also means establishing full control of territory China claims, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, most of the South China Sea, parts of the East China Sea, large swaths around the Indian border, and China’s western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where it has wrestled with separatist movements.
China’s leadership has also outlined economic goals, including to eradicate poverty and double the economy’s size from a decade earlier in time for another centenary next year, of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding.
The pandemic has thrown many of those economic goals into doubt, leading China to ditch its economic growth target for this year.
Although that’s a blow to Mr. Xi’s ambitions, it gives him cover for earlier failings that can now be blamed on the pandemic—such as the slow pace of economic reforms, excessive local government debt and stalled progress on his global Belt and Road infrastructure plan.
It also creates incentives to deliver in other areas ahead of next year’s centenary and a party congress in 2022, when Mr. Xi is widely expected to seek a third five-year term as China’s leader, departing from the two-term precedent set by his predecessor.
“Everyone talks about Xi Jinping as leader for life: That’s not guaranteed,” said Ryan Manuel, managing director of Hong Kong-based research company Official China. He noted that China’s recent moves happened in areas that Mr. Xi is directly responsible for. “Xi Jinping’s style is he likes to take credit for stuff. He wants his name on it.”
One notable exception was China’s coronavirus response, which Mr. Xi appointed Premier Li to lead in late January. Many analysts saw it as an effort to insulate himself from public anger. Mr. Xi later claimed credit once the virus was under control.
China may well have made some of its recent moves without the pandemic. Observers say the new legislation on Hong Kong appears to have been in the works for some time, and would likely have been unveiled earlier had the pandemic not forced a delay.
For Beijing, concerns over national security far outweighed any worries about potential damage to China’s image, said Bernard Chan, a member of China’s national legislature and Hong Kong’s Executive Council.
“China is quite confident,” said Mr. Chan. “There will be short-term pain… but longer term, they don’t see this as a problem.”
China’s main considerations on sovereignty issues like Hong Kong were domestic politics and Mr. Xi’s image, rather than U.S.-China ties, said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Even so, the downward spiral in China’s relations with the U.S. has likely convinced the Xi administration that it can discount Western backlash as a factor in its decision making, since anti-China sentiment is likely to continue rising whatever Beijing does, Mr. Wu said.
Another factor cited by some Chinese experts is that the Trump administration hasn’t let up on its efforts to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies or target Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co. during the pandemic.
In the South China Sea, many Chinese analysts believe the U.S. Navy’s capacity to operate effectively has been impaired following coronavirus outbreaks on several ships. One coronavirus-stricken U.S. aircraft carrier was sidelined in Guam for most of the past two months.
The U.S. Navy, which has stepped up activity in the South China Sea after an apparent lull in February, says it maintains a presence there to support freedom of navigation.
The recent surge in nationalist sentiment in China, especially on social media, has alarmed even some hawkish voices, such as Qiao Liang, a retired air force general who co-wrote a book in 1999 describing how China could defeat a technologically superior opponent like the U.S.
In an interview with a pro-Beijing magazine based in Hong Kong this month, he said the U.S. was weakened by the pandemic but could still intervene in a conflict over Taiwan either directly or indirectly through a trade blockade or economic sanctions.
“It is undoubtedly right for the Chinese people to complete the great cause of reunification, but it is still a mistake to do the right thing at the wrong time,” he was quoted as saying. “We shouldn’t do a stupid thing that makes us lose everything.” Gen. Qiao, a professor at China’s National Defense University, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Some Chinese scholars are concerned that Beijing may be underestimating the antipathy towards China building among countries beyond the U.S.
“The international mood towards China has never been more unfriendly. It’s not just Americans, but Europeans and other peoples,” said Zhu Feng, an expert on China’s international relations at Nanjing University. If China pushes too hard to reap short-term diplomatic gains now, he said, it could be “disastrous.”
In Africa, many people were outraged by reports that Africans living in China were the subject of discrimination during the pandemic, and weren’t convinced by Beijing’s assertions that it was treating all foreigners the same.
In India, even before the border standoff with China—which each side blames on the other—public sentiment toward Beijing was hardening. A survey by the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution published last month showed that around 67% of respondents believed China was to blame for the pandemic, and 56% thought Beijing was using the crisis to project power.
Tensions on the China-India border often flare this time of year, when warmer weather makes it more accessible. But observers say this is one of the bigger standoffs since the two sides fought a war in the area in 1962, and unusual in that China appears to be objecting to India’s road building in an area where Indian forces have long operated.
Attitudes towards China are also stiffening in the European Union, whose foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called this week for a more robust strategy toward Beijing and closer relations with Asian democracies.
“If the major European economies get even more fed up with China, they can make things difficult,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a retired senior Singaporean diplomat.
Should unintended clashes flare with Taiwan or other neighbors, “Xi might find it hard to contain given the domestic public opinion he has aroused,” Mr. Kausikan said. “China may be pushed down paths it does not really want to take.”