What’s next for Chinese expansionism?
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grand ambitions have never been much of a secret. Neither has its ability to execute said ambitions been seriously called into question, even in times as troubled as now—but if there is something it must beware, it would be the very people whose interests the CCP claim to represent.
Shortly after the end of the devastating Second World War, the primary focus of the Chinese leadership was clearly inwards-looking: to fix a dilapidated economy and ensure peace and prosperity for its impoverished people. Fast forward to 2023: China has become the fastest-growing and second largest economic power in the world and, according to some analysts, is projected to overtake the United States by 2030. At the same time, so far from being happily assimilated into the liberal fold of the Western world order, China has increasingly sought to assert itself as a socialist superpower-in-the-making; and much has been written about the age of Chinese ascendancy, the spectre of a Chinese Communist Party world order, and the especial threat that CCP-style socialism poses to Western democracy.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time now, and it seems that China will be able to continue its stratospheric rise, despite the West’s best (albeit limited), efforts to counteract Chinese expansionism. Granted, China’s economic growth has slowed significantly but a recession, much less a revolt-worthy depression, is far from a certain. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping has employed the nationalist playbook to great effect, by evoking feelings of patriotism in the Chinese people to allay their misgivings about the economy. In the meantime, China continues to flex its military muscle at Taiwan and the rest of Asia without any fear of meaningful repercussions, while its pervasive Internet framework in TikTok and Huawei continues to expand at breakneck pace, even as more alarming reports on the sweeping backdoor capabilities of these platforms are being published.
In addition, the latest meeting of the “Two Sessions” (Lianghui), held in March this year, combined with previous discussions held at the 20th Party Congress, displayed the government’s agenda for the years ahead, and foregrounded the CCP’s desire to mould China into a “powerful, modern socialist nation” by the party’s centenary in 2049—an ambition that had been articulated since the days of Chairman Mao Zedong. President Xi’s 104-minute congressional speech drew on the same bellicose rhetoric that Mao had employed, and stressed ideals as “Marxist nationalism” and “socialist modernisation”, not to mention a willingness to capture Taiwan by force “if necessary”. Against the backdrop of rising energy costs, and a raging war between Russia and Ukraine, the CCP still seems to be able to keep its grip on power, with the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” looking growingly inevitable.
In these tempestuous times, the current world order cannot realistically expect to extricate itself from the snare of the CCP by the West’s own strength alone. The world’s hope must lie in the Chinese people themselves—as the CCP’s ambitions intensify, so too will the hoi polloi become more dissatisfied. The CCP, for starters, has had to contend with continued and re-emerging tensions in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Hong Kong. For all its supposed “international acclaim”, China’s suffocating “zero-COVID” policy has also led to massive protests all across the country, ranging from students in Nanjing and Beijing holding up blank sheets of paper to previously overcrowded quarantine camps in Gansu being burnt to the ground. Even the latest party congress itself was preceded by a rare solo demonstration calling for nationwide civil disobedience.
To be sure, the Chinese state apparatus has proven to have many remarkably effective tools at its disposal, including an all-powerful police force, flagrant industrial espionage, cutting-edge censorship, and a well-oiled propaganda machine. It is thus not surprising that President Xi does not appear to be fazed by the myriad challenges that confront the CCP in its quest for global superiority.
If anything, recent developments during the party congress—which concluded with the dramatic ejection of Xi’s comparatively liberal and reform-minded predecessor Hu Jintao and Xi’s appointment of hyper-loyalists such as Li Qiang to prominent government positions during the Two Sessions—strongly suggest that Xi’s CCP is digging its heels in and fully prepared to raise the ante. Still, the world must remember that CCP doctrine does not speak for thousands of years of Chinese culture. Those who believe in the power of individualism and liberty must hope that Xi becomes his worst enemy and that, ultimately, his iron first cannot overcome the iron will of the Chinese people.