Foreign Affairs

The ‘false narrative’ around China’s rise

While some in the West think of Xi Jinping’s China as an all-powerful, stable state, there are others who see a more complicated picture. Sam Sachdeva spoke to American journalist John Pomfret about the “false narrative” around China, what to do about Huawei, and Jacinda Ardern’s first trip to Beijing.

After all the hand-wringing about Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s inaugural visit to China, the event itself seemed almost an anti-climax.

Months of talk about the state of the bilateral relationship led to what appeared like a friendly reception from Chinese President Xi Jinping, albeit with a couple of veiled pokes.

John Pomfret, the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief from 1997 until 2003, is among those who have been complimentary of Ardern’s flying visit.

He says her one-day stay “actually struck a perfect note” by showing the importance of the relationship without being seen to abandon her own country.

Much of the commentary around the visit focused on the symbolic benefit to New Zealand of Ardern being face to face with Xi, but Pomfret says there was plenty of reason for the President and others to want to be seen with her.

'A global rockstar'

“She’s become a global rockstar due to her extraordinary reaction and her extraordinary leadership following the tragedy in Christchurch, and the Chinese definitely want some of that pixie dust to rub off on them.”

New Zealand has a tendency of selling itself short when it comes to its place in the world and in dealing with countries like China, he says.

“In New Zealand, the narrative is like, ‘Oh my God we’re going to China and they’re going to be mad at us, and oh my goodness what are we doing with Huawei’...

“But at the same time there’s another narrative that says, ‘We actually are an incredibly well-respected country, and that the Chinese are going to turn around in the time of our desperate straits ... and punish us, it’s not going to be to China’s benefit at all’.”

He gives her credit for raising the issue of human rights, something “which international leaders basically aren’t doing anymore with China”.

At present, most human rights concerns are focused on the detention and treatment of Uighur Muslims living in the Xinjiang province; something Pomfret describes as a “slow burn” issue gradually beginning to capture the attention of foreign media and American politicians.

He is less complimentary about the reaction of the Muslim world, saying the lack of any significant pushback by Muslim-majority nations is “kind of pathetic” given the intolerable treatment of the Uighurs.

“It’s pretty much opportunistic, it’s not ignorance: you can’t bash Israel by talking about the Uighurs, and China has through its economic ties with the Saudis and a variety of other countries has been very smart about how it effectively buys off these regimes and avoids criticism.”

China's treatment of Uighur Muslims is starting to attract more international attention, John Pomfret says. Photo: Getty Images.

On another contentious issue, Huawei’s potential involvement in 5G infrastructure, Pomfret is similarly plain-spoken.

“As a mobile phone user, I don’t care who builds my 5G network; as a citizen of a country that’s engaged in global competition with China that’s effectively based on ideas and ideology, I worry.”

Huawei is “effectively a state-supported Chinese firm”, he says, pointing to the long-standing relationship between it and the Chinese government and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s possession of a special Chinese public affairs passport when she was arrested in Canada, as well as a 2017 intelligence law requiring Chinese citizens to spy on behalf of the country when required.

Sceptics have dismissed the concerns as American jealousy over China’s growing competitiveness in the technology sector. Pomfret acknowledges there are American concerns about Chinese dominance in the market, but argues that is not is what is driving the anti-Huawei rhetoric.

“The narrative that it’s just America trying to tamp Chinese competition to benefit American companies, well where are the American companies that are going to benefit?...

“It’s a reach to see Americans throwing all of their weight to back Scandinavian firms.”

Trade talks edge closer to conclusion

Economic tensions between the US and China appear to have eased off in recent months, with talk that an agreement on their prolonged trade dispute may be close to fruition.

However, Pomfret believes US President Donald Trump may be less inclined to reach a compromise than a fortnight ago, thanks to his apparent vindication through the Mueller report into potential collusion with Russia.

A tough China policy has plenty of traction in the US, he says, with agriculture-reliant states still supportive of Trump despite some issues with tariffs.

Pomfret says there are a few potential outcomes: one would be China “putting a massive amount of purchases in front of Trump”, which would reduce the US trade deficit but damage countries like New Zealand by displacing their products from the Chinese market.

Another would be a demand from the US for more fundamental changes in areas like forced technology transfers which are at the crux of the current dispute - but he says “it’s anyone’s guess which way they’ll go”.

There’s similar uncertainty about the functioning of China’s political system, which Pomfret likens to a black box: “We know less about the inner workings of the CCP now than we did in the 1980s.”

“I think that narrative we have of the China monolith being stable forever and Xi Jinping an all-powerful ruler is a false narrative.”

However, he dismisses the suggestion from some that Xi’s reign has led to his all-encompassing and unrelenting rule over the country.

“I think that narrative we have of the China monolith being stable forever and Xi Jinping an all-powerful ruler is a false narrative.”

Xi’s move to abolish term limits and shy away from preparing a successor, essentially setting himself up to become “president for life”, sets the foundation for a significant crisis in the longer term, Pomfret says.

“What happens when he starts getting sick, which like all people he inevitably will?

“Because he’s dismantled the whole architecture for political succession ... it’s setting the country up for a massive political struggle.”

And the biggest threat to the Chinese government’s reign may not come from a disgruntled public, but from within.

“From 1949 when China had its revolution until today, the main source of political instability has been the internal struggles with the Communist Party in China.”

* John Pomfret was in New Zealand to speak at the Institute of Directors’ annual leadership conference.

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