President Xi Jinping, arguably, is the most powerful man on Earth, and most desperate.
In 2013, the Supreme People’s Court, the apex judicial body in China, issued a decree.
Anyone on the internet who spread a rumour that was shared over five hundred times (not users) and received more than five-thousand clicks (not unique visits) would risk three years in prison.
This decree was the end of the internet revolution in China, merely months after President Jinping took over the reins of government. Between the end of virtual free speech and Covid-zero lockdowns, is Jinping’s political story, at least the first half of it.
For some, Jinping is destiny’s child.
Jinping was banished to a village in northern China in the early years of his life where, in his teens, he worked in the fields, slept on a straw mat, and made a flea-infested cave his home for seven years.
In 1973, his tryst with the CCP began, and after being rejected by the party nine times, he was accepted after the tenth attempt in 1974.
Who knew then that less than forty years later, he would rise to become the President of China, and almost fifty years later, he would challenge the legacy of Chairman Mao?
The Right Place, The Right Time, The Right Man?
Jinping’s rise to power coincided with a tectonic shift in geopolitical equations.
The Great Recession, beginning with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, had an impact on America and Europe. Money began moving east. Corporations were now greedy for the billion-people and trillions-dollar worth market in China.
Jinping, however, was leading a political long game in the early 1990s that began with the Chinese drawing lessons from the fall of Soviet Russia, the Gulf War, and the protests at Tiananmen Square.
Jinping’s rise was complemented by China’s rise, and thus there was little resistance to the anti-corruption campaign that followed.
While the crackdown against the corrupt flourished, the system of Guanxi emerged in Jinping’s China where politics and business entangled. Desmond Shum, in his book, The Red Roulette, documented that era elaborately.
Even if one were to lobby on behalf of the wife of a former premier, in Jinping’s China, it was no assurance of immunity. Eventually, even Shum’s wife, the front for that premier’s wife, went missing.
The numbers too followed.
China’s GDP now exceeds $14 trillion. It’s the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, and computers, and is now fighting to build an indigenous semiconductor industry.
Infrastructure boomed in the early years of Jinping as cities sprouted in every corner of the mainland, from Tibet to Shanghai. Though not in double digits as in the 2000s, under Jinping, China’s economy grew by more than 7 per cent until the pandemic.
Much of it can be attributed to state-owned or backed enterprises.
President Jinping Goes Shopping Around The World
Jinping’s China transcended the shores of the mainland, starting with the Belt and Road initiative.
Jinping assumed office in March 2013, only months after the first investments in BRI were made. Under his watch, by the end of 2017, close to $500 billion had been invested, with major beneficiaries in Latin America and Africa.
In the next two years, between 2018 and 2019, BRI peaked with an investment of $360-odd billion across the world. In every sector, every part of the world, China was either investing or making lofty purchases.
Apart from the AIIB, the China Development Bank (CDM) and the Export-Import Bank of China (CEXIM) have facilitated lending for large-scale projects abroad.
By 2016, the total assets of CDM and CEXIM exceeded those of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, African Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the International Finance Corporation by 350 per cent!
What enabled Jinping to push for the BRI to go global was the lack of urgency on the part of the IMF and the World Bank.
For instance, the Power Africa initiative under the Obama administration was sanctioned in 2013. By 2017, not a single dollar had been added as allocation, and the current programmes were revamped to suit the initiative. Jinping, overplayed his hand, looking for political leverage over economic returns.
Jinping’s China was not investing to make money, but to have a foot in the door. Quite a large foot.
Strategic investments thus followed.
According to a Bloomberg database, tracking deals between 2008 and 2018, China invested over $318 billion in Europe.
China has made deals worth $155 billion in energy, $102 billion in finance, $75 billion in mining, close to $50 billion in internet/software and utilities each, close to $60 billion in chemicals, around $45 billion in logistics, and worth of $5 billion deals in aviation alone.
These investments did not factor in the deals routed through third-party investment funds or countries.
One of the interesting stories from the 2010s is that of the Chinese space station in Argentina.
Under the control of the Chinese military, the station, with its antenna, was to explore the far side of the moon. Argentina agreed to the investment when it had been blocked out of the credit markets for a $100 billion default on its bonds.
The Americans were rattled, for they felt the station could be used to disrupt satellite communications, enhance intelligence gathering, and even set a precedent for investments in other parts of Latin America.
Even sports was not spared. China Media Capital made a 13 per cent investment in Manchester City football club, back in 2015.
The United Kingdom saw more than 220 deals of around $70 billion, and Italy and Germany had deals worth $31 billion and $20 billion, respectively.
In what can be termed as one of the biggest deals in Europe, China National Chemical Corp announced the takeover of pesticide manufacturer Syngenta AG, based in Switzerland, for $46.3 billion in 2016. However, it was Hollywood where Jinping’s China made its impact felt.
Erich Schwartzel’s Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy captures the takeover.
Jinping’s China showed that you may run a multi-billion dollar franchise (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and could be the biggest studio on Earth (Disney), but when it came to toeing the political line, there was no comprising.
Thus, comic book plots more than fifty years old were erased to appease the Chinese (Iron Man-3). More recently, even Tom Cruise’s $1.4 billion outing Top Gun: Maverick had to rid itself of the Taiwanese flag patch.
But the cultural arm-twisting was not restricted to market access alone, for it was the money that Hollywood desperately needed.
Had it not been for the fear of the United States military being glorified, Tencent Holdings from China would have invested in Top Gun: Maverick.
Back in 2012, China invested around $2.7 billion in the US entertainment and media sector. In 2016, the investment peaked at $4.8 billion. In 2020 and 2021, the investment exceeded $3.3 billion, even with some Hollywood movies being blocked in the Chinese market.
Corporations Bullied In Jinping's China
The arm-twisting and blocking is not reserved for the artists alone, but also for the corporates.
Corporate bullying was normalised in Jinping’s China, with everyone from Apple to NBA, falling in line.
The other Western companies bullied by China include JW Marriott, Lancome, Tiffany, Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, US’ Delta Airlines, Gap, Zara, Dolce & Gabbana, Union Bank of Switzerland, Mercedes-Benz, and Lotte from South Korea, to name a selected few.
Apple, however, went as far as altering its encryption protocols to appease Beijing.
In June 2021, reports surfaced about Apple’s ‘Goldengate’ Project. As per an investigation by The New York Times, Apple was storing the personal data of its Chinese customers using a state-owned server company in Guiyang.
The report stated that the company had abandoned its encryption technology, employed across the globe after protests from the Chinese government, and employees were managing the data centres on the payroll of Beijing, thus raising concerns against data privacy and integrity.
Selling The Chinese Story And Buying Dissenting Voices
While information blackouts from China became the new normal, with journalists from the likes of The New York Times, Washington Post, and even Bloomberg being expelled from the mainland, Beijing backed several media organisations to set up shops globally.
Today, the CGTN has broadcasts in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and even Arabic with production studios in Kenya, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
China Radio International under CCTV has stations broadcasting in more than 60 languages, and this is merely one of many examples.
The media outlets were deployed to advocate the Chinese perspective while Beijing infiltrated several organisations within the United Nations.
The early months and the helplessness of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in defining the origins and dangers of the Covid-19 virus are recent scars.
The Chinese government has also used its authority to arm-twist leaders of these agencies. Some heads of the agencies (WHO, IFAD, UPU) were arm-twisted by virtue of BRI investment in their countries (Ethiopia, Togo, Kenya).
Beijing's Best Friends Across The Pacific
Ironically, in the Jinping years, even during the pandemic, the biggest advocate for Beijing in the White House was Wall Street itself.
Such was the lobbying that during the peak of the trade war in 2018, White House trade adviser had to call out what he defined as the ‘globalist billionaires’ of Wall Street, accusing them of undermining the White House’s efforts by carrying out their own shuttle diplomacy with Beijing.
He was not wrong, for his Chinese counterpart, after landing in America for the talks, met the Wall Street bankers before anyone else.
Before the question of Taiwan brought the two sides on the Pacific to a war of words, Jinping was able to settle the question of Hong Kong.
One of the first calamities of the pandemic, the protests in Hong Kong were suppressed by Beijing using brute force, resulting in the city being robbed of its political autonomy 26 years ahead of schedule.
Contrary to what many in the West believed, Beijing marched on, completing the annexation of Hong Kong while the world was dealing with the pandemic.
The West watched the Hong Kong takeover with stunned silence.
The first decade for Jinping was all about asserting power, but the last three years have ushered volatility and vulnerability for China’s leader hoping to overshadow Chairman Mao.
Yes, Jinping’s journey from 2013 to 2020 was that of power, but now, it is that of political desperation.
This is the first article in a four-part series ahead of 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party where President Xi Jinping will secure a third-term.
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