Wednesday, March 29, 2023

And The Winner is… China?

Allow me, for a moment, to engage in a bit of “fantasy-politics,” to make some sweeping generalizations about recent political events. They are connected to the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the increasing desperation and intransigence of the Kremlin in Moscow. We know much about the Kremlin’s tragic, self-inflated ambitions and the consequent injuries they continue to inflict on invaded Ukraine and Russia itself. But recently another agent appears to be entering the scene whose motives are more obscure. Therefore, I will employ rhetoric that paints a picture with a broad brush, in fantastic colors. We live in strange times, and we can hardly make them stranger by giving space to the imagination as we wonder about the optics of what happened last week.

First let us recall that, for centuries, nations and their proud leaders have tried to conquer Moscow. The Poles. The Swedes. Napoleon. Hitler. They have all failed, after lengthy and terrible battles.

Yet last week a very ordinary looking man in a business suit took the great Russian city and put it in his pocket in only three days. He did it without firing a shot. In fact, he didn’t even have to invade, because another man—who fancies himself the Tsar of “all the Russias” (including those who deny being part of Russia, who are internationally recognized independent nations)—invited the conqueror to come.

Ah yes, “the man in the business suit.” He seems like such a nice man.

I do not know what he wants for his country, other than power—stupendous power. He speaks about his desire to build a harmonious, moderately-prosperous society in a harmonious, interdependent world. He may have some very interesting ideas (remember, we’re still doing fantasy-politics here). Sometimes he seems like a “visionary,” a man with a Dream—a new proposal not only for his own people[s] but for the entire world order. Soon (if not now), he may be able to claim to be most powerful man on earth. He has ruled over one-fifth of the world’s population for over a decade (with no end in sight), and he has endured some crises during that time that would have defeated other less-focused, less self-confident leaders.

Of course, there is a “Dark Side” to this new political “Force.” He certainly prefers persuasion and consensus with willing allies for the growth of his dream. But since humans can be stubborn, he is willing to let the multitudinous forces under his command use other means: there is plenty of the ancient bureaucratic corruption and bribery, along with innovative 21st century techniques such as technological theft and social surveillance. Above all, his minions enforce obsessive restrictions on any kind of information (and people) that might disturb the existential slumber of 1.5 billion “patriotic dreamers” and/or others who go-with-the-flow while pursuing their own personal dreams of upward mobility and wealth. Groups who cause trouble are “re-educated,” using what one might call vigorous pedagogical techniques that our “man-in-the-business-suit” prefers not to share with the rest of the world. He is, after all, making enormous omelets in an unprecedentedly gigantic and unwieldy frying pan. Lots of “eggs get broken” in this messy process: large eggs, huge eggs, eggs as big as entire cultural, linguistic, and religious minority groups—into the Brave New Omelet they go… or into the trash.

The Russian Tsar Vladimir “Vlad-the-Bad” Putin is placing more weight on what he thinks is an alliance of sorts with the man-in-the-business-suit. But our man has a plan, a very, very big plan, and he regards Putin and Russia as a useful part of his plan. He has proven to be a brilliant opportunist whenever it becomes possible to integrate other nations into his plan (all for the sake of “harmony,” of course). Most people in the West don’t know his name, or—if they have seen it—they can’t pronounce it.

China’s current claimant of the Mandate of Heaven (“Leninist Heaven,” ironically) is Xi Jinping (SHEE jin-PING), and he is not a stupid man. That much can certainly be said. He has maneuvered himself into a lifetime grip on all the most important offices in China’s complicated and obtuse PartyState. Head of the Party, head of the “State” it controls, head of the Peoples Liberation Army, Xi has monopolized power in China in a way not seen since Mao Zedong. Yet he is very different from Mao; Xi is a ruthless practical idealist whereas Mao was an inflexible (and simplistic) ideologue, a tenacious guerrilla war leader and an ingenious manipulator of his collaborators, while also being a colossal megalomaniac prone to vast impractical visions—catastrophically so for countless millions of Chinese people who suffered under a quarter-century of his dysfunctional rule. The “beliefs” of Mao and Xi also seem to differ. Mao believed in Communism, revolution, and—above all—the quasi-divine status of himself. Xi is more humble (though it doesn’t take much to be more humble than Chairman Mao, the Great Helmsman, the Red-Sun-Rising-in-the-East).

Xi wears “Communism” lightly. He advocates for socialism, but what he really wants is a kind of “National Socialism” (of course, he doesn’t use this Nazi-tinged term, nor the similarly discredited “fascism”). Instead he calls it “Socialism-With-Chinese-Characteristics.” There is little left here of Lenin’s class-struggling, world-revolutionary Marxism led by an international Communist Party “vanguard.” What remains, however, are Lenin’s techniques for seizing and holding onto a kind of political power that invades every aspect of human life, and the multi-layered pervasive political organization (the Party) that “plans” the direction of national life, enforces a unified “party line,” and uses fanatical surveillance to crush—or at least marginalize—any kind of wider examination and discussion, sincere “constructive” criticism, and certainly dissent from the party line. 

Another Leninist standard that remains is utter lack of transparency regarding intra-Party activities: decision-making in secret. This doesn’t help us to understand what Xi’s real program is all about. We are required to distill some ideas from his actions, public speeches and writings, and propaganda. Xi is not looking to “conquer the world.” What he aspires to—it seems—is to reconstruct in the 21st century the legendary China as the center of the world, a China of widespread “moderate prosperity” for all its citizens that will be exemplary and honored everywhere, possessing powerful “influence” and connections in the development and economic endeavors of many nations, receiving gratitude and “given face” (this particularly East Asian sense of visible stature) from the rest of the world. And, of course, doing unhindered and lucrative business everywhere.

This is what many China-watchers surmise about Xi Jinping’s China Dream. The steps to achieving the dream require us to speculate, or else to listen to the Chinese Communist Party’s explanations of what it is trying to do. The problem here is that we are far from confident that in this realm the CCP has given up one of the most fundamental Leninist principles: LYING. Of course, every government lies when it deems it “necessary.” But history has never before seen anything like the systemic structure of lies that are woven into the very fabric of Communist parties. Xi Jinping is a creature of this structure. His words are subtle, to say the least.

This is why I think Xi’s most recent diplomatic visit to his struggling Russian “friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow was a big win for the advancement of the China Dream. Notwithstanding China’s verbose “peace plan” (which distracted the West but scored leadership points with the many unaligned nations of the global south), the visit had little to do with the war in Ukraine. It was a publicity visit, large on glitter and show by the Russian host but small on perceivable content offered by the Chinese guest. The two countries have been trying to build a “comprehensive partnership” in recent years (especially since 2014, when Russia fell out with the West over the invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine).

Obviously, Putin needs his new Asian partner more than ever these days. He needs to build back credibility with the Chinese, who are annoyed by this war that was supposed to take five days but is still raging after a year. The Chinese want global stability. They will not help Putin escalate a war that has exposed Russian military incompetence by giving him more weapons that will only make things worse. They wince at Putin’s nuclear threats. China also wants a stable, functional Ukraine to trade with and include in its future plans to connect with the rest of Europe. Making peace between Russia and Ukraine (and the West) is probably beyond China’s mediating powers at present, but it looks good for them to at least make a show of trying. 

Putin has more pressing needs from Xi right now. Sanctioned by the West, Russia needs to sell its abundant natural gas and China is buying it—at bargain prices. China is also stepping in to provide consumer products to Russia which will help make up somewhat for the absence of Western trade. Then the two countries have “common projects” in Eastern Russia as well: projects to tap into natural resources there. These were all matters of discussion that filled up pages of common statements at the most recent meeting. Putin was grateful that Xi was willing to stand with him on the global stage and treat him like something more than a disgraced world leader. For his part, Xi made no special promises other than glowing affirmations of “special friendship.”

All these circumstances have added up to Xi and the Chinese getting “lots of face” in the global village.

Xi wants to play (or at least appear to play) the role of peacemaker, a role China apparently carried off with such recent success in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, Xi aspires to make China a global diplomatic powerhouse, which complements well his plans to continue constructing the “new Silk Road” linking China across Central Asia to markets in Europe and Africa. This includes massive building and infrastructure projects in Central Asia (including several former Soviet republics), and Xi wanted to make it clear that these countries do not have a place in Putin’s hopes to restore a “Greater Russia” such as that which prevailed during the Soviet-era rule in those nations. Putin may mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he cannot bring it back. Indeed, it is being clarified that Central Asia is no longer part of the wider Russian “sphere of influence.” The Chinese now have not only the claim and the investments, but also the leverage against their weakening Russian partners. China is the new influencer in the region.

Then, to the north, lies Russia’s access to ports on the increasingly navigable Arctic Ocean. Xi wants more freedom to use those arctic ports, and stake a few [or more than a few] claims on the vast riches of the region. Russia and China have been collaborating on a project to access liquid natural gas in Siberia, focusing on the arctic port city of Yamal. China has built a large (controlling?) presence in Yamal, but at their recent meeting Xi had to inform his friend Vladimir that the Chinese would have to “suspend” plans to help build a Siberian natural gas pipeline (which doesn’t prevent shipping Yamal’s LNG all over the world, which the Chinese would be glad to do). Working on a big infrastructure project with Russia right now is “problematic.” This is because Xi’s grand plans also require collaboration with Western friends (or, at least “frenemies”) and he cannot afford to brazenly ignore Western sanctions against Russia. Since their friendship is so “special,” Xi is confident that Putin will understand the delicate position that China is in right now (or if not, Putin will just have to swallow it—and he might as well get used to it, because he’ll have to take what he can get in the future from China).

The shift in Putin’s position of influence here is subtle. But one could see it as an example of “losing face.”

The Russia-China partnership is evolving in such a way that Russia increasingly finds itself the “junior partner” that may be required to depend even more on China if the war in Ukraine goes on.  That’s not exactly what one would call a “conquest,” but it is a material advantage that—in the increasingly wild world of the 21st century—may prove more efficient and lucrative for an ancient land that dreams anew of being “the center of the world” in the near future.