A few weeks ago, the Donald Trump administration in the US released a document titled ‘United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China’. The document expressed disappointment with the outcome of the engagement between the countries after they established diplomatic relations in 1979. The 16-page document concluded by highlighting that the US recognized the long-term strategic competition between the two systems and its approach in future would be guided by “principled realism”.
The US government said in that future it will continue to engage China’s leaders in a “respectful yet clear-eyed manner”.
One wishes the Indian government had been clear-eyed when engaging China’s President Xi Jinping.
The US remains the most powerful and influential country in the world. It has the biggest and arguably the most dynamic economy in the world, notwithstanding its current problems. It still calls the shots in many multilateral fora despite having elected an insular president.
The most powerful national leader, however, may not be Donald Trump. In all likelihood, it is Xi Jinping. That may make him the most powerful man alive.
Xi’s clout comes mainly from the fact that China today is the second-largest economy in the world. Its rise to that position, which came about a decade ago, gives it the leeway that none of Xi’s predecessors had. China’s rise as an economic power has come on the back of a high degree of integration with the global economy. That only adds to its clout as it is economically indispensable for now.
What makes Xi the most powerful man today are the choices he made after becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012. Soon after, he became president of China.
Since then, he has systematically purged rivals within CCP and accumulated enormous power. With that, a period when collective leadership was the prevailing norm has come to an end. He has assumed direct authority over the People’s Armed Police and in 2016 he became commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army.
According to Vijay Gokhale, a former foreign secretary who was for a while India’s Ambassador in China, not even Mao Zedong assumed this title. Moreover, Mao even at his peak had to sometimes share authority with Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi.
The accumulation of power has been married to exercise of power without an end in sight. In 2018, the two-term limit for President was removed from China’s Constitution, paving the way for more than two terms of Xi presidency.
Along with it, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ was written into the Constitution.
It’s hard to imagine any national leader among influential states can match the accumulation of political power Xi wields. The combination of China’s clout stemming from its economic size and a politician who has worked assiduously on monopolising power makes it a dangerous thing for the world. Concentration of enormous political power in an individual never ends well. There are simply no checks and balances.
Xi Jinping presents a threat to the world. And his own country too.
Strongmen are careful about what the public gets to know of their past. Therefore, it is wise to be sceptical about their authorised stories. Given this caveat, it worth thinking about something that Xi mentioned in a 2004 interview.
Xi, a chemical engineer from Tsinghua University, was born in 1953 into the family of one of the founders of CCP. His father, a stalwart in the CCP, had been purged in 1962.
In his mid-teens Xi was exiled from Beijing in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. As the train in which Xi left pulled out Beijing, it was filled with people crying, presumably on account of the forced exile.
Xi said that he was the only one in the train who was smiling. And the reason?
A forced exile in the countryside meant that he was likely to survive the Cultural Revolution; he could not be sure of that in Beijing.
It is this Chinese leader India hosted less than a year ago in Mamallapuram for an informal summit, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing the hope that it would help open a new chapter in bilateral ties.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.