China, the 'Victor Power,' Is Both Arrogant and Insecure | Opinion

The most dangerous thing in the world today is Chinese arrogance. The second most dangerous is Chinese insecurity.

China's arrogant and insecure leader is now going on a nationalist bender. Members of the country's elite take their cue from Xi Jinping and believe that they, the inheritors of "more than 5,000 years of history," are destined to rule the world.

The entire world? Xi, using the language of two millennia of emperors, suggests he has the Mandate of Heaven to rule tianxia, meaning "All Under Heaven." When speaking of "a community of shared future for mankind," as he often does, he is surely thinking that everyone else has the common obligation to submit to him.

Everyone including Scott Morrison. "Morrison should kneel down on the ground, slap himself in the face, and kowtow to apologize to Afghans—all these should be done in a live telecast," the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tabloid, demanded on November 30. This punishment was one that Chinese emperors often employed to humiliate, among others, slaves and concubines.

Morrison, Australia's prime minister, had demanded that China apologize because the foreign ministry tweeted out a doctored image purporting to show a grinning Australian soldier about to slit the throat of an Afghan child. The ministry had to know the photograph in question had been faked by a Chinese artist, Fu Yu, who had boasted about the fabrication.

The Chinese view of worldwide sovereignty is audacious, but those at the center of power in Beijing believe the "Chinese dream" will be attained because the United States is in terminal decline. Therefore, China's dominance is, to borrow one of the CCP's favored words, "inevitable."

Chinese elitists see the divisions in American society and rejoice at the apparent unity of China. They look at COVID-19 infections in other countries and believe their semi-totalitarian system is superior. "In this fight against the pandemic, there will be victorious powers and defeated ones," said Wang Xiangsui, a retired senior colonel teaching at a Beijing university, as quoted in The New York Times. "We're a victor power while the United States is still mired and, I think, may well become a defeated power."

The Chinese people are indoctrinated from a young age and relentlessly molded by propaganda, so they fundamentally misunderstand just about everything. They can be forgiven for failing to realize that resilient democracies publicize their problems, while brittle regimes like China's hide theirs.

As a result, China now has an epidemic of haughtiness. The widely publicized November 28 comments of Di Dongsheng, an academic at Beijing's Renmin University, demonstrate the hubris of the Chinese elite, which has no hesitation expressing in public its belief that China can dictate outcomes at the highest levels in Washington—"the core circle inside America's real power," as Di put it.

The belief in their own supremacy makes the Chinese difficult geopolitical actors to deter. The People's Liberation Army invaded India this year in three separate locations in the Himalayas. China has built or occupied settlements inside both Nepal and Bhutan, effectively grabbing land from them. Its planes and vessels have pressured Taiwan, Japan and, most recently, South Korea. China's leaders, adopting the outlook of two millennia of imperial rule, believe they have a divine right to do whatever they want, including changing their borders by force and intimidation.

Yet CCP leaders are, paradoxically, also insecure, as rulers with totalitarian pretensions always are. In a society where the supremo is supposed to be in total control and infallible, every problem, however small, is magnified in significance.

President Xi Jinping and other members of
President Xi Jinping and other members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

And China has no shortage of problems. Chinese society still has not recovered from the COVID-19 epidemic, which is especially evident from weak consumer spending and rising bond default rates. COVID-19 is reappearing, and the country's vaccine, though already being administered, is still not fully tested. There are electricity shortages across China—the "worst power blackouts in a decade," as Hong Kong's South China Morning Post described them.

In the long term, the country is entering a period of rapid demographic decline—China's population will almost certainly fall by about a billion people between now and the end of the century. Within a few years, India will overtake China as the world's most populous state, if that has not occurred already.

The environment is showing even more signs of exhaustion. Clean water, for instance, remains scarce.

China's leaders, as a result, could believe they are strong now but will not be later, therefore seeing a closing window of opportunity. In late January, People's Daily, the most authoritative publication in China, carried a piece titled "Xi Stresses Racing Against Time to Reach Chinese Dream."

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping faithfully adheres to a core tenet of communism that communists can manage anything and everything. So it is unlikely that any of these serious problems troubles him greatly.

Yet Xi betrays insecurity nonetheless. His demand for absolute control over the CCP, now numbering about 92 million members, is impossible to satisfy, and there are signs of splits at the top of the organization with respect to important matters. Xinhua News Agency, an official media outlet, just ran a piece entitled, "The 'Worshipping of America' and 'Kneeling to America' Soft-Boned Disease Must Be Cured!," which railed against "surrenderists" in the Party. At the moment, only belligerent policies are politically acceptable.

Why? The legitimacy of the CCP had, for decades, depended on the continual delivery of prosperity. So with a fragile economy, the only sure basis of legitimacy is nationalism. Nationalism, as a practical matter, means military misadventure abroad.

Because Xi has accumulated almost unprecedented political power, he now has almost unprecedented accountability. There is, unfortunately for him, no one else to blame. Furthermore, Xi has, with merciless persecution of political enemies since taking power in late 2012, raised the costs of political failure. So Xi knows that he could lose everything—power, assets, freedom and life—should he fail.

China's ruler, therefore, has a very low threshold of risk. We may think he should be cautious, but Xi Jinping now has incentives to lash out and start a crisis that is unimaginable.

At this moment, free societies do not appreciate the danger posed by an incredibly arrogant and deeply insecure China.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitterand Parler: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.