Beijing has been cautious not to be overtly against the war lest Moscow question the integrity of their strategic partnership. Russia has been China’s most significant partner in resisting US-led political pressure and continues to serve as an important bulwark for China’s energy security. Given practical constraints, Beijing’s implicit rhetoric on the war could therefore be viewed as veiled disapproval of Moscow’s militarism. Ambassador Fu Cong described China as “collateral damage” in the conflict, given how its relations with Europe have been negatively affected.
Beijing has been moderating its stance not only on foreign policy but on domestic affairs as well. Consider the government’s response to nationwide protests against Covid-19 lockdowns in the run-up to and after the Party Congress. Some of the demonstrations were explicitly against Xi’s rule. At rallies on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, many people shouted for Xi to step down, while hundreds of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing called for “democracy and rule of law”.
Even though police presence and online surveillance were stepped up during these incidents, there was no evidence of any large-scale crackdown. Authorities vowed to counter “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order”, and some protesters were indeed taken to custody. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) reported that police in Shanghai assaulted one of its journalists, a claim which Beijing denied. Such cases might have been attributable to local authorities. In general, the Chinese government appears to have held back from taking action against the vast majority of protesters, who remained peaceful.
That said, Beijing’s zealous commitment to the unpopular zero-Covid policy before the mass protests erupted is puzzling. According to Financial Times, the central government’s adamance in the face of pervasive discontent was due to Xi’s dominance in China’s authoritarian system, with underling bureaucrats hesitant to paint for leaders the true picture of the worrying situation on the ground. The pressure mounted when Xi repeatedly staked his personal prestige on the uncompromising policy.
Driven by domestic imperatives
In the years leading up to the 20th Party Congress – Xi’s first two terms as CCP chief – he had already centralized political control through initiatives such as the anti-corruption campaign and the creation of “leading small groups” (领导小组), many of which he personally chairs. Thus, even though the Party Congress symbolically marked Xi’s power sweep, his authoritarian tendencies and their implications had been emerging for some time.
Since Xi became China’s leader in 2012, the nation’s foreign policy has indeed grown more assertive, especially in the context of its assertion of sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea and over Taiwan and its control of Hong Kong. It has also shown increasing willingness to flex its economic muscle, imposing sanctions or other penalties on countries which it sees as impinging on its strategic interests. In domestic policy, with its efforts to take down big tech platforms, cool down the property market, control the education sector and tame Covid-19, Xi and his government have been resolute but capricious and stubborn at times. Yet, in all these areas – abroad and at home – its recent behavior suggests that the Xi regime is capable of traditional restraint and level-headed pragmatism.
Going forward, with Xi’s power consolidated, will Beijing necessarily become more dangerous and repressive? Achieving post-Covid economic recovery and navigating the tense relationship with the US and its like-minded allies and partners, especially in the context of financial and technological decoupling, are tasks fraught with difficulties. Because of simmering geopolitical and ideological differences, it will continue to be difficult to find common ground with the US and even with neighbors and major trade and investment partners such as Japan and India. Expect Xi Jinping to remain focused on maintaining his and the CCP’s political legitimacy, with that overarching goal the main driver of his government’s policy.