To listen to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who delivered a New Year’s address to the nation last week, China has emerged triumphant from the severe challenges of 2020 while the rest of the world, especially the Western democratic world, has suffered dearly from the ravages of Covid-19.

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And there was certainly much for him to crow about. As a new year begins and Covid-19 continues to rip into overwhelmed health systems and failing economies around the globe, China has largely beaten back the virus. The entire city of Wuhan, which rang in 2021 with large, buoyant street parties, was in total lockdown around this time last year. Moreover,  remarkably, unlike any other major economy, the country of 1.4 billion people is once again seeing a rise in its GDP. 

After a painful, coronavirus-induced 6.8 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 2020, the Chinese economy grew at rates of 3.2 per cent and 4.9 per cent in the second and third quarters respectively. China is the only Group of 20 nation expected to record a positive economic growth rate for this past year, and economists are predicting a rise as high as nine per cent in the year ahead.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: China Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Hong Kong, largely shut off from the mainland for much of the past year due to Covid-19 travel and quarantine restrictions, is experiencing none of this economic success story. 

When schools shut down here and went online once again in early December, many mainland residents of the city scooped up their kids and headed across the border, where, unlike in Hong Kong, schools are open, gyms, restaurants, bars and shopping centres are operating as normal and people are free to travel anywhere they want within the country via planes, trains and automobiles. Who knows if these departees are ever coming back, especially now that Hong Kong schools will remain largely shuttered through Chinese New Year. 

The recently struck China-European Union investment deal is another sign of China’s relative strength in a world still battered by the pandemic. This agreement probably would not have happened had not Covid-19 changed the economic and political landscape in Beijing’s favour. After seven years of wrangling, a weakened EU basically caved in to Chinese demands. 

EU Commission flags
Photo: Wikicommons.

While the European Commission touted the deal as a “landmark” breakthrough in Sino-European relations, most economists greeted it with a collective shrug of the shoulders. That’s because key sectors of the Chinese economy — such as the aviation, telecoms, automotive and health care industries — remain shut off from foreign investment. 

The Chinese leadership also retains the right to reject on a case-by-case basis investments that are deemed to undermine national interests. Meanwhile, Europe is already largely open to Chinese investment. 

A watershed agreement? Hardly. Rather, for the EU this is more of a “Let’s take what they’ll give us” proposition that, notably, was concluded before the administration of US President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20. Both the EU and Beijing clearly see the Americans as a drag on any form of cooperation.  

joe biden
Photo: Joe Biden via Flickr.

Once Biden does take office, he will by no means find himself or his country in a strong position. Not only will he inherit a Covid-19 crisis that, thanks to President Donald Trump’s gross neglect and mismanagement, is the worst in the world, he also faces an new international political order that has lost faith in American leadership during Trump’s profoundly alienating “America First” agenda of the last four years. 

All this is what puffed up President Xi’s pride and confidence during his New Year’s address. China, it seems, stands poised to seize the mantle of global leadership that was so carelessly tossed away by the Trump administration. 

But not so fast. Despite Xi’s many boasts, the most recent surveys show that China still suffers from a dismal reputation on the international stage. According to the Pew Research Center, over the past year unfavourable opinion of China has positively soared in the world’s 14 most advanced economies: Australia, Japan, South Korea, the US, Canada, Germany, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Belgium and Italy. 

In Sweden, France, South Korea and Japan, 80 to 84 per cent of those surveyed said they had “no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the right thing regarding world affairs.” In the other countries on the list, the no-confidence vote in Xi ranged from 70 per cent (Netherlands) to 79 per cent (Australia).

Xi Jinping 2021 new years address
Photo: Screenshot via Youtube.

True, there are places in the world where Xi and his totalitarian regime are admired — Russia, for example (71 per cent), and Nigeria (70 per cent). But what does that tell us?

So Xi can gush on about beating back the coronavirus and restarting the Chinese economy, but no free society would tolerate the jackboot measures China employed to contain the virus, and no free society should ignore the forced labour conditions that have played a key role in that restart. 

Nor can we overlook the cultural genocide under way in the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, not to mention the shackling of Hong Kong with an oppressive national security law that has seen its best and brightest either flee the city or land in jail. 

There is, however, one category in which China has become the world’s undisputed leader: the number of political prisoners. But there were no boasts about this in Xi’s New Year’s address. 

In the final analysis, the world will happily continue to take Chinese money, but no self-respecting country seeks to emulate its autocratic system of one-party rule. 
Not only does that system suffer a tremendous moral deficit: history also shows us that it cannot last.    

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Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.