J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the China Policy Institute and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK, a research associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, and chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel.
Interview by Matteo Damiani
China has just dropped the term limits for the president. What does this recent change mean for China?
It means a return to the imperial, “mandate of heaven” tradition and, in my opinion, a negative turn in China. It’s a further concentration of power and a deepening of authoritarian rule for the country. It’s the abandonment of a tradition of “rule by consensus” that has existed since the end of the catastrophic Mao era.
Though nothing close to democratic, the regular transitions of power that came with the term-limits at least imposed some change; now that is gone. Combined with Xi’s gaining control of all the key institutions within the CCP and his ongoing drive to rid himself of any competitor, that’s a rather worrying development.
As I argued in a recent article for CPI Analysis, this development risks creating instability in China and, in times of crisis, could accelerate momentum towards a coup d’état, there being no other option to get rid of bad leadership.
Is there any internal opposition within the CCP?
We can assume there is, but who’s going to go public saying that right now, knowing what happens to whoever criticizes President Xi nowadays? The CCP has its own factions, so those that are not pro-Xi would understandably be unhappy with this turn of events, as are those who are in favor of reform.
How can be explained Xi Jinping’s seizure of absolute power?
Consolidation of power can be for the sake of accumulating power itself or because President Xi has somehow convinced himself that he needs more than two terms to accomplish everything he’s set out to do. It indicates that in his view, he is indispensable to the “great rejuvenation of China” and that he and he alone knows what is best for China, for the present and the future. This has all the hallmarks of a dictatorship. It’s quite worrying, for the region, and for the Chinese people themselves, who of course had no say in the matter.
The benefits of the New Silk Road are evident for the international community. But what does it mean for the international balance of powers?
I’m not so sure the benefits are evident, what with the growing number of countries that are now struggling to pay back loans for major infrastructure projects, funded by China, that was negotiated in secret and under terms that are not beneficial to the recipient country. Some countries are now reneging on such programs, realizing the risks that come with those deals, which in some instances has resulted in Chinese state-run companies acquiring pieces of a country’s sovereignty in exchange for a debt write-off.
Part of that initiative is in line with China expanding as a global power; part of that is neo-colonialism, an attempt to strengthen its hold on key nodes in the global system, from transportation to natural resources.
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It’s also a means for China to expand its influence and to reshape the international order in a way that is more favorable to China; often this means curtailing freedom of expression, rules of transparency and accountability, and the co-optation of officials, businesses, and others in the targeted countries.
Another problem I see with OBOR (One Belt One Road Initiative) and other global initiatives of China is that Beijing imposes no conditions – human rights, environmental, transparency, etc – for the extension of loans, meaning that autocratic regimes, dictatorships, and other miscreants who would not be able to get assistance from global institutions like the World Bank or IMF can now rely on China to secure such loans, no questions asked.
The corruption risks are therefore immense, and the trickle-down effects for ordinary citizens marginal at best.
What is the current situation in the Taiwan Strait?
Beijing continues to do what it can to isolate Taiwan, to punish its people for the decisions they have made via democratic means.
China has not found a way to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese and continues to struggle with the island nation’s democratic persistence. Even its former “ally,” the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), is now regarded by Beijing as a poor partner that is no longer committed to unification.
It is now offering various incentives – especially to young people – to go to China to work or study. By doing so, it hopes to drain Taiwan of its best resources and to create allegiances to Beijing. As it does so, it continues to flex its muscles military and signals its belligerence by various means. None of this, so far, has succeeded in compelling the Taiwanese to give up.
China remains technically committed to what it calls “peaceful unification,” meaning unification by means other than military, but that option remains on the table. It’s not the likeliest scenario for the time being, but China is certainly building a military that will eventually have the wherewithal to use force against Taiwan should the leadership decide that all other options have failed.
topics: risks of the New Silk Road, New Silk Road risks, New Silk Road danger, Xi Jinping power, opposition within the CCP, the situation in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan strait crisis, xi Jinping’s ambitious power play, Xi Jinping seeking to extend the power
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.