China’s Xi, Preaching Openness Abroad, Clamps Down at Home

  • Defends economic liberalism; fights ‘false Western ideas’
  • Country’s top judge, Communist Party issue directives

China's Xi Defends Globalization at World Economic Forum

As Chinese President Xi Jinping preached “openness” and “economic liberalization” to global elites in Davos this week, his government was warning against “false Western ideas” at home.

Xi’s speech at the World Economic Forum came days after the country’s top judge ordered the courts to “boldly whip out the sword” against judicial independence and constitutional democracy. The ruling Communist Party, meanwhile, issued a directive ordering five ministries to put political loyalty first when selecting senior officials and it decided to revise textbooks to bolster “patriotic education.”

The moves show Xi’s efforts to avoid a dual challenge that Chinese leaders have long described as “anxiety within, trouble without.” Not only does the president face a potentially more confrontational U.S. under Donald Trump, including the threat of a damaging trade war, he’s seeking to minimize domestic risks ahead of a twice-a-decade party leadership reshuffle in the last quarter of the year.

“The contrast between Xi acting flexible abroad and being iron-fisted at home is a reflection of a sense of anxiety or even crisis," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously was a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “He needs to buy more time and win more room for himself. He needs more foreign investment and less hostility. The party at this moment cannot really afford external conflicts.”

Even as Xi used his Davos speech to preach greater economic ties with the U.S. and other trading partners, China is showing a harder line on Japan and other long-time rivals. Earlier this month the Ministry of Education ordered textbooks at all levels to extend by six years the “Chinese War Against Japanese Aggression,” emphasizing that hostilities stretched back to 1931, rather than 1937 previously.

Read more: Xi’s speech at Davos pushed back against protectionism

Japan, along with South Korea and Taiwan, scrambled jets this month after Chinese military excursions near their territory. Beijing’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, completed its first-ever circuit of Taiwan, which China considers a province, after three weeks of live-fire drills that took it into the disputed South China Sea.

Such displays help build a sense of national unity ahead of the party congress. The event will provide Xi his best chance to remake his top echelons and influence his succession after 2022, when his tenure would be expected to end.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in an article posted on the ministry’s website Thursday that the country’s diplomacy would be guided this year by “strategic composure and a proactive approach in a changing and chaotic world” to “cultivate a steady and favorable external environment for the 19th Party Congress.”

At home, the country’s top judge enlisted the courts to battle any attempts to subvert state power, split the country or endanger national security. Supreme People’s Court President Zhou Qiang warned senior judges at a Jan. 14 gathering in Beijing “absolutely not to fall into the trap of false Western ideas” such as judicial independence, separation of powers and constitutionalism.

‘More Threatening’

Zhou stressed the importance of political ideology in judicial officials’ job appraisals. He called for a legal interpretation for cases about the reputation of historic figures venerated by the party. Jerome Cohen, a New York University professor who specializes in Chinese law, said Zhou’s speech was “much more threatening” to judicial officials than previous orders to toe the party line.

The push for conformity has hit academics, media officials, doctors and even pop stars. A Hong Kong singer was recently kicked off a talent show in China over his perceived support for the city’s independence. Various Hong Kong-based media reported that more than 50 Hong Kong and Taiwanese entertainers were black-listed from social media promotions in China, apparently for their political views.

Hong Kong-based media also said at least three people in China, including a propaganda official and TV producer, lost their jobs this month after criticizing the party’s late chairman, Mao Zedong, whose leadership and ideas Xi praised. The producer had defended a university professor in the eastern province of Shandong, who was sacked after making “wrongful remarks” on social media about Mao on the eve of his Dec. 26 birth date.

Governance Model

Such domestic actions undercut Xi’s effort to make China the leader of an open and connected global order, said Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former director on the National Security Council. In his speech at Davos, Xi said there was “there is no point in blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems,” likening protectionism to “locking yourself in a dark room.”

“China doesn’t offer a compelling model of governance that most other countries want to follow,” Goodman said. “China is headed in the opposite direction, both in its more restrictive internal policies and in its assertive behavior in the region.”  

‘More Open’

Foreign companies have complained of difficulties in China’s investment environment. Some 81 percent of the U.S. companies surveyed feel less welcome, while more than 60 percent have little or no confidence the country will further open its markets in the next three years, according to a poll of 462 firms released Wednesday by the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

That undermines China’s efforts to build a more knowledge-based economy, which relies heavily on innovation, said AmCham Shanghai President Kenneth Jarrett, a former U.S. consul general in the city.

“Getting to that level will require a more open society and one that allows the free flow of information,” Jarrett said. “This will challenge the government’s traditional emphasis on control and stability.”

— With assistance by Ting Shi, and Peter Martin

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE