The Silk Curtain: five reasons why the Western-China relations will not change

by Antonella Benedetto

On the 15th of November, US President Joe Biden and the PRC’s President Xi Jinping met virtually for the first time since the American Presidential election. For discussion, there were the Taiwan question, human rights concerns, and the trade wars on the table. As anticipated in last year’s article, the relationship between US and China would not have changed in 2021. In fact, during the last months, the two counterparts did not keep constant dialogue; for this reason, the risk of an armed conflict (the Chinese Warplanes in Taiwan airspace is an example) appeared very high.

First reason: the distance meeting Xi-Biden did not produce significant results.

For the ISPI analysts Fasulo and Tentori, the virtual meeting had the merit to release tension without discussing key issues such as Taiwan and the trade war. Before the meeting, the perception of a new Cold War was more and more real, as stressed by the IR Professor John Mearsheimer in his Foreign Affairs article entitled The Inevitable Rivalry. Indeed, according to the ISPI senior advisor Ugo Tramballi, China cares about Taiwan much more about how the URSS was concerned about Berlin and Cuba. Biden alerted the Chinese President not to take unilateral action, which could change the status quo and undermine the region’s peace and stability. In particular, he referred to the fly of Chinese military jets in the Taiwan air defense zone, which peaked in October. As a response, the Island has increased its weapon capability with American help, as stated by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. We still do not know how tense it will be in the following months. However, mutual understanding and cooperation are necessary if the two counterparts wish to reach global challenges such as climate neutrality.

Second reason: Xi Jinping’s mandate extension due to the probable abolition of the presidential term limit.

During the second week of November, the four-day Sixth Chinese Party Plenum in Beijing has taken place, setting its plans and initiative in the presence of the Chinese Communist Party Committee. Xi’s document is the third released since the Foundation of the Party in 1921, after the Mao Zedong’s in 1945 and Deng Xiaoping’s in 1981. However, the previous CCP’s Resolutions collocated in a more tumultuous historical period. Mao’s Resolution followed the tremendous event of the Yanan Rectification Movement (1942-1945), which saw the killing of many Chinese intellectuals. He guaranteed to act self-criticism and not to repeat past mistakes. Promise not maintained: Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution caused the systematic murders of millions of people, above all capitalists. Instead, Deng’s Resolution was accompanied by an opening to foreign markets.

Mao led the country to stand up against oppression, Deng brought prosperity, and now Mr. Xi is propelling the nation into a new era of national strength (Buckley, 2021, NY Times).

Xi’s Resolution will focus mainly on two aspects: firstly, the open possibility to an indefinite extension of his mandate to a third term; secondly, at the contrary of his predecessors, he will approach historical revisionism, as reported by The New York Times: “To steer China’s future, Xi is rewriting its past.” The tools to implement it: the considerable presence of Xi’s nine-year mandate in PCC biographies, indoctrination in schools, televisions, press, and books; stronger sanctions for joking or for putting into discussion the Party’s rules. The Chinese persuasion campaign will be helpful to justify the current policies such as the zero-covid strategy, the anti-corruption campaign, and the future Common Prosperity program, aiming at the reduction of inequalities. Indeed, the 1% of the richest possess 30% of the Chinese family’s richness, that is why recently the rules for Hi-tech companies have been changed. “Getting rich is no more glorious, but dangerous.”

Third reason: the bilateral agreement on climate change did not bring the expected results.

The US and China are the biggest polluters in the world. With its 1.4 million inhabitants, China is the first world energy consumption and the first for total emission registered (28%), the double compared to the US and the triple compared to the European Union. However, a middle-income American produces a double quantity of CO2 emissions per capita compared to the Chinese one. Once again, China presents itself as a contradictory country. It is the biggest carbon consumer, but at the same time, its market is the first at a global level of renewable energy. Despite primarily the US and China managed to reach the climate agreement to COP26. Xie Zhenhua, the Chinese climate envoy, said that “Cooperation is the only choice for both China and the United States, as two major powers in the world” and as stated by John Kerry, “The United States and China have no shortage of differences. But on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done”. However, in the final paper, China and India found a scapegoat to reduce the commitments in the carbon emission quantity goals. At this point, China’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2060 seems impossible.

Fourth reason: the Lithuanian case.

Last August, Lithuania went out from the 17+1 group between China and Central and Eastern European countries. In addition to this, last September, the Defense Vice-Minister recommended avoiding Chinese smartphone purchasing and throwing them out after the announcement in August of the probable opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius. On the 18th of November, Lithuania officially opened it. This caused a diplomatic crisis between the two countries: firstly, the two ambassadors were called back to their respective countries. Moreover, the Lithuanian freight trains under the BRI were suspended, the food exporters licenses, and the fintech investors. The Chinese Foreign Minister Affairs accused Lithuania of “undermining the Chinese sovereignty and the territorial integrity.” So-called little Lithuania answered that it would not deny the One China Policy. However, it has all the interests to open the dialogue with Taiwan. The Lithuanian action was supported by the US. The EU stands in the middle. In fact, despite in the past few months, the EU sanctioned some Chinese diplomats, still remarks that the Old Continent, the One China Policy, was never contested.

Fifth reason: Peng Shuai case and the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022 boycott.

Often politics and sport are intertwined. This is the case of the Winter Olympics, which will occur in February in Beijing. Mainly two events are creating troubles. The first is the open denounce of the Chinese Tennis player champion Peng Shuei, who confessed publicly on the internet to have been the victim of a sexual assault by the former Chinese Politburo member Zhang Gaoli. After a few hours, her post disappeared, and she retired from the public scene. Although a few days later, an email in which Peng reassured that she was fine, the Woman Tennis Association (WTA) canceled all the tennis tournaments due to its dissatisfaction with the proof presented by the Party. Other concerns are the strict Chinese Zero Covid Strategy policy, which would create a witch hunt made of daily swap and isolation; moreover, the human rights violations in the Xinjiang region, Tibet and Hong Kong forced Biden to officially declare that no American government officials will attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. On the contrary, for China, the boycotts would mean the violation of the Olympic spirit, and it is seen as just a way to discredit the country. A hugely different atmosphere compared to the 2008 Summer Olympics one put China at the center of the world stage.