TOM PLATE WRITES — To what does Mr Xi Jinping truly aspire? Who does China’s ‘paramount leader’ think he is? Mr Xi Jinping doesn’t need fawning media coverage to mislead him into believing something he may or may not be. Whether China’s president is crowned person-of-the-year by a self-important U.S. magazine (such as Time) is of no importance. Mr Xi himself must understand that he is arguably unimportant. He shouldn’t require cover stories to bolster his self-image. He is not making history, history is making him. There was no way China was going to remain down and out forever. It has always been a potential force majeure – stormy when stormy; calm, but usually superficially, with undercurrents below spiraling to emerge as history’s next great wave.

For decades, perhaps our most astute geopolitical weather-forecaster has been Kishore Mahbubani, stepping down this month, as decorously as possible, as the founding dean of the highly regarded Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. His first book (essays, speeches) hit the U.S. in the mid-90s and was titled (ironically enough) Can Asians Think? Its theme was that, with Asia is coming into its own, if Westerners think the 21st century will prove a repeat of the American century, they had better think again.

Dean Mahbubani sincerely doubts the U.S. is psychologically prepared for that, but like it or not, China is back and we had better figure out how to deal with it or face hitting the great Chinese brick wall of history. Large as well as small nation-states need to do that big rethink now. It may prove painful. Brainy Singapore, ever thinking forward, is not alone in anguish over how to proceed (by the way, S’pore friends: be not cranky: heated public debate on vital issues is a sign of cultural strength, not weakness). Other governments are into the deep think: Australia (with its panoply of think-tanks and universities); Japan (missiles suddenly overhead); South Korea, sometimes so small-town, suddenly on big-time red-alert.

Mr Xi has been pushing modern China outwards, perhaps in hopes of kingdoms to come. But he undoubtedly knows that his most serious worries nest at home. The rich-poor gap is huge and growing (including in Hong Kong, of which Mr Xi is now the ultimate landlord). This is an explosion waiting to happen. And the government’s evident ideological clampdown on universities seems inimical to the need for innovation and further globalization.

Note that China rarely misses the chance to blame foreigners and their interventions for past troubles, and with stubbornness avoids looking deeply inward for fear of understanding itself better. This is not healthy. As the late historian and critic Simon Leys (a/k/a Pierre Ryckmans) suggested, the embrace of ideology blinds one to reality. It was back in 1984 that he first reminded us that China had done more harm to itself over the prior 25 years “than had the combined forces of all foreign imperialists in one hundred years of endemic aggression.” (In all fairness, America also similarly guilty of amazing memory lapses, such as the ethnic cleansing of Indian natives; but, then again, we have Indian casinos to remind us that Something Must Have Happened).

Confucius is denoted as a key thread in China’s DNA tapestry. Yet, one of civilization’s greatest philosophers (551-479 BC) was wont to worry about the dangers of leaders who talk too much and take themselves too seriously. Even though God himself/herself never talks much – he advised maximum leaders present and future – “yet the four seasons follow their course and the hundred creatures continue to be born.” Alas, at the October Party Congress, President XI did not mention this particular Confucian insight in a speech that required more than three hours to hear in full. On ideology, Mr Xi is hard to figure, but as the proclaimed third man in the Mao-Deng Xiaoping triology, it is everyone’s hope that his nature proves more Deng-ish than Mao-ish.

What must be kept in mind is that China today stands on the cusp of universal relevance not only economically – but environmentally and geopolitically as well. In fact, placed side-by-side against our U.S. president, this man of many titles (General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission – how many have I left out?) presents a political profile far more global than yokel. (One could further say that Mr Xi is actually less nationalistic than Mr Trump.)

Is the U.S. definitively washed up as a great nation simply because its current leader is obviously not a great one? If in fact we are in decline, surely this is a complex phenomenon and is not due to only one factor or actor. America has survived mediocre presidents more than once. And so with China: The fiercest U.S. anti-Communist will admit that China is special no matter what. Must it require a Deng-Plus to remain on course? If China is ruled by the Communist Party because it is axiomatically the people’s authentic voice, heart and soul, then why is one man (note the paucity of women leaders at the top of China) so utterly essential? Is another ‘Great Helmsman’ so absolutely necessary if the Chinese people are not to sink anew?

Wrote Li He (790-816): “The poet’s brush completes the universal creation: It is not Heaven’s achievement.” Before Mr Xi’s next five years are complete, let us hope he can find a secure and respected place under China’s heaven for all its poets and painters. They are the ones that are truly eternal, as is China. As for its current president, he is only of this moment, just like the rest of us. Keeping that in mind can keep us humble.

South China Morning Post Columnist Tom Plate, author of ‘Yo-Yo Diplomacy’ and the ‘In the Middle of China’s Future’, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. An earlier version of this column first appeared exclusively in the SCMP 4 December.

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