By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
August 4, 2018

Last week I noted a flurry of stories in the Western press suggesting Xi Jinping might have “overplayed his hand” in asserting China’s claims to prominence on the global stage and sparring with Donald Trump on trade. This week the flurry flared into a storm.

On Tuesday, the New York Times gave prominent play to Chris Buckley’s analysis of an “erudite jeremiad” by Xu Zhangrun, an influential Chinese intellectual. Xu’s essay seemed to rebuke Xi for (among other things) exaggerating China’s military and technological prowess, stifling personal liberties, and attempting to resurrect the “cult of personality” rejected by China’s ruling elite after the death of Mao Zedong. On Friday, my former Washington Post colleague John Pomfret weighed in with an essay of his own describing China as gripped by an “overwhelming feeling of unease“—about the slowing economy, recurring corruption scandals, rampant destruction of the environment and a host of other challenges. Pomfret, also quoting at length from Xu, noted that many in China blame Xi for the nation’s malaise.

Common to many of the reassessments is the idea that Xi has fostered a spirit of reckless “triumphalism,” and bears personal responsibility for misreading Trump’s resolve on trade issues—thereby bungling relations with China’s most important trade partner. In the Financial Times Tom Mitchell discerns a “growing chorus of soto voce criticism” that Xi should not have “casually discarded” former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s policy of seeking to “hide China’s brightness.” In today’s Guardian, Lily Kuo ponders “cracks” in Xi’s aura of invincibility. On Bloomberg TV, Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, mused dryly that “we might have reached peak Xi Jinping.”

That would be an extraordinary shift in global sentiment. In the Western press, Xi has been variously described as “president for life,” “China’s modern Mao,” “the chairman of everything” and (my personal favorite) “Xi who must be obeyed.” Until only a few weeks ago, the conventional wisdom on Xi—the one thing that any self-respecting “Washington insider” could tell you about him at a cocktail party—was that the Chinese leader had an iron grip on power and, unlike Trump, didn’t need to worry about getting reelected. Pomfret faults Trump critics for transforming China into a rhetorical fantasyland, “a place with ever-increasing power, graphs that always go up and a permanently stable political system, in contrast to the failing United States.”

The key question, of course, is whether the morphing global Zeitgeist bears any correlation to machinations inside Zhongnanhai. Bill Bishop at Sinocism suggests not much. “Color me skeptical,” he writes, “that Xu’s letter will do anything other than lead to investigations of and crackdown on anyone associated with it.”

Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, channeling Sean Connery’s “Chicago Way” speech in The Untouchables, argues that, far from trying to make peace, Xi should hit Trump with everything he’s got, tripling down on retaliatory tariffs and sticking American firms with investment and regulatory restrictions. Beijing’s announcement Friday that it has targeted an additional $60 billion worth of U.S. goods for tariffs suggests Xi intends to do just that. If nothing else, it now seems clear the two sides are digging in for a protracted standoff. Indeed, if Xi is battling perceptions of weakness, and if there is any truth to rumors that his domestic political position is more precarious than previously understood, perhaps that leaves him less willing to offer trade concessions rather than more.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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