It was a year ago that President Xi Jinping attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, pitching himself as a stable elder statesman and China as a responsible global power. While Xi is not going to Switzerland this year, it is appropriate to see how the world is reacting to a more assertive China on the global stage.
Under Xi, China has moved far beyond Deng's Xiaoping's dictum of "hide our capabilities and bide our time, make some contributions". China's current strongman harbors global ambitions, as reflected in his promise at the 19th Party Congress last October when he said, "It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind."
Whilst consolidating massive domestic power, indeed an unprecedented amount compared to recent decades, Xi is not content with dominating just China.
Indeed, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has set its sights on a much higher prize, that of global influence. While Trump is busy trying to make America great again, so too is Xi with China, except that he is making it great for the first time in the modern era.
On 15 January the People's Daily, the official publication of the CPC, published a 5,500-character treatise, outlining China's role in the world. It was entitled 'Tightly grasping the very promising period of historical opportunity'. This is becoming a common theme - now is the time for China to rise and dominate.
One phrase in the document stated, "The world needs China, as all humans are living in a community with a shared future...That creates broad strategic room for our efforts to uphold peace and development and gain an advantage." Yet how do such claims to peaceful intent sit with the degree of martial rhetoric calling for China's armed forces to be ready for war?
The manifesto highlighted a "democratic deficit" and said "the drawbacks of capitalism-led political and economic systems are emerging; the global governance system is experiencing profound changes and a new international order is taking shape". Of course, China will be at the head of that international order.
Much effort is being invested into legitimizing the CPC both at home and abroad. Indeed, China appears to be exporting its socialist revolution - with "Chinese characteristics", of course - to the rest of the world.While it may not be advocating communism as the cure-all for every other country, it desperately wants others to recognize the authority and validity of its brand of socialism and authoritarianism.
Beijing sees the USA's retreat from the world stage as the opportunity of the decade, perhaps of the generation, for China to make its mark. As the USA suffers from political and social polarization under President Donald Trump's brand of leadership, unfortunately China seems to be winning the competition for legitimacy. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which annually measures trust in institutions and governments, recorded a massive 37 percent plunge in trust in the USA in 2018, and a corresponding 27 percent spike in China.
Of course, the USA's troubles are plainly broadcast because it allows freedom of expression, whilst China oppressively snuffs out any whiff of malcontent or dissent.
Under China's renewed foreign policy impetus, international diplomatic posts will feature strongly in a more muscular approach. Xi addressed an annual ambassadors' conference in December, in which he advocated a global vision and more proactive role for China. For starters, Ma Zhaoxu, most recently the Chinese envoy at the United Nations in Geneva, will become China's new ambassador to the UN in New York.
The elevation of State Councillor Yang Jiechi to the 25-member Politburo last October was indication of the greater role foreign diplomacy plays in Xi's vision too.
Alas, China's repressive approach is beginning to be copied in the Asian region, showing how its brand of authoritarianism is gaining currency and popularity. Cambodia is an obvious example, with Prime Minister Hun Sen rapidly consolidating control over the country ahead of July's election despite widespread public dissatisfaction.
Hun Sen outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the leading opposition party, and a number of its leaders fled the country to escape arrest. Furthermore, the independent English-language Cambodia Daily was forcibly closed. China notably once supported the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, but in recent years it has reinvested heavily in the country to the point it is now the top source of foreign direct investment. In return for its support, Beijing has gained a steady ally in its jousting with ASEAN over the South China Sea territorial issue. Indeed, Phnom Penh should be considered simply as a Chinese stooge at such meetings.
Similarly, Philippine President Ronald Duterte has adopted a strongman style of leadership. Manila's government is also intent on stifling free speech, including attempting to shut down the Rappler online news outlet last week for its continued criticism of Duterte.
It seems that China has gained acceptance in the international community, with governments often ignoring China's continued abuse of human rights and shirking of international law when it suits. For example, one must question why China is on the UN Human Rights Council, where countries are supposed to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights". China daily tramples upon human rights, religious freedom and suppresses its minorities.
Yet the illogicality of international diplomacy is seen in who other Human Rights Council members are. They include staunch stalwarts of democracy and human dignity like Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Venezuela.
China has always been adamant that others snub Taiwan too. This effort has recently gained renewed vigor, with China shaming any foreign company, listing Taiwan as a country or showing its flag. Thus it was that Chinese censors shut down the Marriott hotel chain's website for including Taiwan as a country in a customer questionnaire in its rewards club. Audi also got in hot water for showing a map of China that excluded Taiwan and parts of Tibet.
China, exerting leverage through social media and the internet - ironically something it totally controls at home - to demand apologies. This is simply part of a wider campaign by China to push its own one-sided narrative abroad and to shape popular opinion. Additionally, China's One Belt, One Road initiative puts China more firmly in the driver's seat, where it can set the rules over a multitude of countries.
This is simply more evidence of China's sharp power, where it uses coercion rather than soft power, to influence others. Whereas China may have manipulated others more quietly, it is now much more public and brazen. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and the USA are only belatedly becoming aware of the insidious nature of Chinese politicking behind the scenes in their own governments, businesses and educational institutions.
China's stringent cyber-security and national security laws can be applied to anything construed as "damaging national unity". Rabid nationalists are quick to call for boycotts, and the ability of the authorities to shut down businesses creates a dangerous economic sledgehammerin Beijing's hands. Indeed, Marriott spent a whole week issuing apologetic kowtows to China. Craig Smith, president and managing director of Marriott's Asia-Pacific office, said, "This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career."
Marriott promised to implement an "eight-point rectification plan", mirroring language used in Mao's era of indoctrination. Last year China comprised 19 percent of Marriott's global growth, showing the company's level of fear of losing that market share.
Delta Airlines also apologized for hurting the feelings of Chinese people. It seems that mighty China's "national feelings" are easily hurt. Furthermore, Apple removed more than 670 apps in 2017 to abide by Chinese censorship laws. Its chief executive Tim Cook said, "We believe in engaging with governments even when we disagree." China is also ordering that foreign companies operating in China should have communist cells.
This is nothing more than bullying, exerting economic pressure against anyone Beijing sees as a transgressor. What countries do not seem to realize is that, even if they acquiesce now, China can just as easily turn against them in the future.
At the same time, China continues to exert psychological pressure on Taipei. China offers a carrot as well as a stick, including offering Taiwanese free start-up money and subsidized flats in Dongguan. More than 400,000 Taiwanese now work in China.
The question will be constantly asked with greater regularity in coming years, what price are businesses willing to pay to operate in China whilst denying the freedoms and values they claim to hold dear? There will be a conflict and foreign businesses must either live with hypocrisy or suffer economic loss.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)