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China Under Xi Jinping: From Human Rights Concerns to “Inter-Capitalist Competition” with U.S.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has begun a historic third term, cementing his place as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The Chinese Communist Party confirmed Xi’s third five-year term at a party congress in Beijing this week, elevating more Xi allies to top roles and demoting some who were seen as potential rivals. Under Xi, China has taken a much stronger role in economic management, as well as a “zero COVID” policy that has imposed severe restrictions in an effort to control outbreaks during the pandemic. He has also overseen a growing surveillance state to silence dissent and target ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs. “In the past 10 years since Xi came to power, the horrendous human rights violations Xi Jinping committed was just striking. And now he’s going to have another five years at least,” says Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. We also speak with Johns Hopkins University professor Ho-fung Hung, who says characterizing the U.S.-China rivalry as a “new Cold War” is misleading, saying the countries are instead engaged in an “inter-capitalist competition” over economic dominance within China and elsewhere in the world.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show looking at China, where Xi Jinping has begun a historic third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party. The decision came over the weekend during the party’s Congress, which is held every five years. There was also a major shakeup of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, which is China’s most powerful governing body. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, longtime rival to Xi, was demoted, while four Xi loyalists were promoted. The party’s top official in Shanghai, Li Qiang, appears set to become China’s new premier. He’s a close ally of Xi. He oversaw the harsh COVID crackdown in Shanghai that lasted months.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress came when former President Hu Jintao was abruptly escorted out of the closing ceremony. He had been sitting right next to Xi Jinping when two men came to escort him from his seat. Some analysts speculated the move was an assertion of Xi’s dominance. Chinese state media later said it was because the former leader was not feeling well.

We turn now to look more closely at the future of China as Xi Jinping begins a third term. Under Xi, China has continued a decades-long effort to eradicate extreme poverty. Some 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty over the past four decades, in what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called, quote, “the greatest anti-poverty achievement in history.” But Xi has also overseen a growing surveillance state to silence dissent and target ethnic minorities, including the Uyghurs. And Xi’s third term comes at a time of growing tension between the U.S. and China over Taiwan and other issues.

We go now to two guests. Yaqiu Wang is senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. She’s in New York. And in Baltimore, Maryland, we’re joined by Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Clash of Empires: From 'Chimerica' to the 'New Cold War' and The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us. Professor Ho-fung Hung, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of what happened this weekend. Talk about who Xi Jinping is and how his policies have changed over the years.

HO-FUNG HUNG: My pleasure to be here. Thank you.

And what happened over the weekend is very significant, in the sense that — though we actually expected it to come for a while, because in 2018 Xi Jinping managed to abolish the two five-year term limit of the Chinese president. That is kind of a term limit that Deng Xiaoping led to impose in the Chinese Constitution in the 1980s, because after the Cultural Revolution, Deng and the Communist Party leader think that it is not good to have lifelong leader; it is good to have check and balance within the party. And Xi Jinping managed to take away this term limit, so that not like his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, who each served two five-[year terms] as president of China, Xi can now theoretically serve unlimited term, until he died, and he can be a lifelong leader of China.

So, this kind of abolition of the term limit as a legacy of the Deng Xiaoping era is significant. So, it was done in 2018, but people didn’t believe that all the party elite will let him actually do it to have another, the third, five-year term, but he managed to do it. He has just proven over the weekend that he managed to do it. Not only that, but also he managed to put all of his own loyalists, absolute loyalists, in the Politburo Standing Committee. So the people from other factions, for example, some people who tipped to be in the Politburo Standing Committee or the Politburo who belong to the Hu Jintao, the previous president, faction, were not there. So it seems that in the next five years at least, Xi Jinping established his own absolute personal control of everything in China without much check and balance within the party.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened this weekend. Do you think that was deliberately staged to remove the former leader sitting next to Xi Jinping as a message that he was consolidating his power? Or in fact do you think it is what China said, what the government said, that he wasn’t feeling well?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Definitely that in these kind of carefully choreographed rituals of the Communist Party, it is unimaginable that this is kind of an accident or incident that is totally out of nowhere. And of course there is a possibility that he actually felt unwell, but now more video footage emerged from the Spanish and the Singaporean TV showing what happened before former President Hu Jintao was escorted away from the Congress. It didn’t seem like he is unwell at all, that it appear in those video footage that he tried to open a folder with some documents, and Li Zhanshu, who is sitting next to him, tried to prevent him from looking at the document and seized the folder, and then Xi Jinping called somebody to come and take him away. And initially, he appeared to be reluctant to leave. And then the guards and the person behind Hu Jintao seems to be using some kind of force to take him away, and then he eventually left the Congress reluctantly. And then, after he decided to leave, and he walked quite fast, and then he can walk on his own, and it didn’t seem to me that he is actually really feeling unwell. And I don’t think it is the real reason that he left.

And then, why Xi Jinping called somebody to escort him or even really forcefully take him away from the Congress, that I think Xi Jinping’s move is carefully considered and calculated to show that he can do whatever he wants, and he can even take out a former president from the Congress in front of the camera. And, of course, people are speculating that. I think it is reasonable to suppose so, that Hu Jintao might not be very happy about the so-called election result of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee without any of his loyalists there. And Xi Jinping might worry that he might give a face or not raising hands or not clapping hands in the final section, so it is a possibility that Xi Jinping deliberately asked somebody to take him out to prevent this embarrassment.

AMY GOODMAN: Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch, your response to what has taken place, and the significance of Xi Jinping beginning this historic third term?

YAQIU WANG: Well, I think we expected this to happen, because in 2018, the term limit for the president was eliminated. But it was still a very depressing moment, because it became a fact. You know, I talked to friends and families back in China. People were depressed, because in the past 10 years since Xi came to power, the horrendous human rights violations Xi Jinping committed was just striking. And now he’s going to have another five years, at least. So I think that people are expecting things can go worse, so people were quite depressed.

But at the same time, you know, people now are very angry with the zero-COVID policy. People are protesting in China, with a guy in Beijing held — posted a banner on a bridge, and people responded to that. So, on the one hand, I see people are unhappy, depressed. On the other hand, I see people are waking up, and they wanted to say, “I want freedom. I want human rights. I want to decide how I’m governed by my government.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ho-fung Hung, Xi’s human rights record, what that means, and your assessment of his role and the effect he’s had on the Chinese people? And your response to the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres talking about this, what he called, you know, monumental taking on — largest anti-poverty program in history?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yeah, definitely that Xi Jinping, like his predecessor Hu Jintao, is a kind of a brutal repressor of human rights. And it’s not that human rights violations started in Xi Jinping. Actually, in the Jiang Zemin era, in the Hu Jintao era, we already see a lot of crackdowns in the Han-majority area and also the non-Han-minority regions. But Xi Jinping just raised it to a new level, as we now are very much aware of what happened to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It is happening under Xi Jinping’s watch.

So, in terms of the repression of human rights, the Communist Party, whether it is collective leadership or it is a one-man dictatorship, it has been pretty much the same. And what Xi Jinping brought in, something new compared to the Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin era, is that he even cracked down brutally on his allies, the other elite within the Communist Party, because after Xi Jinping became the president, he launched its anti-corruption campaign. And then many elites, even senior officials and private business people, disappeared or mysteriously commit suicide or taken to jail under the name of anti-corruption campaign. And many people would see that it is not exactly anti-corruption campaign; it is more like a purge. So, in China nowadays, not only dissidents and minorities are afraid, but also some elites and middle class.

And also, Xi Jinping doubled down on expanding the state sectors, state companies, and making private companies and foreign companies’ life more difficult in making money in China and keeping their wealth and jeopardizing their private property, as well. So, in the next five years at the very least, this kind of draconian policy, that I’d call some kind of a North Koreanization of China politics and the economy, is going to double down and is going to get even worse.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Yaqiu Wang, the significance of Li Qiang, a longtime rival to Xi? He is demoted, while his loyalist, Li Qiang, looks like he’s about to be China’s new premier. You mentioned the crackdown in Shanghai, but talk about the significance of the COVID crackdown, what it actually felt and looked like in this massive city.

YAQIU WANG: Well, I mean, it lasted from April to June, for two months that a city of 20 million people are confined to their homes. And as a result, people had huge difficulties to have food delivered to them and to access to hospitals. And I’ve heard stories from people whose parent has a heart attack or other emergency, and they couldn’t leave their apartment complex, or even they managed to leave their apartment complex, they couldn’t actually get into the hospital. So there are people who died as a result of the lack of access to hospital facilities. And then there are the people who had no food. And then there are the people who lost their jobs, and they couldn’t pay to get food delivered. So, the human rights violations associated with this draconian lockdown was massive.

And then, you know, it ended, and the people say Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai, is ultimately responsible for this. Now this guy was promoted. So we can see Xi is rewarding people who were loyal to his policy rather than rewarding people who are good for the public.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ho-fung Hung, I mean, relations with China are, if not at an all-time low, extremely bad right now. And I’m wondering if you can comment on what is taking place. In one of the pieces you wrote, you said, “The dynamics of US-China rivalry is an inter-imperial rivalry driven by inter-capitalist competition. Competition for the world market could soon turn into intensifying clashes of spheres of influence and even war.” So, you’re not talking about the difference of ideologies. In fact, you’re talking about a similar capitalist ideology.

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yes, indeed, that I myself am not not quite supportive of the framing of the U.S.-China rivalry as a new Cold War. It is a catchphrase used a lot of time nowadays, indicating that the difference between China and U.S. is fundamentally ideological and political. I think, of course, that this difference is real. It’s very true there’s a large difference. But it is not the necessary and sufficient conditions that lead to this rivalry between the U.S. and China today. Because right after the 1989 massacre, human rights is already a huge concern about China in the discussion in the U.S., and many people already are very unhappy about what is going on in China with regard to human rights and Tibet, Xinjiang. It is all old problem in the 1990s. But in the 1990s, U.S.-China relations get more and more harmonious regardless of this human rights difference and political system difference.

What is different now in comparison to the 1990s and 2000s is that back in the 1990s and 2000s, transnational corporations, American corporations, they are very happy making money in China. They have a good time in China, and so they don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about labor rights, they don’t care about all kind of political difference between U.S. and China. But so far as they are making big money, they are finding it very profitable in China, so they lobby the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress, to have a more amicable and harmonious relation with China. Whenever there is a concern about labor rights, human rights violation in China, in the Congress, they will lobby against those bills, in the 1990s and 2000s. So, the U.S. corporations have been kind of ambassadors of the Chinese government to soften U.S. policy on China, even though geopolitically and in terms of human rights, political system and ideology, there is already a vast difference.

What happened after — around 2010 is that the China economy started to lose steam. Their economic pie no longer expanded that fast. And then the market share in — the U.S. corporation market share in China started to stagnate or even decline, because the Chinese government is helping the Chinese state enterprise and Chinese private enterprise to expand the market share in China and around the world in the Belt and Road countries, at the expense of U.S. corporations.

So, it is the turning point, that U.S. corporations rarely individually voiced their concerns about this business environment in China. Of course, there’s also other problems like intellectual property theft and unfair competition and unfair enforcement of regulations, so on and so forth. They don’t voice this concern individually, but in the survey, the anonymous survey conducted by, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce in China, and US-China Business Council and all these kind of associations, business associations in the U.S., all show that the American business in China situation is deteriorating. They are looking for diversifying their investment, and they’re no longer eager to lobby in the names of Chinese interests.

So it is why the geopolitical difference between U.S. and China, the human rights and political difference between U.S. and China, can now prevail and influence largely the direction of U.S.-China policy. So, fundamentally, it is a kind of inter-capitalist competition between U.S. corporations and China corporations in the Chinese market and in the Belt and Road and all the developing countries’ markets that lead to this deterioration of U.S.-China relations.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the flashpoint, Taiwan. During his opening address at the Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping lauded his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, addressed the economy, China’s military and foreign policy. He also praised Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, claiming Hong Kong shifted from chaos to governance. President Xi also addressed the issue of Taiwan, which has become this flashpoint between China and the U.S.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] The resolution of the Taiwan issue is a matter for the Chinese ourselves to decide. We insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and with the greatest effort. However, we are not committed to abandoning the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.

AMY GOODMAN: Yaqiu Wang, your response?

YAQIU WANG: Well, I think, you know — yes, I think it’s obvious that there’s more aggressive rhetoric coming from the Chinese government on the Taiwan issue, and I know people in Taiwan are nervous. But at the same time, I see people in Taiwan. They are very protective of the freedom, of the human rights they have, and they organize themselves together, and they wanted to retain that freedom. They are alert of the situation, and they are active in pushing back the kind of pressure coming from China. Also, I’m saying that governments around the world, including the U.S. government, are also doing more to support the vibrant democracy in Taiwan. So, yes, China has become more aggressive. There are more hostile rhetoric. But at the same time, I think I also see more pushback from Taiwan and the democracies around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ho-fung Hung, your response?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yes, actually, I think there are two sides of the question. On the one hand, China is closing closer to using military force to forcefully take Taiwan, on the one hand, because the Zero-COVID policy, and many things it did, that Beijing did, over Hong Kong show that it is no longer a regime that prioritizes economic growth and economic prosperity. And they prioritize national security and control, absolute control of the Communist Party. Even when it comes to sacrificing the economy, they will do it. So, on that regard, that Beijing has less restraint when it decides to attack Taiwan.

But on the other hand, I think the immediate military threat is not there yet. Because you look at, for example, Russia’s military action against, invasion against Ukraine, there is a path from the Russian foreign intervention and overseas military deployment in Georgia in 2008, Syria, and also Ukraine in 2014. So, this dictator logic is that they try a smaller-scale intervention. If they succeed, they get more confident, more confident, and then full-scale invasion.

And you look at China. If the leadership is still rational, they will look back to their military history. They will find that the last time China fought a war overseas was 1979 against Vietnam. And the last time China actually have a serious military mobilization of its military, of its army, is 1989, which is against its own people. So, China has not actually used the military against any overseas target for decades, so I don’t think it will easily jump from zero to an all-out invasion of Taiwan.

But I think that Beijing might try to talk up the military rhetoric, the threat, and also might even do some limited military action to take some outlying islands of Taiwan, or some South China Sea Taiwan now controlled by the Taiwan government, as a kind of a threat, or even a partial blockade of Taiwan, to create a kind of tense situation to influence the Taiwan election, to influence what the Taiwan people might want to elect for. If Beijing managed to get some of its allies or even its agents elected in Taiwan through election, then the pro-Beijing government can sign agreement with Beijing and do a lot of things that U.S. cannot find a reason to intervene or to deter.

But I’m confident that the Taiwan people is very clear what is going on, and they have a will, and they have the capacity to defend their vibrant democracy, which is kind of a miracle, and it is why Beijing finds that Taiwan is a thorn on its back, because it is an ethnic Chinese democracy and a liberal society which is very vibrant. And it shows that actually democracy can work in Chinese society. That actually contradicts Beijing’s propaganda that actually democracy is not suitable for Chinese people. So, I am confident that the Taiwan people will have the will and capacity and alertness to defend itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Ho-fung Hung, we want to thank you for being with us, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. And thank you so much to Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch.

When we come back, midterms are less than two weeks away. Democrats are facing tight races. We’ll speak with former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and author Mark Green about their project Winning America and their new report, “Crushing the GOP, 2022.” Stay with us, in 30 seconds.

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