A stark contrast arises in the stories about the future of China inside and outside China. This is partly a function of the dramatic narrowing in the flow of people and ideas to and from China as a result of China’s COVID-19 quarantine requirements. There are also fewer foreign journalists in China to help the outside world understand the developments. Those foreign journalists and diplomats who are in China are often limited in where they can travel and who they can meet. There is also tighter technological control over information in China than at any time since the dawn of the Internet age.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Branch’s triumphant narrative of the country’s successes finds few takers outside of China. That hasn’t diminished his determination to write even one story about the country’s national plight in China, though. Chinese leaders believe that narrative control is power. Even though their triumphant story is not embraced by everyone in China, it is the party line and it has become dangerous for everyone in China to challenge it.
Within China, the story is one of a country overcoming American animosity to return to its rightful place at the center of the world stage. In this narrative, the balance of power tilts towards China. China is rapidly closing the gap in economic output with the United States and will soon emerge as the world’s largest economy. Beijing is rapidly expanding its military capabilities. Through its COVID diplomacy and economic generosity, China is cementing its position as the leader of the developing world. At home, China is eradicating poverty, improving air and water quality and improving the quality of life of many of its people. Meanwhile, the United States and other Western democracies are unraveling from within, plagued by political dysfunction and domestic divisions.
In the United States and elsewhere, the picture of China’s recent performance appears more mixed. The discourse on China is also messier; analysts and observers can draw on competing sources of information to base their judgment. Broadly speaking, though, the common view is that China’s dynamic zero-COVID policy is a scientifically unsupported and failing vanity project that the top leadership is too stubborn to throw overboard. China’s statistical economic turnaround and its indiscriminate crackdown on various sectors of the economy have undermined productivity and undermined dynamism. The real estate sector in China is a mess. Government debt is growing while China’s labor force is shrinking. Externally, China’s embrace of Russia amid its barbaric invasion of Ukraine has undermined its relations with the European Union. China’s global image is plummeting. And relations with advanced industrial powers that still wield considerable influence in the international system are uniformly tense.
This confluence of factors has led some American scholars to conclude that China is facing the most acute combination of social, economic and geopolitical challenges since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. There is now an active debate in the United States about whether China’s power is peaking or ascending. In a recent closed-door workshop of China experts that I co-hosted, opinions on this issue were evenly divided.
This split-screen division of how China sees itself and how others see China has several important implications. First, it causes events in Beijing and other capitals to be interpreted differently. For example, when Beijing’s wolf warrior diplomats shoot at their foreign hosts, it will be framed in China as a legitimate defense of China’s dignity and abroad as an example of China’s bullying arrogance. If other countries show support for Taiwan, it will be assembled in China as part of a Western plot to split and weaken China, while elsewhere it will be seen as a necessary counterbalance to Beijing’s growing pressure on Taiwan.
Such divisions in interpretation of events provide a fertile ground for friction. When neither party can agree on a diagnosis of a problem, they will not be able to come to a common prescription for managing or solving the problem. Especially when nationalist sentiments are inflamed, as is now the case in China, there will be a tendency among policymakers to overreact to events in order to show strength in defense of national security and honour.
Second, how a country evaluates its future determines how it acts. As political scientist Daniel W. Drezner has noted, countries that are optimistic about their future tend to make long-term bets to bolster their position. They try to attract others to their vision of the future. Pessimistic forces, on the other hand, focus on improving military capabilities and are more likely to use force to achieve goals. When time is no longer seen as by your side, nations take risks to achieve their goals before it is too late to do so.
The stakes for Taiwan are significant. The best example for Taiwan is when China feels confident and believes it is gaining momentum, when in fact its rise is leveling off. The more stable Taiwan’s leaders are right now, the more likely the Chinese leaders will convince themselves of the brilliance of China’s future. Taiwan is fortunate to have such a leader in Tsai Ing-wen. By not bowing to pressure or provoking Beijing, Tsai is a leader whose temperament and skill are appropriate for the present moment.