With the shock election of anti-globalist Donald Trump to the US presidency still fresh in their minds, international leaders watched with anticipation as Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped up to the podium at Davos in January 2017.
Xi’s speech in favor of globalization and free trade was met with praise by governments and businesses across the world.
“This is a very important speech at an important moment,” World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab said afterward.
Two years later, that international optimism has soured and Beijing faces an increasingly chilly reaction in parts of the world.
In the past two months alone, Turkey has denounced Beijing’s mass detention centers in Xinjiang, the United Kingdom has accused the Chinese government of widespread hacking and the US has ramped up its campaign to limit Chinese influence worldwide.
At the same time, multiple countries have threatened to cut relations with private Chinese technology giant Huawei over concerns its 5G network will provide Beijing with a backdoor to a global spy network.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, said the backlash was the result of an unexpectedly aggressive foreign policy led by Xi. But he warned Beijing’s stance was unlikely to change.
“Xi Jinping has changed the politics in China. He cannot afford to, or would prefer not to show, any signs of weakness,” he said.
China threat ‘panic’ in the US
As China’s economic and military might have grown in the past decade, the US has generally tried to maintain a policy of cordial engagement with Beijing.
But a fierce speech by US Vice President Mike Pence in October signaled the beginning of a shift in Washington, as he bluntly accused Beijing of technology theft, “predatory” economics and military aggression.
The speech represented exasperation over Beijing’s controversial island-building program in the South China Sea and China’s demands for American companies to hand over their technology.
Washington also believes the Chinese government’s programs issuing of billion-dollar loans to developing nations are being used as economic blackmail for political gain when repayments can’t be made.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly called such claims “ridiculous and absurd.”
“Unlike the United States, China has absolutely no interest in controlling other nations’ politics. The global community is very clear about that,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday.
But in the months following Pence’s speech, multiple US indictments have been unsealed against Chinese actors accusing them of espionage.
High-ranking US security officials have lined up to appear before US Congress and at prominent events, warning of the threat China poses not only to their country, but to the world.
“Through fear and coercion Beijing is working to expand its ideology in order to bend, break and replace the existing rules-based international order,” Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, said in Washington Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has engaged in a raging trade war with Beijing, slamming billions of dollars of tariffs on Chinese goods. A deadline for a deal is fast approaching on March 1.
Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, said a bipartisan consensus had hardened in Washington against Beijing over the past year.
“There’s a panic about the China threat,” she said. “There’s a kind of rushing to erect walls, in a way that I see as an overreaction.”
The US vs Huawei
Since the beginning of this year, Western concerns about China’s growing influence — and its intentions — have increasingly centered around one company: Huawei.
The Chinese technology juggernaut is a symbol of China’s economic rise, growing over just 30 years to become one of the world’s leading 5G network providers, in the process signing major contracts in countries on every continent.
Increasingly, the US has been pressuring allies to avoid using Huawei technology, citing the company’s potential links to Beijing’s security services.
During his Europe trip on Monday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave countries a thinly veiled ultimatum: it’s the US or Huawei.
“If that (Huawei) equipment is co-located in places where we have important American systems it makes it more difficult for us to partner alongside them,” he said.
Since the beginning of this year, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and the United Kingdom have all voiced concerns about Huawei. In November, New Zealand banned Huawei from being used by a major telecommunications company, while British telecommunications giant Vodafone last month suspended its use of Huawei technology in Europe.
Huawei has rushed to reassure customers that their data would not be handed over to the Chinese government. In a rare interview in January, founder Ren Zhengfai said the company would “never harm” its customers.
But US allies believe concerns over Chinese digital spying are well-founded.
Last December, Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, claimed the Chinese Ministry of State Security had worked with a group known as APT 10 to target intellectual property and sensitive commercial data in Europe, Asia and the US.
“This campaign is one of the most significant and widespread cyber intrusions against the UK and allies uncovered to date,” Hunt said.
China’s furious response to the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada last December has not helped quiet fears over the company’s ties to Beijing. Meng was arrested for possible extradition to the US on charges of violating Iran sanctions.
Since then, multiple Canadians in China have been detained — and one citizen was rapidly retried on drug charges then sentenced to death.
“What they have utterly failed to see is that by their very strong, overt response … they are confirming for the first time that Huawei is not a normal company, that Huawei enjoys a special place in the eyes of the Chinese government,” Tsang said.
“And that provides justification for Western governments to revise how they deal with their approach to Huawei.”
Xinjiang outrage grows
China’s human rights record has also come under fire in recent months, as major regional and trading partners with large Muslim populations grew uncomfortable with Beijing’s Xinjiang policies.
They join an increasingly loud chorus of countries, including the US and Australia, calling for the closure of massive “re-education” camps in the western region of Xinjiang, believed to be holding 2 million Muslim-majority Uyghurs.
China claims the camps are “vocational education centers” and an important part of its deradicalization strategy, but former detainees claim to have been tortured and report having seen people die there.
It was the fierce denunciation by the Turkish Foreign Ministry of Beijing’s Xinjiang policies on February 9 which signaled a new shift against the Chinese government.
“We call on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang,” the Turkish statement said.
While Turkey made the boldest denunciation of China so far, other Muslim majority countries have been steadily losing patience.
Despite close trading ties with Beijing, and connection to Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, the Indonesian government said it had summoned China’s ambassador to demand an explanation in December.
In Malaysia, government lawmaker Charles Santiago on Thursday called for an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang to investigate the treatment of Uyghurs. “I am not prepared to believe what the Chinese governments says,” he said.
Opposition to China has been growing on multiple fronts in Malaysia, where major Beijing-backed construction projects have been accused of saddling the country with excessive debt.
“At the larger level, we see Chinese involvement in Southeast Asia in a predatory way,” Santiago said. “Clearly, there is a price to be paid — especially when dealing with China.”
Disquiet grows within China
As concerns have been raised around the world about China’s conduct, Beijing has repeatedly responded with indignation and fierce denials.
This belligerence is fueling disquiet, and not just outside China. Questions have been raised behind closed doors in the Chinese government over the aggressive tone of Chinese foreign policy under Xi.
Some Chinese officials believe his “over-the-top” remarks on issues such as trade and the South China Sea have caused the Washington backlash.
In a major speech in March, Xi threatened to fight a “bloody battle” against China’s enemies to ensure the country takes its rightful place in the world.
Tsang, the China expert, said if Beijing returned to the less aggressive foreign policy of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, it could help defuse current international tensions.
“It would actually take some wind out of the sails of the Trump administration’s approach,” he said. “It is by China feeling that it has to respond in an assertive combative way that it is confirming the Trump administration’s approach is justified.”
But Tsang said Xi couldn’t back down on his aggressive stance without undermining his power.
“It would be an admission that he’s wrong, and that his policy backfired,” he said. “How can he be wrong? He’s the man to outline China’s vision all the way up to 2049. If he’s wrong then his vision for the future is less credible.”
That only leaves China one option: to spiral further into its aggressive foreign policy.