With all the crises in the Middle East and Europe these days, it’s easy to miss that things aren’t going very well in Asia either. Tensions between Japan and China have been rising, and Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, as China’s economy has slowed, its internal politics have become more authoritarian. Diplomats from several countries are more worried about China’s direction than they have been in decades, according to the Washington Post:
“Western nations are more united,” said one diplomat, who declined to be identified to talk freely about sensitive matters. “We are worried China is taking a wrong turn.”
Under Xi, China has tightened the screws of repression and censorship, the nations complain. Security concerns are trumping business interests, while market-opening reforms aren’t happening fast enough. At the same time, China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea have not just spooked its Asian neighbors but sparked concerns from Washington to Brussels.
In a strongly worded letter sent Feb. 25, the ambassadors of the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan and other nations expressed “growing concerns over the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law and basic human rights.”
The previously unreported letter, seen by The Washington Post, was addressed to the minister of public security, Guo Shengkun. It complained about the arrests of civil-society actors, human rights defenders, lawyers and labor rights activists, and about a series of televised “confessions” that “make an unbiased trial impossible.” It has yet to elicit a formal response, diplomats say.
For decades, the Communist Party derived its legitimacy from its ability to deliver reliable, stable growth to hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. With that growth slowing, the Party feels it needs a new grip on power. To be sure, Beijing was getting more assertive on the geopolitical stage even before its economy started to falter. In fact, the collapse of Lehman Brothers signaled to many Chinese that the era of American hegemony was ending, and that it was time for Beijing to grow its regional influence. But then, China was behaving in ways which were, although complicated, within the realm of normalcy. Now, something seems to have changed and Beijing isn’t playing by the same playbook. This isn’t just our opinion: it’s quickly becoming the consensus among the people who know China best. If it worries them, then it should worry everyone else too.