In his State of the Union address on Feb. 5 at a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Donald Trump announced that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet in Vietnam in late February. Meanwhile, the deadline to conclude economic negotiations between the United States and China is set for March 1.
President Trump clashed head-on with the Democrats in Congress over his plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration, and ended up making a compromise after the longest shutdown of the U.S. government in history due to budgetary confrontations between the two sides. The president would want to recover from this setback by striking good deals with North Korea and China. The results of these negotiations can have a major impact on the interests of other nations, and they will attract intense attention from not only East Asia but also the entire world.
What matters most to the world down the road is the direction of U.S.-China ties. I would like to examine the current state of China and ponder over the ramifications of the conflict between Washington and Beijing, which began to come to the fore last year.
The Lunar New Year is now over, and China has ushered in the year of the pig. This means that a year ending with a nine in the Western calendar has arrived, in which China has often had major incidents in its modern history.
In 1969, Chinese and Soviet Union forces clashed on Zhenbao Island, or Damansky Island, on the Ussuri River along the border of the two countries. We also saw the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by American military aircraft in 1999. In 2009, a major ethnic clash erupted in the city of Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China's far west. The list just goes on. This autumn will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and this year is the centennial of the May Fourth Movement in which students and others rallied against imperialism and demanded the punishment of "traitors."
The main participants of the demonstration on May 4, 100 years ago were students of Peking University, and the pro-democracy movement that triggered a crackdown on June 4, 30 years ago was also led by students. Are their contemporary counterparts resisting the Xi administration, which is strengthening control on the freedom of expression?
Actually, some students are colliding head-on against the current regime in a different course of action. Last year, social attention focused on the participation in a labor conflict in the city of Shenzhen in southern China by students of top schools such as Peking University. Students from 16 universities across China placed their real names on an internet statement supporting the Shenzhen workers, and thousands more signed up to express their backing of the cause.
In August last year, police arrested some 50 people including students who had gathered near a factory in Shenzhen in support of the establishment of an independent labor union. Many of the arrested were members of Marxism study groups at leading universities. Before the detention, a rally held in the same city attracted dozens of leftist members of the Communist Party of China and retired officials, according to reports.
On Dec. 26, the chairman of a Marxism study group at Peking University was taken away by plainclothes policemen. Apparently the student had planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong, the first supreme leader of the People's Republic of China. In January this year, according to press reports, authorities showed students videotaped "confessions" of leading student backers of the labor movement, in which they said they "tried to topple the party and the state by using labor disputes."
Xi Jinping continues to emphasize that the nation must uphold the leading status of Marxism and the world-view and methodology of materialism. But what attracted observers' attention in his speech at an event commemorating the "40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up" was his applause of the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1978 -- the so-called starting point of reform and opening-up. The plenum, said Xi, made a breakthrough in unshackling the nation from restraints placed by long-term mistakes of the leftist forces.
Actually, Xi stated in early 2013, shortly after he became the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, that it was not possible to apply the experience of the reform and opening-up era to deny preceding periods, stopping short of denouncing the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s promoted by Mao. Compared with this stance, his current attitude signifies greater concerns toward leftists. Rightists also criticize the crackdown on the freedom of expression and the monopoly of power, but Xi fears more of the leftist thoughts, which possess ideological authenticity in China, joining forces with social movements. The Chinese authorities are caught in a dilemma: if their promotion of socialist and patriotic ideas proves overly successful, that would result in increasing the number of people who are angry against the gap between the reality and the ideals enshrined by the government.
Leftists are becoming more active partly because of growing social problems triggered by the economic slowdown. Professor Xiang Songzuo of Renmin University School of Finance said in a lecture in mid-December last year that the growth rate of China's gross domestic product was 1.67 percent, according to an internal report of "a study group of a very important organization." Another estimate showed GDP actually shrunk, said the economist. Since July 2018, Chinese authorities have implemented measures such as tax cuts and increased infrastructure investments, but the downward pressure on the economy is only intensifying.
Exacerbating the situation is China's economic conflict with the United States, which is seen by many as an aspect of the fight for hegemony between the two countries. Last year, each time Washington raised tariffs on Chinese products, Beijing countered with a similar action, and the quid-pro-quo created a situation that made them appear as if they were fighting a trade war. Since a summit between presidents Xi and Trump in Buenos Aires in early December last year, China has maintained a low-key attitude toward the U.S. This marks a contrast to its high-handed approach toward Canada over the detention in the North American country of a top executive of Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese leader in telecommunications technology, based on a request from Washington. Behind Beijing's attitude is said to be a top-level decision on a policy toward the United States described in 21 Chinese characters -- no confrontation, no fighting a cold war, opening up of the country according to its advances, and no compromise on core interests of the state.
China wants to avoid losing access to state-of-the-art technologies of the United States and Europe. China also has to stabilize its ties with the U.S. If it fails to do so, there will be negative fallouts destabilizing its economy, society and politics. In mid-January, Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi urged the importance of victory in a battle to defend "political security" by focusing on the prevention of a "color revolution" -- toppling of dictatorial regimes in former Soviet and East European countries by popular movements in the 2000s. The Xi administration is on high alert, and each and every policy it implements this year will focus on achieving stability in and out of China.
(By Akio Takahara, Professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics)