US Foreign Policy: Misjudging Kim Jong-un

March 16, 2018

US Foreign Policy: Misjudging Kim Jong-un

by John C Hulsman*

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If US President Donald Trump and his advisers continue to assume that traditional deterrence does not apply to North Korea, they are likely to lose the latest geopolitical chess match. History shows that those who mistake their political or military adversaries for lunatics are usually disastrously wrong.

MILAN – Throughout history, political observers have found decision-makers who are deemed “crazy” the most difficult to assess. In fact, the problem is rarely one of psychopathology. Usually, the label merely indicates behavior that is different from what conventional analysts were expecting.

This was surely true of the twelfth-century Syrian religious leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. During the Third Crusade, the supposedly mad “Old Man of the Mountain,” as he was known, succeeded in disrupting a Crusader advance on Jerusalem by directing his followers to carry out targeted assassinations. After carrying out their orders, the assassins often stayed put and awaited capture in full view of the local populace, to ensure that their leader received proper credit for the act.

At the time, such actions were incomprehensible to the Western mind. Westerners took to calling the Old Man’s followers hashashin, or users of hashish, because they regarded intoxication as the only possible explanation for such “senseless” disregard for one’s own physical wellbeing. But the hashashin were not drug users on the whole. And, more to the point, they were successful: their eventual assassination of Conrad of Montferrat led directly to the political collapse of the Crusader coalition and the defeat of Richard the Lionheart of England. As Polonius says of Hamlet, there was method to the Old Man’s madness.

Today, the problem of analyzing supposedly lunatic leaders has reappeared with the North Korean nuclear crisis. Whether North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is mad is not merely an academic question; it is the heart of the matter.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has stated unequivocally that it will not tolerate a North Korean capability to threaten the mainland United States with nuclear weapons. According to Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, the administration’s position reflects its belief that Kim is crazy, and that “classical deterrence theory” thus does not apply.

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

During the Cold War, US President Dwight Eisenhower reasoned that even if Stalin (and later Mao) was homicidal, he was also rational, and did not wish to perish in a US counter-strike. The logic of “mutually assured destruction” that underlay nuclear deterrence worked.

If, however, the leader of a nuclear-armed state is a lunatic who is indifferent to his physical safety and that of those around him, the entire deterrence strategy falls apart. If Kim is insane, the only option is to take him out before his suicidal regime can kill millions of people.

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“Kim Jong-un’s dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.”–John C Hulsman

But is Kim truly crazy, or does he simply have a worldview that discomfits Western analysts? His dramatic overture to hold a summit with Trump by May hardly seems to fit the “madman” narrative. In fact, it looks like the act of someone who knows exactly what he is doing.

Consider three strategic considerations that Kim could be weighing. First, his regime might be planning to offer concessions that it has no intention of fulfilling. After all, an earlier nuclear deal that the US brokered with his father, Kim Jong-il, was derailed by duplicity. In 2002, the US discovered that the regime was secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium in direct violation of its earlier pledge.

In fact, North Korea has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t play by the rules. It enters into negotiations to extract concessions such as food aid, and then returns to its objectionable activities, thus starting the entire Sisyphean cycle again. There is no reason to think that this time will be different. But the regime’s deviousness should not be mistaken for irrationality or madness. Simply by expressing his openness to talks, Kim has already won some of the political legitimacy he craves.

Second, rather than being a lunatic, Kim seems mindful of recent history. Whereas Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya paid the ultimate price for giving up their nuclear programs, Kim has advanced his regime’s nuclear capabilities and is now publicly treated as a near-equal by the most powerful man on the planet. The Kim regime has always sought such vindication above everything else.

A third and final consideration is that North Korea is playing for time. Though it has agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in the run-up to the summit, it could be using the intervening months to develop related technologies. For example, it still needs to perfect an atmospheric re-entry mechanism to make its intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US mainland reliably and accurately. Moreover, as long as the summit is in play, North Korea need not fear a US military strike. That is a perfectly rational and sensible prize for Kim to pursue.

All told, North Korea’s “opening” will most likely amount to much less than meets the eye. But one can still glean valuable strategic insights from Kim’s diplomatic gambit. North Korean thinking reflects cunning, to be sure; but it also betrays the regime’s will to survive, and its desire to master the current situation. This suggests that Kim is not “crazy” after all, and that conventional deterrence will still work, as it has since 1945.

That is good news for everyone, but particularly for the Trump administration, given that it will almost certainly fail to secure any meaningful concessions from North Korea in the upcoming talks.

*John C. Hulsman is President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm, and the author of To Dare More Boldly (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Extolling China, demonising Chinese

March 15, 2018

Extolling China, demonising Chinese

by  Ambassador (rtd) Dennis Ignatius

Extolling China, demonising Chinese

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Last week, the Interdisciplinary Research and International Strategy Institute launched its latest publication, Pen’China’an Malaysia: Tergadaikah Tanah Kedaulatan Bangsa? [The Sinicisation of Malaysia: Is Malay sovereignty being mortgaged?, according to one translation].

It turned out to be yet another Malay supremacist gathering masquerading as an academic event.

Bogeymen and brothers

Interestingly, the book itself opens with a chapter on the influence of the Jewish diaspora, a hint perhaps that there is a parallel between the Jewish diaspora and the Chinese diaspora. Linking two of the Malay world’s favourite bogeymen – Jews and Chinese – strengthens, I suppose, the siege mentality necessary for bigotry to thrive.

Going by press reports, the panelists who were assembled to discuss the book used the opportunity to censure Malaysian Chinese, with speaker after speaker questioning their loyalty and commitment.

PERKASA’s Deputy President, for example, warned that the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia posed a threat to the Malays. Noting that “we have seven million Chinese here, four million in Singapore, six to seven million in Thailand,” he went on to argue, rather absurdly, that “the thinking of the Chinese is stereotyped…the Chinese in China and those here all think the same.”

The implications were clear enough: the Chinese diaspora are potential fifth columnists for a resurgent China.

Other speakers seemed to readily agree. “All the Chinese in the world are brothers…so they will fall along with Beijing,” a lecturer from the Islamic Science University was quoted as saying.

ISMA’s Deputy President also questioned the allegiance of Malaysian Chinese while suggesting that their contributions during the Emergency were exaggerated.

Bigotry and Ignorance 

The fabricated and racist narrative that Malaysian Chinese cannot be trusted, that they are ungrateful, that they remain an existential threat to the nation, that their contributions to national development are overblown, is now so ingrained among certain segments of our society that it has become an article of faith.

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It does not help, of course, that UMNO itself regularly reinforces this narrative as it did recently with its outrageous attacks against Robert Kuok.

I suppose there is some truth to the dictum of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minister) that, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it and you will even come to believe it yourself.”

As might be expected, the panelists offered no real evidence to back up their arguments, including the contention that “all Chinese think the same;” they, however, offered plenty of evidence that all bigots are cut from the same cloth.

In the end, one is left with the unmistakable conclusion that all this palaver is simply about Malay supremacy; the Chinese are mere convenient scapegoats.

China and Chinese

To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the growing influence of China in the wake of burgeoning bilateral political, economic and military ties.

Clearly, there is a pressing need for a rational debate about our relations with China to ensure that it serves our national interests above all else and that it is driven by national priorities rather than political expediency or the interests of a few well-connected Malay cronies.

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Now we know why: UMNO is a Malay supremacist political party

Like it or not, China is a neighbour, a global power and a major trading partner. Good relations are not an option but a necessity. Building a national consensus on the issue is, therefore, essential if we are to develop stable and mutually-beneficial relations with China.

And integral to this effort is the need for a clear distinction between China and Malaysian Chinese. China is a foreign country, we may agree or disagree with its policies; Malaysian Chinese are fellow “sons and daughters of Malaysia” (to quote from  Prime Minister Najib’s Lunar New Year message) and should never be treated with suspicion or contempt simply by virtue of their ethnicity.

Hounds and hares


In any case, it is ironic that a Malay supremacist political party (UMNO) spearheads the push for closer strategic ties with China and the loyalty of Malaysian Chinese are questioned. Well-connected cronies get the contracts and local Chinese get the blame.

UMNO and its fellow travelers are clearly running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, extolling the benefits of good relations with China (and profiting from it) while exploiting the insecurity it generates among unthinking followers.

Our nation might be better served if all those who are zealous for its honour look a little closer to home – at the theft of public funds, the abuse of power, the betrayal of trust, the violation of our constitution – instead of focusing on superficial and self-serving definitions of loyalty that divide and diminish our nation and unjustifiably alienate so much of our citizenry.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 14th March 2018

ASEAN’s renewed centrality

March 14, 2018

ASEAN’s renewed centrality

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

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US President Trump fired the first shots in what could become a global trade war this week with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on imports of steel and 10 per cent tariffs on aluminium. The action, taken under the national security provisions of US trade law (Section 232), risks provoking tit-for-tat retaliation by trading partners who, unlike Canada, Mexico and Australia, aren’t able to negotiate exemption from its impact, and corrosion of the WTO rules-based trading system.

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Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Tech Hun Sen

The White House announcement throws the international trade rulebook out the window. If the Trump administration’s imposition of these tariffs on a flimsy national security pretext does not outright flout the rules of the WTO, then it at least flouts its widely shared norms.

The response from the European Commission was to ‘do the same stupid things to respond to stupid things’ — promising retaliatory tariffs on a range of US exports into Europe, from Harley-Davidson motor bikes to bourbon whiskey. The tariff imposts also launched a process in which trading partners like Australia successfully begged exemption on various grounds both sound and spurious, all of which are nonetheless in clear violation of the understanding that trade will be conducted under internationally agreed rules, not ad hoc bilateral deals.

That’s the beginning of the rot; it may be a short-term tactical victory for countries like Australia, but it is certainly not effective strategic play.

What happens now?

US commentators reckon that a challenge of the Trump tariffs before a WTO dispute panel is a no-win game. If the European Union takes the United States to the WTO (as it has promised to do) and loses under Article XXI, which allows trade restrictions on national security grounds, the ruling will open countries to restrict imports however they choose on ‘national security grounds’. If the United States loses, it will surely reject the ruling, rendering the WTO dispute process effectively dead.

The strategic objective is to keep the WTO system alive in the face of this potentially mortal threat. The United States is playing itself out of the system. Learning to live without the United States as a rules- and norms-enforcer won’t be easy, but it is the only response that will protect the system and avoid the large-scale economic cost and dangerous political consequences of an escalating trade war.

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The strategic response to the Trump trade threat is more important to Asia than to any other major centre of international trade. Asia’s prosperity and political stability depends critically on its integration into the global economy through the rules-based trading system. The global trading system has underpinned the growth of Asian interdependence, Asia’s economic prosperity and its political security.

China, in particular, is in Trump’s cross hairs as ‘the cause of US trade deficits because of its violation of trade rules’. But China is also a crucial stakeholder in the rules-based system through its largely faithful observance of the protocols of its accession to the WTO in 2001 and the huge trade in Asia and around the world that has been built on that.

Locking in China’s entrenchment to the WTO system — and resisting the temptation to take retaliatory actions in the face of Mr Trump’s trade antics — is thus a major element in the system’s defence.

As China and the United States stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to ASEAN, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia’s present predicament.

ASEAN centrality has been an organising platform for Asian economic policy cooperation over the past half century, as explained in the issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly ‘ASEAN Matters‘ released today.

The retreat of the United States from leading the global order and the reversal of its pivot to Asia; the rise of China with its aggressive stance on the South China Sea and its infrastructure development ‘carrot’ in the Belt and Road Initiative; a putative ‘Quad’ configuration of Indo-Pacific power around the US, India, Japan and Australia; and the hot spot in North Korea all present challenges to ASEAN’s central role in the region.

ASEAN leadership in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia renews its centrality in Asia’s response to the present uncertainties.

RCEP includes not only the ten ASEAN economies but also Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand. It is a coalition of countries with the economic weight to deliver a powerful message to the world. Without movement in ASEAN, RCEP is unable to go anywhere. The signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the United States (TPP-11) in Chile last week was a start in defence of the global trading system. But the TPP-11 is not systemically important enough to make the difference. RCEP is.

The threat to security in our region is now much more about the dangers to the multilateral trading system than anything else, despite the still unfinished business on the Korean peninsula.

The Australia–ASEAN summit next weekend is a singularly important opportunity for setting out joint interests on the economic dimensions of regional security and ASEAN’s role in achieving them. ASEAN, with Indonesia at its core, is a regional enterprise with a distinctly global outlook and objectives. A declaration from the Sydney summit that commits to elevating the momentum in RCEP will help cement a broader coalition of Asian economies, including China, Japan, South Korea and India, to holding firm on the international trading system. It will also ensure ASEAN’s continuing centrality in economic cooperation across the region.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

The latest edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘ASEAN matters’, is available to read here.

Anyone Paying Attention to China?

March 5, 2018

Anyone Paying Attention to China?

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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The First Lady of China, the talented Peng Liyuan, will hopefully be the moderating influence on President Xi Jinping

Amid the flurry of news about Hope Hicks and Jared Kushner and this week’s Trump reality show on guns, it would be easy to miss what’s happening in China. But it is huge and consequential. China is making the most significant change to its political system in 35 years. What impact will this have on China and the world? That’s the question that every policymaker, business executive and investor should be asking.

Deng Xiaoping is generally remembered as the man who began China’s economic reforms. But perhaps more important were his political reforms. He took a system that had been utterly dominated by one man, Mao Zedong, and institutionalized it. Perhaps the single most significant transformation was in 1982, when the Chinese Communist Party wrote into the country’s constitution that its President and Vice President could serve no more than two consecutive terms. This made China unique: a dictatorship with term limits. In most authoritarian regimes, the ruler accumulates power and over the years becomes more arrogant, corrupt and unaccountable. This wasn’t possible in the Chinese system, which limited any individual’s power and focused instead on the collective, the party.

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China’s unique model also produced an economic miracle. The country has had three decades of merit-based selection and promotion within the Communist Party, wise long-range planning and smart pro-growth economic policies. Since 1978, China’s gross domestic product has grown at an astounding average annual rate of almost 10 percent, which the World Bank calls “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”


For decades, China seemed to be getting more institutionalized. Deng had ruled as a supreme leader, wielding power more from behind the scenes than from any offices he held. His successor, Jiang Zemin , held all the key posts when he was in power. After his two terms as president, he continued to lead the Central Military Commission for two more years and even after that remained influential informally. When Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, finished his two terms as President, he simultaneously relinquished the top military position and lost nearly all power at once. But that trend has now been turned on its head. If term limits are abolished, which is now almost certain, Xi Jinping could stay China’s President, general secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission for the rest of his life. And he is just 64.

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Winnie the Pooh is banned in China

Xi has been a strong leader for China. He has tackled two of the nation’s most pressing problems, the corruption within the Communist Party and the pollution caused by China’s fast growth. These efforts have been very popular within the country at large. He has not, however, tackled other crucial challenges for China: long-stalled economic reforms and reduction of its rising debt levels. Xi’s supporters argue that his consolidation of power will now allow him to take these difficult steps and begin the next stage of reforms.

The real challenge for China, however, is not about Xi’s economic policies. He has been reluctant to pursue tough, unpopular measures, but so are most governments everywhere, democratic or dictatorial. (Has the United States done anything about its rapidly rising debt?) The real danger is that China is eliminating perhaps the central restraint in a system that provides staggering amounts of power to the country’s leaders. What will that do, over time, to the ambitions and appetites of leaders? “Power tends to corrupt,” Lord Acton famously wrote in 1887, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Perhaps China will avoid this tendency, but it has been widespread throughout history.

China under Xi has also become more ambitious internationally. It is now the world’s second-largest economy, the third-largest funder of the United Nations and the supplier of more peacekeepers than the other four permanent Security Council members combined. The country has been bulking up its military while devoting significant resources to far-flung cultural arms such as the Confucius Institute. It has announced loans and investment spending — the Belt and Road Initiative — that will be about 10 times the size of the Marshall Plan, by some estimates. It is determined to lead the world in fields such as solar and wind power, electric cars and artificial intelligence.

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Chinese scholars say China is entering a new era with a new system. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, it had roughly 30 years of Mao’s rule. That was followed by roughly 30 years of Deng and his system. It is now clear that we are in the third era, which might be 30 years of Xi. Is anybody in Washington paying attention?

National Security in a Post-American Economic Order

March 3, 2018

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After the Second World War, the United States and its allies built a global, rules-based economic order. These days, there is much spruiking about the global rules based order and how it is at the core of the national security interests of liberal democracies. Less well understood is that the rules that matter most for global security are the economic rules of which America, seventy years ago, was the primary architect. This order, combined with comprehensive military power, was the American world order.

There are, of course, many other rules and institutions that govern non-economic affairs under the United Nations framework, such as nuclear non-proliferation, chemical warfare and the right of passage through the seas. None of them is so comprehensive or so entrenched in the management of behaviour between states as those of the rules-based economic order. None are so critical to economic prosperity, which under their aegis has seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty and the establishment of a confident basis upon which to engage in large-scale trade and economic exchange. None is so important to political security through the alleviation of the incentive to military conflict and political aggrandisement. The post-war economic regime opened the opportunity for even the smallest and poorest countries to realise their national potential without the fear of economic coercion by powerful neighbours.

The rules-based economic order redefined the global system for all those who signed on to it. It contrasts markedly from the world of empire and conflict that defined the system before the war. There is still conflict and chaos outside the global economic order. But even in the presence of that conflict, the American economic order has underpinned the expansion of global prosperity and security.

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In a brutally objective analysis in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, Adam Posen concludes that that order is today under threat from US President Donald Trump. Trump ‘has rejected the idea that the world’s economies all benefit when they play by the rules. Instead, he has decided that putting “America first” means withdrawing from supposedly bad deals, on which he believes the system is based’.

America hasn’t been dudded by the current system: it has reaped massive benefits, though it may not have distributed the gains terribly well. In reality, the United States supplies by itself only two essential aspects of the economic order: it extends an umbrella of security guarantees and nuclear deterrence for US allies, and its military ensures free navigation of the seas and airspace for commerce subject to some rules that are largely set by the United States.

While Trump has so far failed to follow through on his most destructive policy ideas, Posen says the damage from those he has effectuated has already begun to show. ‘His administration has hobbled the World Trade Organization (WTO), encouraged China and other autocratic regimes to lean on their smaller neighbours for economic loyalty, undercut agreements on tax evasion and climate change, and pushed even major US allies to negotiate free-trade and cross-border investment deals without the United States’.

There is no binary choice between security and economic interests for countries trying to manage the uncertainties of the post-American economic order, Gordon de Brouwer reminds us in our lead essay this week. The challenge is complex, risky and high-stakes. Australia, he points out , with its deep alliance ties with the United States and its huge economic and political partnership with China, has much at stake in correctly framing the complex and risky choices that it has to make in this new environment.

‘The idea that Australia can opt for security with the United States by winding down its economic relationship with China does not bear scrutiny. This move would make Australia weaker (a strong economy is a bulwark for security), it would lessen Australia’s ability to influence China’s engagement and interests, and it would increase the likelihood of conflict with China. Similarly, the idea that Australia can pursue its economic interests with China by opting out of its security relationship with the United States is not on the table’.

De Brouwer makes the point that in Australia ‘too often, “strategic policy” is used exclusively to define security interests, with economic interests treated as an add-on. Economic interests sound unstrategic and are dismissed in the US–China debate as just the pursuit of business’. Far from it, as Posen makes clear. Economic engagement is an ‘essential element in building national wealth and power as well as in reinforcing and habituating a rules-based and market-oriented international order. Defining and implementing strategic policy inclusively as the fulcrum of security and economic interests broadens the range of strategic options available to policymakers’, says de Brouwer.

The economic and the security elements of government are central to strategic interests. This is true not only in the Asian region but also globally. In Asia, Australia (which supplies over 60 per cent of the externally procured input into East Asia’s steel industry and a quarter of non-oil imported industrial resources to the region’s top industrial powers) plays a crucial role in this complex global economic and political security system. It was not always the case that Japan, South Korea or China had the inclination or the confidence to depend on free international markets to deliver strategic raw materials to their heavy industries in this way or on this scale. That confidence, and the mutual confidence of traders around the world in globalisation, was built within the framework of collective commitment to the WTO rules-based trade regime.

As Posen says, this regime is best seen as a ‘club that promotes a common set of beliefs to which its members broadly adhere: the ability to export to, import from, and invest in markets around the world’. Neither military power nor alliance structures are sufficient to protect this system.

The top strategic priority in Asia and around the world today is to protect a global economic order that is under threat. This is particularly so for Asian nations — including China — which are locked into the club and which (because of their scarce resources) are more dependent on integration into the global economy than are other countries. Declaring a position against Trump on the multilateral system at APEC in Vietnam and a commitment to concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite the United States’ withdrawal were the first two important steps. Pulling off the negotiation of an ambitious Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia needs to be the next.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Xi Jinping and the Perils of One-Person Rule in China

March 3, 2018

Xi Jinping and the Perils of One-Person Rule in China

Last year, during several trips in which I travelled across China by train, two things in particular caught my attention. First, the red hammer and sickle—the universal symbol of the Communist Party—seemed to be proliferating on posters in cities, towns, and villages with the kind of vigor that I hadn’t seen since my childhood, growing up in an army hospital in Chongqing. Second, the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly, against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.

The announcement, made last Sunday, that the Party is proposing to abolish term limits for the Presidency further confirms the notion that Xi aims to be something other than just another leader in a parade of apparatchiks. In October, when he presided over the nineteenth Communist Party Congress, where his doctrines were enshrined in the constitution, I wrote that Xi’s status licensed him to “play an almost imperial role in shaping the fate of the nation.” Shortly after the term-limits announcement, a widely shared image of China’s last Emperor, Pu Yi, with the caption “Emperor calls: ‘Is my Qing Dynasty returning?,’ ” was banned on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app.

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The People’s Daily, however, noted of the move to abolish term limits that the “Party’s proposition is in accordance with the people’s will.” It is true that, while China’s liberal intelligentsia laments Xi’s increasingly repressive policies—which have curbed human rights and undermined the rule of law in the most severe crackdown on civil society in decades—the majority of Chinese people, who do not live in the élite coastal cities or have access to news beyond the Great Firewall, take comfort and pride in Xi’s projection of strength. Still, if Xi wants to extend his rule indefinitely, there are a few historic truths that he will need to confront.

The Communist People’s Republic of China was founded in a theatrical break with history. In 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared that the “Chinese people have finally stood up,” a slogan that became the origin story of the modern nation. Equating the people’s independence with the Communist takeover was imprinted in the minds of every man, woman, and child. To my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations, the Party is what saved the nation from existential peril. China’s current leaders, including Xi, remain the beneficiaries of that origin story.

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Sun Yat-sen, the first President of the Republic of China, had laid the groundwork for it a couple of decades earlier, in his manifesto “The Three Principles of the People.” He wrote, “If we do not earnestly promote nationalism and weld together our four hundred million into a strong nation, we face a tragedy—the loss of our country and the destruction of our race.” Xi echoed that conviction at last year’s Communist Party Congress, promising to “strive with endless energy” to restore China to its rightful superpower status by 2049, and invoking Sun’s principle of “national rejuvenation.” But Sun also highlighted the greatest challenge to that plan. “Despite four hundred million people gathered in one China, we are, in fact, but a sheet of loose sand,” he wrote. This is a point that Xi may do well to heed. He is stridently confident and has broad support among the population now, but, by attempting to concentrate political power in his own hands, in a nation of not four hundred million but 1.4 billion people, Xi is assigning himself the sole responsibility of protecting an origin story that has largely been a myth.

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In the more than a century since Sun’s rule, China’s loose sand seems hardly to have settled into concrete. The market reforms that Deng Xiaoping introduced, in the late nineteen-seventies, ushered in a period of prosperity (there are now nearly six hundred billionaires in China), and Xi, with his immensely ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, clearly intends to go far beyond Deng’s goals and make China the economic engine of the world. But, despite the improvement in the average standard of living, China has gone from being a collectivist state that aspired to be egalitarian to being one of the most baldly unequal societies in the world. According to a report from Peking University, the poorest twenty-five per cent of households own just one per cent of the country’s total wealth, and the income gap is increasing. And the wealth is accumulating among the coastal élites, while the economy in the remote rural regions, many of which are inhabited by minority populations, remains stagnant. China’s Han majority has always been culturally dominant, but the nation is home to fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities, and the culturally distinct and significantly poorer western borderlands of Tibet and Xinjiang are the scene of increasingly violent unrest.

One-person rule is also prone to the kind of excesses and paranoia that may not only alienate the citizenry but undermine the institutions that previously insured the country’s stability. The crackdown has affected not only pro-democracy activists but also Xi’s high-ranking opponents in the Party. The military, which Xi heads, has taken an aggressive stance in territorial disputes in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Internet censorship is increasingly absurd—this week saw the banning of not only Winnie-the-Pooh (because he has been compared to Xi) but, reportedly, the English letter “N” (because it may denote the number of terms Xi may want to remain in office), along with the words “shameless” and “disagreement.” The portraits of Xi that I saw all across China serve as a reminder that a government’s need for propaganda tends to be inversely proportional to the strength of its political mandate.

China’s slated return to a one-person autocracy is sobering but hardly exceptional, given the rise of populist strongmen around the world. Xi’s particular asset—and what may sustain his support—is the deferred dream of true solidarity that Mao promised the nation nearly seventy years ago and that generations have held onto. But then, as now, authoritarian command of the nation requires not that the Chinese people “stand up” but that they bow to authority.