Bootlicking in Beijing

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“You’re ten years younger than I am, Dacha, and so the Master means more to you. We of the old guard, we were trained to depend upon ourselves, we had no use for masters, except those anointed by trust. But to the snot-nose brats of the next generation, intoxicated by the loudspeakers, no doubt he seemed a kind of god. Those youngsters will only sober up inside the grave he’s digging for them, or on the very edge of it, like us for that matter.

I met him twenty years ago. There was no genius about him, there was no more to him than to any of us — something less, in fact.

—Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (1947)

I have a new essay out in Foreign Policy this week. The editors gave it the clever title “One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake.” In it I argue that the Belt and Road Initiative has been something of a financial and strategic disaster for the Communist Party of China. Those who want the United States and its allies to compete with Beijing by splurging on infrastructure in the BRI mode are asking us to follow the fool in his folly.

You can read the full piece if you are interested in why I am so bearish on the BRI. But there is one idea I introduce in the essay whose importance outstrips the BRI itself:

The expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative across the globe is deeply worrisome not because of the strategic threat it poses to the standing international order, but because of what it tells us about the internal workings of the world’s most powerful authoritarian state.

These problems are not new. For the last three years even China’s state-run banks have been trying to extricate themselves from spending more on the initiative. Yet despite these problems, the initiative expands to new countries and continents. Why this is happening is clear enough—no other foreign policy program is associated personally with Xi like this one is. Xi’s apotheosis to permanent leadership at the 19th Party Congress this spring meant that his signature foreign-policy initiative also had to be elevated—and so it was, written directly into the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. Now to attack the Belt and Road Initiative is to attack the legitimacy of the party itself. The Belt and Road Initiative is evidence that the party’s once responsive policymaking system is breaking down. The rest of the world must recognize that BRI persists only because it is the favored brainchild of an authoritarian leader living in an echo chamber.[1]

I have heard the suggestion that President Trump is a man who surrounds himself with sycophants. I have not seen much evidence this is true. If it is true, then White House sycophancy has had little effect on policy. This makes sense: Trump is neither a wonk nor an ideologue. He is not the sort of person to conflate a policy plank with his person. There simply is no benefit to toadying up to the President’s pet policy. He has none. This has its benefits: this administration has largely escaped the mire of groupthink. Trump prefers loyalty and competence over ideological fervor. If Trump’s politics in office have been mercurial, this likely has more to do with the fact that his team is divided by genuine policy splits than with quirks in the Presidential personality.

Factional infighting has its dangers. But when the American and Chinese teams meet together at the negotiating table, it is not the American side that unsettles me. I am far more worried about what is going on in Beijing. Something on the Chinese side is broken. Effective statesmanship is difficult when statesmen cannot get an accurate read of how things are playing out on the ground. I fear Party leaders are not getting an accurate read on anything. The BRI mess points to an OODA loop that is mangled and malfunctioning.

The trade war is another symptom of the Party’s inner crisis. The most spectacular thing about the trade war is how surprised the Party was that it happened at all. Zhongnanhai was caught flat footed by a conflict whose contours were clear months before the first shots were fired. They have needlessly bumbled and stumbled since, handing gifts to their rivals in Washington that need not have been given. The trade war ads placed in the Des Moines Register back in September are the perfect example. The advertisements targeted a President known for personalizing even tepid attacks on his program, were oblivious to a media landscape that had long defined election interference as the most explosive issue in American politics, and were published just after the administration’s China skeptics were signalling they had finally devised a strategy to counter rising Chinese influence. Everything about these advertisements betray terrible judgement. This was obvious before they were published. Anyone who understood just an inkling about American political culture would have known how foolish it was to go ahead with that ad campaign. It still happened.

In the Communist Party of China there is a disconnect between the people who have the power to shape events on the ground and the people who understand how things actually stand on the ground. This disconnect has many sources: the obvious one, which I focus on in the column, is the deification of Xi Jinping. General Secretary Xi’s rise to godhood means that criticism of his policies (especially the policies upgraded to the label “Xi Jinping Thought”) is equated with betrayal of the Party itself. Xi’s great anti-corruption campaign is another likely culprit. Anti-corruption means no flamboyant expenses; no flamboyant expenses means fewer government salaried academics, think tankers, and officials traveling to places like the United States. Anti-corruption also means fear. Hundreds of thousands of officials have been jailed or sacked. In an environment where everyone’s job is on the line, there is little incentive to be the bold truth teller in the room. To succeed in today’s Party, you keep your head down.

This has consequences. I do not mind if the Party leadership miscalculates on the economic front; the more reasons they give western firms to get out of China, the better shape we are in. My worries lie in the military domain. The People’s Liberation Army has been ruthlessly gutted by Xi’s campaigns. Were Secretary Xi to overestimate the capabilities of the armed forces under his command, which PLA leader is in a position to talk him back to reality? Things did not turn out well for the last general who tried to tell hard truths to the Party’s ‘core leader.’ May the next general to attempt this feat secure a happier fate than he.


[1] Tanner Greer, “One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake,” Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).

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When it comes to the misguided ads in American newspapers, I think you also need to remember one thing: the people in power in China do not understand the world beyond their borders.

Even today, having studied abroad means that you are barred from entering the top levels of the Communist Party. The Chinese decision-makers are thus people who have spent all of their lives in Mainland China, a highly abnormal country and a cultural outlier. They don't understand how decisions are taken in democratic countries, and they don't understand how people view the world outside of China. They are quite clever when it comes to keeping the public within Mainland China on their side, but when it comes to other countries they routinely misjudge people's reactions.

This was the case even before Xi got into power.

The fact that the Chinese leadership were caught flatfooted by Trump doesn't say much about their connection to reality- Trump is so unpredictable and so different on key aspects then his republican and democratic party predecessors, that even many western leaders have been surprised by his behavior in many cases. As Thomas Schelling noted unpredictability can be an advantage in some situations- Trump clearly gained some short term benefits in this regard in the case of his trade war with China.

If Xi launched some ill-advised military campaign, wouldn't the damage mostly be to China itself and the Communist Party's legitimacy and effectiveness in China? I can't really see it spiraling into some bigger global conflict, not when nuclear weapons are there to act as a serious risk when escalating.


@Ji Xiang-

"I think you also need to remember one thing: the people in power in China do not understand the world beyond their borders."

Agreed. But they wouldn't need to be if they were open to honest feedback from people who actually knew. Some kind of signaling spiral seems to have stopped this from happening even at lower levels (for one example, see here: And of course, this is the primary job of the diplomats in the American embassy/consulates. Some of them must have had an accurate read on the American political climate–it is just a question of whether that read could be communicated upward.

@Brett–See my stuff on China/Taiwan conflict:

Re Trump, this seems laughable. Scaramucchi and Omarosa were not appointed for competence; and the Trump administration has no policies. Neither does the Republican Party generally.

What policy could conceivably affect the War on Christmas?

@Brett – this is why the US and USSR, or US and nuclear China, never fought directly – because any direct conflict could escalate to nuclear levels. So a direct US – China conflict, regardless of initial size…who knows where it might end?