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Xi’s China: Not the Global Leader You’re Looking For

President Xi Jinping inspects the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Garrison in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) at Shek Kong barracks on June 30, 2017 in Hong Kong, China. (Getty)

by Thomas J. Shattuck*

In January 2018, Gallup released its Rating World Leaders report, which showed a sharp decline in global opinion of American leadership under President Donald Trump. Overall, opinion dropped from 48% in 2016 (the final year of President Barack Obama’s presidency) to 30% in 2017 (the first year of Trump’s presidency). While the numbers for the United States are worrying, what should worry observers even more is that these numbers seem to clarify the ongoing narrative of the United States is ceding its role as leader of the world to China—though China just edged out the U.S. with a 31% global approval. Seemingly positive stories like this one do wonders for China in the global press, but observers at all levels should think twice before naming President Xi Jinping of China as the next leader of globalization.

By hosting high-profile boondoggles like the “Communist Party of China (CCP) in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting in Beijing” and consistently using anodyne phrases like the concept of “community with shared future for mankind,” it appears that China—and Xi in particular—is going on a full-fledged charm offensive to win over doubters and to solidify relationships with partners and friends. Since Donald Trump is pushing the U.S. inward with his “America First” mantra, countries—and the media—are looking to see who will step up to fill the vacuum, and judging by the number of articles articulating such sentiments, signs point to Xi becoming this figure.

Even though the United States and Trump continue to recede, do not be fooled by the apparent benevolent rise of China. While China does offer a number of incentives—like receiving Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative or greater access to the Chinese market—the Chinese model of government and control is not one to emulate. Xi is not the “savior of globalization,” nor is he a man for liberal leaders to emulate.


Since 2015, there have been a number of high-profile disappearances, kidnappings, and arrests orchestrated by the Communist Party of China in its attempt to quell dissent. While the CCP was successful in jailing many democracy activists within its territory, it has been largely unsuccessful in preventing the spreading of these activists’ message in Hong Kong and around the world, but for how long?

Two recent cases are worth highlighting to show the different ways in which activists are trying to spread their message and how the CCP works to remove their voices in a slowly growing movement. In January 2018, Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong-based bookseller with Swedish citizenship, was once again kidnapped by Chinese police, and Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, was sentenced to jail for the second time. The arrests of these men are only two high-profile examples that have reached major Western media outlets, but their cases are indicative of a larger trend in China and thus worth exploring. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China in the United States houses a large database of political prisoners in China.


The case of Gui Minhai shows the great lengths that the Chinese regime will go to to silence any dissenting views. In 2015, Gui famously disappeared from his home in Thailand and re-appeared in Chinese custody in 2016 when he appeared on CCTV confessing to killing someone while driving drunk. In the statement, he claimed to have returned to China on his own volition to confess to his crime—sparking many to believe that the confession was coerced. He was one of five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books to disappear at the time. They were all known for publishing materials critical of the Chinese leadership and Xi Jinping. In October 2017, Gui was released but was clearly under surveillance in the city of Ningbo, and he had to report to the police on a regular basis.

Police walk past missing person notices of Gui Minhai. (Getty)

On January 20, 2018, Gui—who became a Swedish citizen in 1992—and 2 Swedish diplomats were travelling to the Swedish embassy in Beijing, where Gui was supposed to receive medical treatment for symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Before the train arrived in Beijing, 10 plain clothes police officers boarded the train and escorted Gui off. There are reports that Gui had applied for a Swedish passport to leave the country, but it is not known whether or not the CCP gave him permission to leave.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström released a statement after the abduction saying, “The Swedish government has detailed knowledge of what has happened and I have summoned China’s ambassador. I have also been promised information about Mr. Gui’s situation. . . . The situation has worsened since [January 20] and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has been working around the clock on this matter ever since.” The Swedish government and EU have been quite vocal on this issue due to Gui’s citizenship and the presence of the diplomats. This bold abduction shows how brazen the CCP has become in removing any perceived threats to its power or leadership.

The CCP probably did itself more harm than good in detaining Gui—and especially in such a public way—because now Western governments are openly condemning the move. Keeping Gui under surveillance and preventing him from doing anything controversial would have been more beneficial to the regime than doing something like this.

At the time of writing, Gui was still in custody without any charges made public, but he was awarded the 2018 Prix Voltaire from the International Publishers Association. The IPA’s Freedom To Publish committee chairman Kristenn Einarsson said, “The plight of Gui Minhai is an example of the risks some publishers face to bring diverse authors’ voices to the public. It is only right that the publishing community commends him for his bravery, when that bravery has seen him deprived of his freedom.”


Pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong (C) yells as he is taken away by police after he and other demonstrators staged a sit-in protest at the Golden Bauhinia statue, given to Hong Kong by China to mark the 1997 handover, in front of the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong on June 28, 2017. (Getty)

The next prominent case is the recent arrest and jailing of Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong for his role in the Umbrella Movement, in which Wong and other protesters occupied parts of Hong Kong for 79 days in an effort to demand free elections without Beijing’s meddling.

Wong, only 21 years old, is the face of the movement along with his fellow protest leaders Nathan Law and Alex Chow. After initially only receiving community service in 2016 for his role in the Umbrella Movement, Wong was later jailed in August 2017 for unlawful assembly. The Hong Kong Department of Justice successfully called for a sentence review in order to give him and others harsher sentences. Even though he was sentenced to six months, he only served until October 2017 when he was released on bail.

Then, on January 17, 2018, Wong was jailed once again for his role in the 2014 protests. He received a three month sentence after pleading guilty to a contempt charge for obstructing the clearance of a major encampment. Wong’s political party, Demosisto, is hoping to win a seat in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in the upcoming March 2018 elections. Nathan Law, one of Wong’s co-leaders, had previously won a seat, but “was disqualified after the Beijing-backed local government sued him for his use of defiant words and tones when he took the oath of office.

Before being sentenced, Wong said, “They can lock up our bodies, but they cannot lock up our minds.”

On February 6, the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong ruled that the Court of Appeal “endorsed a higher standard for public order offenses put forward by the Court of Appeal, [but] it said the judges were wrong to apply that standard retroactively.” Wong is now out of jail with his initial sentence of community service and a suspended sentence.

He may be free—for now—but the standards for jail time in similar cases involving protests have now become harsher. One judge said, “There is no constitutional justification for violent unlawful behavior. In such a case involving violence, a deterrent sentence may be called for and will not be objectionable on the ground that it creates a ‘chilling effect’ on the exercise of a constitutional right.”

Upon getting released, Wong said, “I would not say this is a win and there is no reason for us to celebrate. What we are up against is the court taking a very narrow definition of non-violent civil disobedience actions.” The reversal in the sentencing is but a minor victory for democracy activism in Hong Kong, but the future is not particularly bright with the change in the standard.

The jailing of Wong and other democracy activists in Hong Kong will not silence the movement. It will only galvanize more activists to speak out to a wider audience and to show the people of Hong Kong how Beijing has reduced its freedoms since the handover 20 years ago.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that only days after Wong’s sentencing, Gui, the bookseller, was abducted by Chinese security services. Bunching together the arrests—and inevitable fallout—of prominent dissidents will reduce the amount of time that foreign governments and media loudly focus on these issues before moving on to the next major news event.

And just after Wong’s sentencing on January 17 but before Gui’s abduction on January 20, the European Parliament passed a resolution on January 18 condemning the arrests and treatment of many other high-profile democracy and human rights activists, including Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese activist whose disappearance, arrest, and trial made headlines last year, and various Tibetan activists. The resolution calls for better treatment of prisoners and for the release of many of them. Europe spoke out about China’s abuses, and China responded by doubling down with Gui.

Regardless of the relationship between these events, it is quite clear that even though it looks like the United States is ceding global leadership to China as the recent Gallup poll hints at, make no mistake: China is not a beacon of hope for the rest of the world and should not be looked to for leadership. China may provide countries with various investment and development opportunities, but it also silences those with opposing views and advocates of democracy—whether or not they have foreign protections.

*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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