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China: The man in the grave and the man of the Renaissance

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

The Chinese phantom clearly worries the US and its officials, experts, and the architects of its future. For many American experts, the Chinese Communist Party is the new Soviet Union. The US is trying to deny that the US Administration’s influence on the world is dimming. It presents its withdrawal from certain regions as a redeployment aimed at increasing efficiency. It spreads news of tests that start from Ukraine and the Black Sea and don’t end with Taiwan and its surroundings, in an attempt to say that the US crucial role is the backbone of stability. Meanwhile, what’s happening in China complicates things, with something that resembles the birth of an “emperor” who has the first and final word; a leader that presents himself as “the Guardian of the Chinese dream” and promises to bring progress, prosperity, wealth, and prestige to his country.

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A revolution needs a blunt man to ignite it and lead it to victory. It also needs an exceptional man who saves it from worshipping men and the curse of bowed heads and ever clapping hands. Then, it needs a man that integrates it in the world by taking it from victory to stable institutions that achieve progress and prosperity.

As such, China is lucky to have had all three kinds of men: Mao Zedong, who led China’s birth; Deng Xiaoping, who relegated the Great Helmsman to a mere error-prone leader; and Xi Jinping, who is propelling China’s position in the global race for scientific, technological, and economic advance, therefore portending a reshuffling of the seats in the club of great nations. Ding did not stab Mao in the back, but he did prevent him from running the country from his grave with outdated ideas. He preserved the leader’s halo and title but prevented his spirit from leaving his grave to manipulate the party and the state. The Russian revolution did not get a second man that saves it like Deng did China.

Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin in his grave in the 20th conference of Lenin’s party had a different context, and the stalemate of Brezhnev’s era amplified the chances of collapse at the expense of change opportunities and Gorbachev’s emergence.

We are discussing China today because the last few days did not only cement Xi’s position as the third man of the Communist Party’s first century, but also raised him to the level of the first man. A strong man who turned over the page of “collective leadership” engineered by Deng to prevent the fall of the party, and subsequently the state, into the hands of a single man. A powerful man who bended the Constitution and enshrined an open stay in power. As the president of the world’s most populated state, second biggest economy, and biggest army, and as the head of “the factory of the world,” his fate concerns us.

Suppose the Americans elected a president whose policies you dislike. You have the right to be annoyed, but there is no justification for feeling sad or desperate about it. First because this president cannot stay for more than two consecutive terms, and second because the policies of a US President are always scrutinized and judged by the Congress and strictly examined by the media in general and the incisive eyes of social media in particular. Not to mention that the decision making halls in Washington are well known and their secrets can easily be exposed. Simply put, a US president comes and goes, but a Chinese president comes and stays, like the man sitting on Lenin’s throne.

The policies of a US president do not only affect Americans; they concern all the citizens of the global village. The opinions of any given US ambassador are a part of daily life in nearby and faraway countries. A strong America has a price, and so does a weak America. The world obviously suffers when America decides to play the policeman, and it suffers even more when it decides to abandon this role and leave room for regional powers to engage in costly adventures that wrap illusions in a cloth made of dreams.

However, the different countries of the world are not at the same point in time. The Russia that arose from under the Soviet rubble is a wounded boxer with a calculated attack policy and a covert aggression policy. Russia is lucky, because the man who saved it from drowning and fragmentation has proven to be an exceptional, insurmountable player in international affairs. And strangely, the weight of Russia’s arsenal and policy is much bigger than the true size of its economy.

The US is so far deserving of its title as the major player, but it certainly isn’t the only player. Russia has reserved its seat on the table, and China is gradually advancing to topple the rules of the game. While Vladimir Putin made his global entrance on the cusp of the century, Xi Jinping made his debut in its second decade. In 2012, Xi was elected Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party and became president the following year. Coincidentally, Xi sat on Mao’s chair just as Putin returned to the Kremlin after a four-year absence. In 2008, blamed for continuing to tranquillize the West, Putin refused to amend the Constitution to extend his stay in the Kremlin. He chose his comrade, Medvedev, for the Presidency and agreed to replace him as prime minister for four years, after which he would return to the Presidency.

For the US, the Chinese challenge is wider, more comprehensive, and more dangerous. A virtual meeting between Biden and Xi does not change the essence of the matter, nor does a statement that promises cooperation in fighting climate change. We are not necessarily on the road to a “Chinese era,” but Xi surely carries a big project for his country that will lead to his success in amending the balance of power beyond the Asian scene. China clearly increased its bet on the man now described as the “leader of the Chinese renaissance.” Lying in his grave, Mao is most likely feeling jealous. Xi’s thoughts are now being taught in schools, while the Little Red Book increasingly seems like an old, expired novel.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.