Comment

The most-watched film in China this week, about daring officials rescuing Chinese citizens trapped abroad by war, fits perfectly with a central theme on leader Xi Jinping’s agenda at the Communist Party meeting in twice a decade in Beijing – that the world is a dangerous place and China must protect itself.

“Go home“, youhe latest in a series of Chinese films to mount nationalist themes to box office success, follows a resourceful diplomat who will stop at nothing to accomplish his mission. Border agents are bribed. The hostages are freed by a game of Russian roulette. The day is saved.

Although set in a fictional North African country, the plot is based on real events and reflects Xi’s obsession with what he sees as growing security risks that could jeopardize the security of the China and party rule.

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At the 20th National Party Congress, which ends on Saturday, Xi stressed the party’s ambition to assume global leadership because leading a socialist superpower depends as much on absolute security as economic growth. But the goal of building a safe world for autocracy puts China on a collision course with other nations.

At the heart of Xi’s newly expounded idea of ​​”modernization with Chinese characteristics” – which rules out multi-party democracy, direct leadership elections or legal guarantees of individual liberties – is an effort to guard against the risks to the inside and outside that could disrupt the country’s development.

In a congressional report released this week, the word “security” appears 91 times, down from 55 mentions in 2017 and 36 in 2012. Xi’s “comprehensive concept of national security” – a slogan urging active detection and management threats in all areas of policy-making — has its own section for the first time. The “Global Security Initiative” he announced in April was also included.

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As China expands its reach through projects such as the Belt and Road Initiatives, its international security presence continues to expand. A recent policing deal with the Solomon Islands, for example, was championed as necessary to protect its interests. But human rights groups fear the crackdown could extend far beyond China’s borders.

Xi’s Global Security Initiative, although still in its infancy, is likely to become a test for the country’s willingness to compromise with the existing global security order. “This is Beijing going from a negative agenda – ‘we don’t like the current order, which is Western-dominated and imposed on us’ – to China actually launching something like a vision alternative,” said Helena Legarda, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

When Xi talks about a “comprehensive” view of national security, he means it. The concept covers 16 different areas, including polar, space and high seas security. It appears throughout Chinese policy-making. Strict adherence to a “zero covid” policy, for example, is all about keeping people safe.

The gloomier worldview in Xi’s report stems in large part from the accelerated competition with the United States under the Biden administration, said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the Crisis Group think tank in Brussels. From the party’s perspective, the shift in the international balance of power as American influence wanes is a critical moment. “Leaders understand their handling of this period as key to the pace and trajectory of China’s rise,” Hsiao said.

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Sections of the report point to a subtle but significant shift that analysts say reflects Xi’s desire to go all out for security.

In his address to Congress last Sunday, he failed to refer to a “period of strategic opportunity,” the term that over the past two decades has characterized China’s strategy of focusing on trade and economic development. But his report introduced a new phrase – “ensuring both development and security” – which indicates how the two areas are now on an equal footing in party doctrine.

“Development is still extremely important in this formulation,” said Rand Corp analyst Howard Wang. “It is simply not a separate and more important political priority than China’s security interests.”

China’s security presence is increasingly visible around the world. A study released Monday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, found evidence of increased overseas activity by the Ministry of Public Security under Xi, with 60% of bilateral police meetings made public and 73 of the 77 capacity building sessions between 1995 and 2021 since he took office ten years ago.

The Chinese Communist Party “wants to make the international order safer for itself and, from Beijing’s point of view, to have the [public security ministry] playing a more active role abroad is one of the essential pillars to ensure the regime’s security,” noted the report’s author, Jordan Link.

As China’s emphasis on security grows, so do democratic concerns. Recent Pew Research surveys in 19 mostly industrialized countries found nearly three-quarters of respondents described China’s military power as a serious problem. A pugnacious pivot of Chinese diplomacy has undermined its constant promises of peace. Once-restrained Chinese diplomats have earned themselves the nickname “wolf warriors” – a nod to another patriotic action blockbuster – for their new habit of swinging both figuratively and literally in response to reviews.

This year, China’s ambassador to Sweden said in an interview that if Beijing rewards its friends, “for our enemies, we have shotguns.” This week, Chinese Consul General Zheng Xiyuan and other consular staff in Manchester, England, confronted protesters in the street outside their office, pulled down posters and dragged a protester through doors to beat him. Zheng later told Sky News he was acting out of “duty”.

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Some Chinese scholars have warned against taking the security mindset too far. In a study published in May for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, researchers Zhang Chao and Wu Baiyi warned that “when a state pursues absolute security and extends the concept of security without restraint”, it can waste resources, reinforce conservatism in domestic politics, and discourage international trade.

China’s more aggressive foreign policy under Xi may in fact give the impression that he is mismanaging this supposedly critical moment. The reputational costs of not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seem counterproductive given the Chinese economy’s continued reliance on Western technology and trade.

Yet given Xi’s primary goal of ensuring regime security, good relations with liberal democracies are enduring.

“Letting go of Putin’s regime would also set a dangerous precedent” for the party, said Legarda, a China analyst in Berlin. “Beijing is convinced that the West – and the United States in particular – intends to contain China.”