At last week's annual session of China's National People's Congress (pictured), President Xi Jinping reasserted his leadership with Premier Li Kepiang as his sidekick. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Is China frightening or is it frightened?
An examination of decisions made in last week's annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), reveals that she may be both. Or to put it another way, as on occasions in the past decades of Communist rule, China could become frightening because it is frightened.
Billed as a parliament in the Western media, the NPC is a strange beast.
It is certainly meant to approve draft laws submitted by the leadership and, in theory at least, could weigh on policy debates and act as watchdog over the general state of things in the People's Republic.
However, equally certainly, it cannot be regarded as a parliament in the generally accepted sense of the term. Yet, it is not as some Sinpohobes assert, a mere rubber-stamp either. It may be a small aquarium compared to the huge ocean that is China, but it does provide an opportunity to see the fish allowed to swim in it, and to assert the size of each.
So what did the aquarium put on show this time?
The first thing to note is that the giant purge of the dramatis personae, forecast by some China specialists, did not happen. President Xi Jinping did reassert his leadership with Premier Li Kepiang as his sidekick. Overall, what we witnessed was cautious retrenchment rather than a daring reshuffle. It seems that the Xi team decided it was no time to upset the apple cart, a first sign of being frightened.
A second sign of being frightened came when the long advertised anti-corruption drive, expected to provide the headline for the delayed congress, was reduced to a few rhetorical tropes.
Fear may have also been the driving force behind the rushed passage of a shabby piece legislation designed to muzzle domestic critics, especially "pro-democracy" activists in Hong Kong. Inventing charges for which no legal definition is suggested, the party leadership could charge any over-enthusiastic twitterer with high treason.
It may have also been out of fear that the party decided to abandon its 30-year policy of playing by the book on international agreements when the NPC gave the signal for challenging the "one country-two systems" accord under which Britain handed Hong Kong over to the People's Republic in 1997.
The same fear, but this time in reverse, may have inspired the NPC's unusual focus on Taiwan with emphasis on the sacrosanct nature of the 1992 cross-strait "consensus", recalling the "One China" principle which is increasingly questioned in Taiwan.
To be sure, there was no sabre rattling and Beijing leaders were wise enough not to evoke the old days of mischief-making through North Korea. And, yet, it is clear that Beijing is frightened of the contagion of democracy not only from Hong Kong but also from Taiwan, which has shown that a highly prosperous and reasonably democratic "China" need not remain a pipedream.
The Beijing leadership is aware that the old Maoist revolution that culminated in the creation of the People's Republic and the annexation of East Turkestan, Tibet, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia is no longer a sufficient basis for its legitimacy. Since the 1990s, therefore, it has sought new bases for its claim to legitimacy, including the peaceful "recovery" of Honk Kong and Macau and the establishment of working relations with Taiwan.
But the regime's chief claim to legitimacy is based on economic success that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and created a new middle-class. That success has, in turn, helped the People's Republic gain international recognition and respect.
The Covid-19 crisis has cast a shadow on that narrative.
Beijing's international image has been tarnished by a number of faux-pas and outright mauvaise-foi. An economic downturn that has led to the nation's first fall in gross domestic product, estimated at around 10 percent, has already triggered a tsunami of unemployment with over 130 million people made redundant, at least for the foreseeable future.
A year ago, Beijing propaganda was imitating the "American dream" shibboleth by boasting about a "Chinese dream" to be realized at the end of the rainbow represented by the "Belt and Road" extravaganza.
The prospect of that dream being postponed is too frightening for a regime that lacks a credible mechanism for power-sharing across society. In similar cases, most authoritarian regimes look for a foreign foe to blame for all that is not going well.
Talk of a new strategic partnership between China and Russia found echoes in the NPC with Chinese money and Russian technology billed as natural ingredients in a new alchemy for world domination. No mention was made that China may run out of money and that Russian technology may be of archaeological interest. Taking a dig at the "West" is always an easy means of obfuscation for an authoritarian regime in trouble.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the NPC heard calls for China "not to imitate the Western model of development" and seek "its own path to advancement."
That pseudo-philosophical version of nationalism was accompanied with blaming the United Sates for seeking to trigger a new Cold War against China.
Trouble is that the US does not have a coherent, strategically meaningful policy towards China. Rhetorical flourishes and diplomatic gesticulations do not amount to a policy worthy of a great power in a relationship of rivalry and partnership with another. Imposing largely symbolic sanctions is like parking your car because you don't know where you want to go.
One thing is certain: The Covid-19 crisis and the economic downturn that accompanies it dictate a new look at a world order under pressure.
In that new look, determining China's proper place would be of crucial importance.
Sadly, the issue does not seem to prominently feature in the current US presidential campaign.
Dealing with China in the context of a reformed world order could not be achieved through name calling even of the colorful kind used by those who emulate Kaiser Wilhelm's "Yellow Peril" cliché.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.