Meng Wanzhou: China’s “tantrum diplomacy” and Huawei (The Interpreter)

As Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou sits in Canada, awaiting potential extradition to the United States, her case underscores two themes that have become evident throughout 2018:

  1. The ambitions of China’s technology and telecommunications firms are feeling a pronounced pushback from across the developed world, which is likely to severely hamper their abilities to reach their lofty development and expansion goals. This also puts China’s ambitious development objectives in question as well.
  2. The tools of statecraft which China seems to rely on in managing the more tempestuous global environment are remarkably limited, and often counterproductive.

The 46-year-old Meng, daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and the firm’s chief financial officer, was arrested on 1 December in Vancouver. She faces charges in the United States of fraud involving millions of dollars in an attempt to evade US sanctions of Iran. This has provoked an outcry in China, with its foreign ministry demanding Meng’s release. Chinese law enforcement also detained a former Canadian diplomat working in the country as a senior advisor at a prominent non-government organisation. Many suspect that the detention was in response to Meng’s.

On the afternoon of 11 December, Meng was released on a bail for 10 million Canadian dollars.

View image on Twitter

 

While the dramatic and high-profile nature of the Meng Wanzhou case has attracted the attention of the media and the public, a number of less-sensational stories indicate that Huawei has been struggling to engender goodwill and dispel doubts from regulators in many of its most developed and lucrative overseas markets.

On Monday 10 December, Japan’s government issued instructions that effectively ban Huawei and fellow Chinese communications firm ZTE from official contracts, a precedent that the country’s top telecom operators will likely follow. The previous week, British Telecom announced that it would strip Huawei equipment from its core 4G infrastructure within the next two years, and will not include the Shenzhen-based firm in its lists for vendor selection in the development of its 5G network. This represented a change of course for Britain, which has long been more welcoming of Huawei products than its American ally across the Atlantic.

In late November, New Zealand blocked Huawei 5G equipment as well, a decision Australia had made in August. While such coordinated action from China’s long-time rival in Japan and the Five Eyes intelligence network of the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand might be seen as expected, others come as a bit more of a surprise.

India, a market that Huawei has targeted as a potential growth engine for its international smartphone business, decided in September not to include Huawei equipment in its 5G testing. This move could signal more restrictive measures towards the firm in the future. And Europe, a region in which Huawei has seen strong growth over the past decade, also seems to be changing its tone, as EU tech commissioner Andrus Ansip warned on 7 December that the union of 28 nations should “be worried” about the company.

What could perhaps spell the most trouble for Huawei comes from the US, however. Although the country has long been stricter than most when it comes to allowing Chinese technology and telecoms equipment, if the US were to find Huawei guilty of violating Iran sanctions, as they did with ZTE earlier this year, banning the company from access to US suppliers would deal a heavy blow.

A Huawei stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, 2017 (Photo: Joan Cros Garcia via Getty)

China’s “tantrum diplomacy” statecraft is unlikely to help

Huawei’s PR practices do not exactly have a reputation for being the most understanding of security concerns and culturally sensitive when it comes to the firm’s overseas markets. Yet it is fair to say that these problems are in many ways out of the company’s control. This, rather, is an issue that strikes at the heart of the Chinese system and the goals and values of the Chinese Communist Party.

There seems to be a deficit in trust and goodwill between China and much of the rest the world. Lately, the Chinese government does not seem to be helping its cause.

The demanding reaction to Meng’s arrest by both the Chinese foreign ministry and state media has been criticised as displaying a lack of understanding of the way in which an independent judiciaryfunctions, and it is unlikely that such action from China will improve the situation. But the tactic of leveraging nationalist outrage to achieve diplomatic goals has become a card that China’s leaders play with increasing frequency and intensity.

While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Trump administration views Meng as a trade chip, it seems as though neither Trump nor China has a firm grasp on how the American and Canadian judicial systems actually work.

In September, a Chinese national employed by a state-sponsored media agency was arrested and charged with assault in the UK after violently disrupting a meeting of Britain’s Conservative party, slapping and verbally abusing the participants after they discussed the issue of human rights and rule of law in Hong Kong. These actions were widely praised on Chinese social media, and defended by the Chinese embassy in London, who demanded an apology.

This came only weeks after an incident in Sweden in which disruptive Chinese tourists were forcibly removed by police from a hotel lobby after they refused to leave. Although video of the incident seems to show Swedish police handling the situation in a professional manner, China demanded an apology from the Swedish government (many experts suspect such demands may have been related to a visit from the Dalai Lama a week earlier).

This “tantrum diplomacy” has become a regular occurrence. In June, days before the Australian television 60 Minutes aired a report critical of Chinese diplomacy in the Pacific, the station received an unusually aggressive phone call from Saixian Cao, head of media affairs for the Chinese embassy in Canberra. “Take this down and take it to your leaders,” Cao reportedly shouted into the phone to executive producer Kristy Thompson. “You will listen … There must be no more misconduct in the future!”

China is fighting too many battles, and its companies are paying the price

While China’s nationalistic “tantrum diplomacy” may make headlines and damage China’s image abroad, it may simply be trying to do too much too quickly, and causing problems for itself in the process.

Its territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and India are not helping engender goodwill with those key neighbours, and the massively ambitious Belt and Road Initiative have many countries concerned about corruption, debt, and Chinese military expansion. Nor have its cyber-attacks on various international institutions helped China’s cause.

As the US steps back from the world stage, China has an opportunity to make progress in meeting some of its most important national goals. Unfortunately, its attempt to achieve all its goals at once in a clumsy and overly aggressive way is seeming to ensure that it will achieve few, or even none, of them, and make far more enemies than friends.

At this moment, it seems that China’s technology firms are paying the price for their leaders’ miscalculation.

Elliott Zaagman

The true cost of fast fashion (The Interpreter)

This article is based on episode 10 of the Good Will Hunters podcast, featuring an interview with Clare Press, sustainability editor-at-large at Vogue Australia.
It’s known as “fast fashion”, clothes cheap to buy, yet costly to make, if the true labour and environmental costs are tallied. For garment works in some modern supply chains, the label they often wear is that of “modern slavery”.

United Nations estimates that up to 25 million modern slavery victims are exploited across the globe, a figure that should generate unquestionable horror. The fashion industry is far from the only culprit, yet governments have struggled to identify the scope of the problem or readily address the issues. Until now.

Australia’s Modern Slavery Bill (2018) outlines modern slavery as it is now understood and ties to an effort to address the problem in separate jurisdictions. The new law highlights not only its affront to basic human rights – such as workers’ need for a basic living wage – but by also addressing the ramifications of modern slavery for global industry, as the government has put it, by distorting global markets, undercutting responsible businesses and posing “significant legal and reputational risks for companies”.

In this, the fashion industry has been a case study. Under pressure to become more transparent with respect to its supply chains, consumers have been key instigators for change. Revelations of worker exploitation coupled with a realisation of the immense wastage in the industry were the spark. The success of initiatives such as Oxfam’s “What She Makes” campaign, as well as the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, killing more than 1000 workers, making the problems near-impossible to ignore.

Yet the lesson of such a tragedy cannot be a retreat from engaging international producers. This is especially important for small businesses, where the income generated by sales to big fashion brands provide critical income.

The challenge instead is to ensure adequate standards are put in place.

Photo: Greensefa/Flickr

Clare Press, sustainability editor-at-large at Vogue Australia and leading sustainability figure in the world of fashion, has addressed many of the concerns facing the industry. What she dubs as the “opacity of supply chains” has a detrimental impact on the quality of life for workers primarily from developing nations. Where exploitation occurs, either through the payment of inadequate wages or sub-par working conditions, this information is simply not available to the average consumer, consequently shielding consumers from the impact their wallets have on society at large.

While Press is convinced fashion can be a “beautiful” and “inspiring industry”, her research demonstrates that the cost of not being a conscious consumer is far greater on the lives of individuals than shown on the price tag.

This is the problem of consumerism, the love of buying things, which researchers such as economist Richard Dennis see as a distinct from materialism, the love of the things themselves. The benefits of the former, in Dennis’ opinion, are short-lived. Yet Press sees an opportunity to not simply reverse consumer habits born out of a psychological mindset, but instead to re-shape them.

Press’ made a recent trip to Nairobi with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative to support sustainable, ethical, and artisan manufacturing by connecting small producers to global fashion brands. This is an example of the development ethos of creating meaningful employment opportunities, rather than promoting charity.

As Press explained, bespoke fashion pieces that come with a story, such as a beaded purse made by a woman in Nairobi. A “micro-producer” appeals to consumers looking for something beyond a simple transaction. Indeed, Australian Fashion Brand Mimco is an example of having incorporated this practice into its business model.

Yet there is a price businesses face with this type of marketing.

They must be accountable to their consumer base as it comes to expect responsible businesses to be the norm and not the exception. The passage of Modern Slavery Acts in countries across the globe is a response to the overwhelming need to hold corporations to account with respect to their supply chain processes. In Australia, the Act will create a “Modern Slavery Statements Register,” although there are concerns that there are no proposed penalties for non-compliance.

Still, all this is a path to greater transparency with respect to business operations. Central to this shift in policy is a shift in values, aligning the power to profit with a more socially conscious society.

Jack KincaidRachel Mason Nunn

Pacific links: call to close bases, deep sea struggles, more (The Interpreter)

  • The United Nations is calling on France and the US to close military bases they operated in Pacific territories. France has military bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, while the US has three bases in Guam.
  • Is this a response to Chinese investments in the Pacific? The US has joined the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility (PRIF) which aims to improve infrastructure and services in the Pacific subregion and is composed of the Asian Development Bank, the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, the European Union, the European Investment Bank, and the World Bank.
  • An interesting piece from the Economist about the struggles of Nautilus, a high-profile deep-sea mining company, the tries to start its operations in Papua New Guinea.
  • The 2018 Fiji elections were finally concluded with the official results announced last month. FijiFirst will form Government. Jope Tarai, a tutor and scholar at the University of the South Pacific, analyses the results.
  • Sarah Hilton and Jennifer Walpole analyse a statement made by John Momis, president of the Autonomous Bougainville Government about Chinese businesspeople raising mining investment.
  • Ben Doherty comments on Australia’s decision to join the US at a pro-coal event at COP24 climate talks, arguing it undermines a commitment to the Pacific.
  • Julien Barbara and Terence Wood share views about the coming national elections in Solomon Islands, the first since the departure of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) in June 2017.
  • Finally, the 2018 Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue was held in Cairns from 4-6 December 2018, bringing together 20 young leaders from both countries. Click here for more information.

How Australia should deepen ties with India (The Interpreter)

Ties between India and Australia have always been a little constrained – and unsurprisingly so, as traditionally there has been little to connect the two countries. For its part, Australia has for decades sought to have a better relationship with India, one that extends beyond shared democracy, shared colonial history, cricket diplomacy, and the odd awkward Brett Lee movie.

However, things could be looking up.

The Australian government recently launched its “India Economic Strategy 2035” during the Indian President’s visit last month. The strategy is based on the 500-page Varghese Report, submitted back in July, which highlighted something that everyone already knows: that in this era of growing Chinese might, it is absolutely vital to see India as a key economic and geopolitical partner.

Until now, with China as a behemoth trading partner, there hasn’t to date been much impetus to nurture India. However, a recently bumpy relationship with Beijing has again underscored just how important it is to have other markets in the mix.

The economic strategy highlights key regions and sectors where Australians can invest in India.

The government and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade both say they are deeply committed to the strategy: indeed, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison said when launching the document that India “offers more opportunity for Australian businesses over the next 20 years than any other single market”.

He isn’t wrong on that count. India is growing at a rate of 7% per year, and increasingly, Indians are being lifted out of poverty, becoming better educated, moving to cities and even finding themselves with more disposable income than before. Spending habits have rapidly changed on the subcontinent over the past decade: for example, it would be difficult to find anyone, even itinerant labourers, without a smartphone. At the same time, demographics are rapidly changing. India has a youth bulge, meaning there is high demand for education, and jobs, at the end of that education.

A case study in an effective and powerful bilateral relationship, one that Australia would love to emulate, is that between India and Japan. Indian Prime Minister Modi recently conducted his third visit to Japan in his less than five years in office. Tokyo is investing heavily in India, including a planned $17 billion bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. There is also significant defence and security cooperation, including plans to meet early next year to discuss sharing satellite data and surveillance information.

Australia is elbowing its way in via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which, along with the US, brings the countries together to discuss ways to counter China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.

The problem is, of course, that Australian pockets are not as deep as those of Tokyo’s, so a bit more nuance and good design is needed. The recommendations from the Varghese report and subsequently the economic strategy breaks the India opportunity down into ten key states and ten key sectors. This is a wise move: India is extremely diverse – culturally, linguistically, culinarily, and societally, and looking at India as a singular entity is outmoded, even unacceptable.

At the same time, the strategy’s potential for future success rests upon one thing: will. The private consensus amongst diplomatic circles is that a lack of political will is what has caused previous attempts to reach out to India to wither, such as the recommendations contained in the 2012 Asian Century White Paper. There is, without doubt, room for both the government and DFAT to embrace the strategy with more gusto and to work harder to engage the media and stakeholders to really drive home the message that India is open for Australian business and vice versa.

At the same time, India is traditionally a difficult place in which to do business: there is bureaucracy, corruption, inefficiencies, and the difficulties involved in trying to introduce Western goods and services into regions that might not know what to do with them. If the government is serious about wanting to use this opportunity to get more Australian businesses into India, it needs to make it a priority.

With the likelihood of a change in government next year, the department should be highlighting India as a major part of its incoming government brief.

What’s in the India Economic Survey

The core of the report is a “sectors and states” framework that recognises India’s diversity and maps out areas where Australian businesses are likely to succeed.

Australia also plans to expand its diplomatic presence in India by opening a new Consulate-General in Kolkata in 2019. The city in the country’s east – the erstwhile capital of the British Raj before it was shifted to Delhi in 1911 – is geographically well-connected to the mineral-rich eastern states, and the emerging north-eastern region.

Education has been singled out as an area with perhaps the most potential. With 600 million young people in India, there is a fast-growing demand for education: Australia hopes to be in a position to provide at least some of this. Early measures include setting up a digital education hub for Indian students, collaborating on curriculum design and strengthening links with Indian universities.

Another key sector is agribusiness. Australian producers are already making inroads into India, such as companies tapping the market for canola oil. One plan is to create an Australia-India Food Partnership, while another is to develop a pilot program for Australia to collect and disseminate information on pulse crop production to Australian farmers.

Tourism has also been highlighted. By 2025, the number of Indian tourists to Australia is expected to grow four-fold, from 300,000 in 2017 to nearly 1.2 million. The cooking show Masterchef Australia can probably take a bulk of the credit for this: it has had massive soft power success in getting Indians interested in India, in fact helping to shift the narrative about Australia.

The states, representing a geographic spread across the country, include those with the biggest local economy (Maharashtra), the biggest population (Uttar Pradesh), the territory containing the capital New Delhi, and Punjab, the state with arguably the most prominent diaspora community in Australia. The state with the highest literacy rates, Kerala, is not on the list.

Brexit deal debate reveals dark side to EU diplomacy (The Interpreter)

The saving grace of a nasty divorce is durable insight into the true values of the parties involved. And so, with Brexit.

The Withdrawal Agreement – which has triggered rancorous opposition in parliament and a political crisis in the UK – lays bare the diplomatic cards. Whatever its eventual fate, the way that Agreement was reached and the reaction it has now provoked provide analysts with rich insight into some of the forces now at play in Europe.

First, the anguished yelps in London show where power has prevailed. As Australia’s ex-envoy pointed out, the UK was set to become a regulatory colony of the European Union for at least 20 months. The Agreement also required UK taxpayers to foot a £39 billion (A $68 billion) divorce fee, and parliament to surrender, indefinitely, the right to legally extract itself from EU institutions thereafter.

In contriving to impose such terms, the EU revealed some unanticipated qualities: unity, discipline, and exceptional statecraft. The laurels go to the chief orchestrator, the European Commission. That furtive chink of glassware in Brussels three weeks ago now looks premature, but if the Withdrawal Agreement survives in modified terms, then November 2018 will mark the date when the Commission stepped forth as the principal power-broker in Europe.

How was this putative victory gained? Last December, the EU demanded Northern Ireland as a hostage for the trade talks: if UK and EU cannot agree on seamless trade, then a “backstop” arrangement would see Northern Ireland excised from the UK’s regulatory and customs ambit, and retained within EU jurisdiction. It is to mitigate this legal-regulatory annexation that the UK offered itself in entirety into backstop bondage.

Such diplomacy is predatory, and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson called it out. Put simply, the EU demanded that UK cede regulatory and judicial sovereignty over part of its territory as the price of a deal. In asserting this right, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was, proverbially, honoured more in the breach than the observance. The Withdrawal Agreement obviated a physical border in Ireland, sure, but this consequential benefit was secured by subverting the GFA’s principal provisions: acknowledgement of UK sovereignty; and constitutional change only via popular consent.

Were no qualms expressed in Brussels? Respect for sovereignty and popular consent are precisely what differentiate post- from pre-war European diplomacy, yet the Agreement respects neither and the British parliament bridled. Perhaps for the EU, the ends justified the means. If so, it’s worth examining the inevitable result of the backstop if it isn’t removed from the Agreement: UK’s forced retention in a customs arrangement and adherence to single market regulation.

To appreciate the gravity of this outcome it is necessary to grasp one fundamental point: that, although the Customs Union‒Single Market looks like a free trade area it doesn’t behave like one, at least not for UK.

Since 1998, UK’s goods exports to EU have stagnated while imports have grown at a brisk 3.2% per annum. The result: a series of chronic deficits that recur and augment like nightmares across UK trade: -£28 bn in autos; -£18 bn in food & agriculture; -£9 bn in pharmaceuticals; -£7 bn in machinery.

Scrutiny of UK’s historical trade data reveals a curious “captive market” effect. Take UK’s biggest traded sector: autos, worth £103 billion per year. Over 20 years, the EU has retained a vice-like market share of over 83% of UK imports, even as its own share of UK exports has plummeted. Meanwhile, UK’s growing dependence on EU agriculture force-feeds UK consumers on the most expensively produced food on earth.

Protected by external EU tariffs, EU producers are steadily cornering UK’s markets without commensurate reciprocity. From this, the backstop ensures no escape (without sacrificing Northern Ireland). Under the Agreement, UK’s financial services would get no special post-Brexit treatment, but even if they did, their surplus covers just one-quarter of UK’s £95 bn EU goods-trade deficit. For historians this is mercantilism; the practice of using power to capture markets. It, too, has nasty precedence in pre-war Europe.

As for the UK, enduring insights flow from reactions to the Agreement. Specifically, popular hostility to its terms proves there was always way more to Brexit than an anti-immigrant spasm. The Agreement would definitely end free movement, and yet no poll of leave voters comes close to showing a preference for the Agreement over simply walking away, with all its hazards.

The reaction amongst pro-Brexit Conservative MPs is more fascinating still. Almost all are implacably opposed. Tally up their antipathies to the Agreement – and its impediments to free trade, deregulation, cheap food, and an unfettered foreign policy – and analysts aren’t staring at swivel-eyed Tories; they are staring straight into the pupils of Gladstonian liberals who aren’t afraid of change.

So, this is a salutary moment. The rejection of the Agreement by pro-Brexit MPs reveals deep tides. To characterise Brexit, now, as populist xenophobia is as misplaced as it would be to characterise the Protestant Reformation as just an irate bout of iconoclastic statue-bashing. There’s more at stake than perceived public delinquency; specifically, a classic and compelling model of government.

As for the EU, the omens look ill. Following its rejection by Parliament, the EU has refused to renegotiate the Agreement. In its current form, the Agreement will fail. Playing for higher stakes, the EU may want it to fail. But nothing will elide the Agreement’s brutal logic or exploitative intent. Sadly, the EU’s diplomatic standards are slipping into unsavoury ways. What’s odd, though, is that none of its members object.
 Data source UK Office for National Statistics, September 2018 (November 2017 for Financial Services), with calculations made by the author, available here.

Phil Radford

Separating the Philippine state from the church (The Interpreter)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is a very different leader than his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

Duterte has expressed his love for Xi Jinping. Aquino took China to court. Aquino significantly enhanced Philippine-US relations during the Obama administration. Duterte called Obama a “son of a whore” and “black and arrogant”. Aquino is the scion of the leading political family in the Philippines. Duterte is the first president from Mindanao.

Yet in two important ways, their presidencies are similar and these similarities challenge one of the most conventional of wisdoms about Philippine politics. Duterte and Aquino are the most popular presidents in the post-Marcos era, exhibiting much more durable levels of popular support than their predecessors. And both presidents, in their very different styles, have directly challenged the Catholic Church.

In 2012, four days before Christmas, Aquino signed the Reproductive Health Bill that had been successfully opposed by the Catholic Church for decades. A week earlier, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines released a pastoral letter to be read at all masses against the Reproductive Health Bill with the title “Contraception is Corruption!”

Duterte’s challenge to the Catholic Church has been much more profane, personal, and consistent. He supports the return of the death penalty and on 9 January 2017 signed an Executive Order calling for universal access to family planning methods and an accelerated implementation of the Reproductive Health Bill. Duterte has gone much further, repeatedly castigating Catholic priests and the Church for their criticisms of him and his bloody war on drugs, calling the Pope a son of a whore for aggravating Metro Manila’s traffic during his papal visit and the 2016 presidential campaign, and calling God “stupid”.

While opinion polls show that Filipinos are disappointed with these anti-Catholic comments, there is little sign that this has translated into any withdrawal of support for Duterte.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is less politically important than the conventional wisdom based on the role of the church in the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship suggests. Presidents can take the Church on directly at little cost and possibly even some political benefit.

In the view of Filipino Catholic voters, the Church is separate from the State, and this is upheld in political practice by the separation enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

Malcolm Cook

Xi Jinping in 2018: Any closer to the truth? (The Interpreter)

In 2016, I published a study of Xi Jinping, CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (I B Tauris). This book has subsequently been reissued in paperback, and in 2018 I did a shorter overview, The World According to Xi with the same publisher. For one reason or the other, other the last few years I have had to think quite a bit about the current leader of China.

Two years on, we all now have seen a bit more and know a little more about a man The Economistmagazine stated was the most powerful in the world in late 2017.

The most puzzling aspect about his rule, however, remains the same. How has it been possible, over such a complex country, and with so many other contending figures who may have had the chance to compete with Xi, that he has become so seemingly dominant? Did we miss something about his innate political skills as he was emerging into view as a major leader? Or are we still misinterpreting this figure, and seeing the mirage of great power rather than the real thing? Is he really as all commanding as he seems?

Coming to the end of 2018, the atmosphere in the People’s Republic has become increasingly dominated by Xi’s presence and image.

During the Forum for China African Cooperation in September, an already infamous cover of the official People’s Daily had Xi’s name in headlines almost twenty times on the front page.

But this was symptomatic of a deeper penetration of Xi into the political life of the nation.

In October 2017, during the 19th Party Congress (a major event held every five years), “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into the Party Constitution. This was the first time such an accolade had been accorded to a named individual since 1945, when “Mao Zedong Thought” was promoted a similar way.

Even more remarkable was the removal of time limits for occupying the Presidency. Restricted to two periods of five years each from the early 1980s, at the National People’s Congress in March 2018, after hardly any discussion, the rules were changed. This was seen by commentators inside and outside China as a clear sign that Xi was intending in some shape or form to stay on long after the current unwritten retirement age of 68.

Are we now at the point where we can say we are looking at the face of a true contemporary Chinese autocrat? It is still hard to say with real certainty. For sure, Xi’s image hangs above China with a ubiquity that sometimes verges on the comically obsessive.

But the response China gave to the Trump administration implementation of tariffs on Chinese goods exported to the US revealed some the vulnerability of a leadership where everything seems to be decided by one man.

The Beijing leadership seemed dazed and slow in their response, with indications for the first time that there was only a small huddle of people around Xi running the country and that it was dependent on the quality of their advice over how his administration handled matters. That meant that ideas from elsewhere in the whole vast system that might have been worth listening to were simply ignored, or unimplemented, meaning the world’s most important bilateral relationship grew increasingly fractious and unstable.

Streamlined and centralised decision making may all be very well, as long as those making the final decisions happen to be broadly right. This episode, so far, has proved that the Xi style can be worryingly unsophisticated and inflexible.

There is little reason, yet, to change the central thesis of the CEO China book about Xi’s greatest source of authority and his good luck – the very unique situation that China has found itself in under his rule. With an economy still growing well, and with a national sentiment that continues to be forward-looking, and ready to embrace the mantle of “major power status”, finally winning the battle of modern history to be a strong, wealthy, powerful country, with a regional and global dominance, 2021, the year in which the first centennial goal arrives, still looms large on the horizon.

At the moment, China’s onward trajectory despite the turmoil with the US looks good. It has never before produced so much top-quality research, never before has it been so competitive against the US in key areas from IT to artificial intelligence and engineering. Its high-speed rail infrastructure remains the envy of the world. And with the Belt and Road Initiative, at least now the outside world is thinking, like it or not, about how they need to engage with this new behemoth.

Is the often pushy and assertive way that China now behaves towards, for instance, countries in its region over issues that matter to it like the South and East China Sea, or towards Hong Kong and Taiwan, symptomatic of the way Xi runs things within China – categorical, ruthless, and utterly unaccepting of any signs of dissent?

The current management of the Xinjiang region, with its massive, and almost unimaginably thorough social surveillance and use of vast “re-education camps” which look to be little more than prisons for sweeping thought reform, is the acme of this – a vision of a state so invasive and so gifted with new forms of intrusive technology that it can finally enter deep into the inner lives of the common people.

Or is it that these are in fact all the inevitable behaviour of a county that after a modern history of being the underdog is finally now in a position to assert itself and be respected and feared? In essence, this boils down to a simple question. Is Xi the servant of the inevitable processes or forces of history, or is he and the organisation he is in charge of shaping and decisively changing the direction of that history?

As in 2016, I remain sceptical about the kind of power that Xi has, and just how to interpret it as down to him and his political skills, and how to understand best the role of the Party he heads and the very special period he finds himself in power. Trump’s maverick presidency has posed the most significant challenges so far and shown vulnerabilities and lacunae.

As we enter 2019, this remains the core area to focus on. Can Xi produce a new kind of more reciprocal relationship with the world, and one where China is seen as less isolated and more of a true global leader? The opportunity is still there, but become harder because of the sharpness of China’s power mentioned above.

Kerry Brown