The “wall” China under the leadership of Xi Jinping poses long-term global challenges

Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-weekly update that looks at what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Sign up here.


During the Chinese “National Day” holiday in early October, several expat friends and I took our young children – who are mixed race and stand out in the Chinese crowd – to the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing.

As we were climbing a restored but almost empty part of the ancient landmark, some local families passed us on the way down. Looking at our children, one of their children shouted: “Hey foreigners! With covid? Let’s get away from them…” The adults fell silent as the group quickened their pace.

That moment stuck in my mind. It looks like a picture of how China has changed since strongman Xi Jinping took power a decade ago – becoming an increasingly walled nation physically and psychologically – and that transformation will have long-term global consequences.

Understanding the big picture is timely, as Xi prepares to break with convention to assume a third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party – the real source of his power rather than the ceremonial presidency – at the ruling party’s biennial national congress. , which opened in Beijing on Sunday.

The Great Wall, a major tourist attraction that usually draws large numbers of visitors during the holidays, was virtually empty thanks to Xi’s insistence (three years into the global pandemic) that we went with a zero-tolerance policy for Covid infections worldwide. it has mostly been moved and reopened.

China’s borders have been closed to most international travelers since March 2020, and foreigners who once called the country home have chosen to leave.

With the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeping through parts of the country, authorities advised against domestic travel ahead of the National Day holiday. They maintain strict quarantine, constant mass testing and invasive contact tracing, often locking down entire cities of millions in a few cases.

Not surprisingly, holiday travel fell during the so-called “Golden Week,” along with tourist spending, to less than half that in 2019, the last “normal” year.

And it’s not just one industry: pessimism covers other sectors, from automotive to real estate, as the world’s second-largest economy falters.

Children visit the Great Wall of China on October 1, 2022.

China’s economic slowdown poses a major political challenge for Xi, whose party’s legitimacy in recent decades has been based on rapid growth and rising incomes for 1.4 billion people. It’s also a harsh reality check for the international community: the world’s growth engine is faltering as the possibility of a global recession looms large.

But Xi’s “zero-Covid” intransigence is a natural result of the unprecedented power he has amassed. For many Chinese officials, this policy is about science, and about political loyalty to the country’s most powerful leader in decades.

Online videos abound of local health workers butting fruit, animals and even shoes for Covid testing, despite the lack of any solid scientific basis. The only Covid-related deaths in China in September were 27 people killed when a bus crashed on its way to a quarantine facility. However, officials across the nation have redoubled enforcement of the draconian rules, especially ahead of the party’s congress, aided by the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology.

China boasted more security cameras than any other country even before Covid. Now, in the age of smartphones, mandatory apps allow the government to check people’s Covid status and track their movements in real time. Authorities can easily restrict someone in their home by remotely switching the health app to code red, which they did on several occasions to prevent potential protesters from taking to the streets.

Whether physical lockdowns or digital manipulations, these “zero-Covid” measures have proven effective forms of control in a system so obsessed with social stability that many worry Xi and his underlings will never abandon the policy.

A recent series of articles published by party mouthpieces reinforced that concern by stressing the “fairness” and “sustainability” of the policy, even as Xi called “zero-Covid” a huge success story in a two-hour speech on Sunday. And state media fills its coverage with depictions of the “grim reality” in foreign countries, where leaders are turning a blind eye to the mass death and suffering allegedly caused by Covid, in contrast to China’s apparent triumph of saving lives at “minimum overall cost”.

For years, Xi’s cyber police have been strengthening the country’s so-called “Great Firewall,” perhaps the world’s most comprehensive internet filtering and censorship system that blocks and deletes anything the party deems “harmful.” Now supported by artificial intelligence, censors quickly purge messages seen as contradicting the party line – including on Covid.

This potent mix of propaganda and control under Xi appears to have had the desired effect on a large segment of Chinese society, creating support for the leadership by convincing enough people of the superiority of China’s system while angering millions of their fellow citizens. “zero-Covid”. But this approach, together with the closure of the long border and the increase in geopolitical tensions, also provides fertile ground for xenophobia.

The local child’s remark about the Great Wall reflected this. But the real danger of the “blame foreigners” sentiment is when adults in powerful positions capitalize on it in the face of mounting pressure on the home front.

Since his rise to the top in 2012, Xi’s ruling philosophy has become increasingly clear: he alone can make China great again by restoring the party’s – and thus his – omnipresence and supremacy, as well as the country’s rightful place on the world stage.

With China’s growing economic and military power, coexistence with the West has given way to confrontation with the United States and its allies. Gone are the days of “hiding your strength and biding your time” – Chinese diplomats under Xi are proud warriors firing at anyone who dares to question their government.

Underpinned by rising nationalism, China has begun to flex its military muscle beyond its borders. Tensions over Taiwan pose a real threat of war in Asia, with few doubting that “reunification” with the self-governing democratic island – which the Communist leadership has long claimed even though it has never ruled – would be the crown jewel of Xi’s legacy.

This projection of external power goes hand in hand with China’s sense of siege in a US-led world order, which Xi has made no secret of trying to reshape it alongside other autocrats such as Russian President Vladmir Putin. Until that happens, however, China’s strongman instincts and demands for total control at home seem to have meant building ever greater barriers – in the real world and in cyberspace – to keep out malicious outsiders, the perceived source of viruses and dangerous ideas. .

A recent history document released by a government-run think tank has gone viral as it, like Xi, turned the longstanding consensus on its head. Instead of denouncing the isolationist policies adopted by China’s last two imperial dynasties as the cause of their decline and eventual collapse, the authors advocated the need to protect national sovereignty and security against Western invaders.

The emperors of these dynasties, who also rebuilt parts of the Great Wall, did not then reverse the decline of their country. But the tools at their disposal were no match for the high-tech ones at the disposal of China’s current ruler. Xi seems confident that his “walls” – among other things – will help him achieve his oft-cited ultimate goal: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Whether it succeeds or not, the world will feel the impact for years to come.