Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Chinese Captain and the Ukrainian Gift

The West finds it very difficult to understand strong leaders, who resort to dictionaries that do not match its own. It is unable to grasp the true reason for their rise and the links that connect them to their people.

The West cannot understand their true aspirations and far-reaching goals. Perhaps because they read the present and future of the world based on the geographical and political framework in which they grew up, with its economic reality and cultural heritage.

The West is concerned about the emergence of powerful leaders in ancient and promising countries, which seek to regain the historical status they had before the balance of forces and wind directions changed.

The misunderstanding multiplies when the West feels that it has obtained, especially after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a full mandate to draw the future of the world, based on its perceptions and vocabulary. It tends to believe that it has found the magic formula for drawing the features of the “global village” and that the collapse of the Soviet model gave it the right to consider its own model the reference and standard.

This largely explains the permanent clash about democracy, human rights, freedoms, color revolutions, the role of civil society, the interpretation of international law, the limits of sovereignty and the right to intervene.

It is no exaggeration to say that the international scene, which was formed in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the talk about the single superpower and the unipolar world, is being subjected today to a large-scale revolution that is tantamount to a world war. A military, political and economic coup, in which Russia and China assume the leading role.

In the past two decades, the West misread two men: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

In the first decade, many thought that Putin’s aspirations were limited to restoring the unity of the Russian Federation, improving his country’s image and raising the efficiency of its army. They believed that his main concern would be to improve and modernize the economy and build a balanced relationship of interests with the West.

The German chancellor, during her extended stay, and those who assumed office at the Elysée Palace and 10 Downing Street, have adopted an approach based on this belief. But with the outbreak of the Ukrainian fire, the West found out that it did not know the real Putin, and perhaps was unaware of the depths of the Russian soul itself.

The West made another mistake when many considered that Xi Jinping, who had not yet assumed the leadership of China, was a “realistic and moderate” man. Some people were confident that Xi would pursue his country’s progress, in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, who resorted to collective leadership to ensure that power is not restricted to one man, as happened with Mao Zedong.

They also believed that Xi would defend the Communist Party as a stability factor to guarantee progress, with some degree of openness. They had no idea that the new Chinese leader was closer to Mao than to Deng.

The Russian attack on Ukraine has awakened the world’s interest in exposing China’s true position on the war, as well as on the Putin-led uprising against the Western model.

Over the course of eight months, China has been dealing with this war carefully and slowly, choosing its words in a way that avoids accusations of bias towards Russia, as well as claims of a total dissociation from it.

The world’s attention turned to China on Sunday, on the occasion of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. We are talking about the “world factory”, the second global economy, an accelerating technological revolution, and a rising military power.

In recent years, the West has realized that the “New Silk Roads” were not just an economic project, but part of a program to reshape the international system.

The West, which today is paying the price of Putin’s grasping all the strings of Russian power for two decades, was reminded that the conference in Beijing would end with prospects for a third term for Xi, amid indications that he was looking forward to a position parallel to Mao’s, prompting some people to name him “the captain.”

In recent years, the West has received alarming signals. Xi turned the page on collective leadership, bringing the country back to the era of a single leader. He removed the obstacle that restricted leadership to two presidential terms, to restore the time of the open-ended term. A crackdown on corruption also helped exclude or domesticate his opponents. He firmly oversaw the “zero Covid” policy, despite its economic costs and the scaling back of relations with the world. In all these steps, Xi dealt with the Party as the guarantor, watchdog, guardian, instrument, and umbrella.

There is no doubt that Xi, who emerged victorious from the Twentieth Congress, will be the most powerful man in the club of leaders of major countries.

Joe Biden is worried about the midterm elections, social media headlines, and newspapers, and is confused by the politics of misunderstanding the importance of allies and their right to disagree. The US president Biden is asked to assume two simultaneous tasks: to prevent Putin from winning in Ukraine and to control or delay the rise of China to avert the fading of the American era.

In the Kremlin, a strong and wounded leader does not seem capable of winning in Ukraine, nor accepting to return defeated.

Patience is a strategic weapon. Xi could have been tempted to use his country’s military force to restore Taiwan. But he did not do so. Putin fell into this temptation. His army was dragged into a European Afghanistan, for which Russia will pay the price, whether it wins or not.

The war will weaken Russia and push it into isolation for years. The war will also destabilize Europe and undermine its weight and role. Thus, the duel in the coming years will be limited to America and China. Putin will have no choice but to sleep on the Chinese pillow. The Ukrainian lesson is beneficial to China, whatever its consequences.

Xi’s words at the conference were expected, both concerning Taiwan and the acceleration of military and technological development. It is clear that the Ukrainian tragedy has turned into a gift to the Chinese leader. Russia needs him, and the world needs his wisdom, from Ukraine to the China Sea.

Mao’s party is not about to give up its absolute hold on power. The battle of the model is open. What Putin is trying to achieve with an expensive military adventure, China may attain without firing a shot.

Mao is probably jealous. For the first time since his absence, the Chinese have chosen a partner so as not to call him a competitor.