China can’t ignore the danger next door


A man waited in the Great Hall of the People during delegation discussions at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s marathon 205-minute speech on Wednesday to the 19th Communist Party congress in Beijing was focused on maintaining stability inside China and on the global stage, yet noteworthy for the two profoundly destabilizing factors it left out: Donald Trump and North Korea.

Xi’s priorities for the next five years, outlined before 2,300 delegates, struck familiar themes — from shoring up China’s economy to expanding global trade along the legendary Silk Road through his “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Indeed, Xi has put considerable capital on the line. Last May, he pledged more than $100 billion to develop roads, rails, and seaports in more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Shippers can already take advantage of China Railway freight trains that run along the thousand-year-old caravan routes from China to Russia and Europe. It is the logistics network that’s helping globalize 1.4 billion people, a process that’s already shaking up the world in far-reaching ways.


In just the past three decades, 700 million Chinese people have climbed out of poverty — a feat unprecedented in human history. Now, the Communist Party wants to bolster that emerging middle class and “take center stage in the world,” as Xi put it.

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He promised government investments in consumer-friendly businesses like wineries, Internet shopping sites, and espresso cafes. On a government-sponsored visit to China last summer, meant to showcase this new, softer economic power, US journalists sipped coffee made from beans sourced from Ethiopia and watched a robotic arm play a game of Chinese checkers as an Israeli technologist led a training session for Chinese counterparts nearby. Stung by the world’s disapproval of the sooty smokestacks on view during the 2008 Olympics, government planners are also busy refurbishing the defunct Capital Steel plant to host a sleek postindustrial village for athletes when the Winter Games come to Beijing in 2022. The message: China deserves respect, even fealty, as it catapults forward from a Soviet-style economy built on second-world products like steel and concrete to one focused on high-tech, intellectual property, and scientific discovery. Xi described his country as a great power dozens of times during his oration, and he wasn’t just talking about economics.

Although he stressed that China “will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country,” Xi also defended his hard line on Beijing’s destabilizing land grab in the South China Sea, and indulged in a stagey bit of sword rattling: “Our military must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work, and focus on how to win when it is called on.”

But truly great powers do more than just boast about how great they are, or will be again. For too long China has been an inconsistent partner in Northeast Asia, particularly when it comes to North Korea. With underground nuclear explosions from a neighboring client state literally shaking Chinese soil, Xi’s silence on North Korea was deafening.

Beijing insists that it isn’t in the business of interfering in the affairs of other nations and that, even if it did, it has little influence over the Hermit Kingdom. Pardon the incredulity. China is responsible for 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume, including most of its food and energy supplies. There’s no appetite for shutting off Pyongyang’s foodstuffs, but it might be possible for China to get Kim Jong Un to stop shooting fusillades of missiles into the Pacific — and stop setting off nuclear weapons, too.


While the Chinese aren’t thrilled that Kim is threatening the world with nukes, they are far more afraid of risks of regime change: a flood of refugees into China, South Korean and US troops along the Yalu River, and a loss of confidence in the Chinese Communist Party that might result. Nationalist sentiments may be running high in China, but the regime is brittle enough that it blocks the Internet to stay in power.

The presidency of Donald Trump, built as it was on a campaign that demonized China at nearly every turn, may prove to be the far more manageable challenge for Xi. While Trump has tweeted a big game about starting a trade war with China to win votes, in practice he’s done little to disrupt the status quo. The restrained tone with which Communist Party officials talk about Trump suggests that they’ve long seen through his bluster. The question is whether that bluster could spiral out into conflict next door.