Never known for lacking ambition, President Xi Jinping is now promoting a long-term plan to spread China's skills, investment capital and ancient wisdom to dozens of underprivileged countries. Throughout Asia and Africa and the Middle East, China will build harbours, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure, ideally increasing the efficiency and prosperity of the planet.
Xi believes this program, titled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will be no less than "the project of the century." Before it's even developed he's assessing his plans (and himself) in terms of history. Since assuming power, Xi has enforced party discipline and ensured the sort of unity that lets him do what he wants. His anticorruption campaign has led to the downfall of leading Communist party officials, including members of the Politburo Standing Committee and some of Xi's political enemies. Xi has tightened restrictions over civil society and the discussion of ideology. He advocates internet censorship, which he calls "Internet Sovereignty." He has a phrase for everything.
All that infrastructure will eat up trillions when measured in U.S. dollars. China will lend recipient countries the construction funds, and will be ready to take possession if the loans are not repaid on schedule. In a sense, BRI may well become colonialism with a Chinese face.
It is not enough for Xi that he's often called China's "Paramount Leader" and that the Chinese Communist Party officially gave him the title of "Core Leader." He wants to lift the world's opinion of China and what he calls the "Chinese Dream." Having utterly subdued all of his Chinese rivals, having been declared the more or less permanent president, Xi clearly hopes to take his place as the leader of the globe while establishing China as the main source of earthly success.
He's declared that "China champions the development of a community with a shared future for mankind." He hopes to generate "a further rise in China's ability to inspire and power to shape." Furthermore, China "will uphold justice while pursuing shared interests." It will promote innovative and inclusive development "that benefits everyone," boosting "cross-cultural exchanges characterized by harmony within diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual learning."
But how can Xi square this ambitious, progressive (and in some ways perhaps generous) program with the fact that China is beyond question the world leader in political prisoners. China throws people in jail not only for deeds but also for words, and not even violent words. No one knows the location of China's prisons or who lives in them. Or how many prisoners they hold.
Freedom House, an American organization monitoring free speech or the lack of it, has a long file of outrages perpetrated by China. Much as the government would like to keep these facts secret, China's every crime against humanity eventually emerges onto the world's news pages. China has so many emigrants, so many people going back and forth across the border, that nothing can be hidden for long. The government tries to censor the internet but hundreds of outlets in Hong Kong and Singapore keep passing on the news.
China's most prominent political prisoner was Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner (an honour government media ignored). He died in 2017 after serving eight years in prison for non-violent opposition to Communist party leadership. Liu's supporters established the Liu Xiaobo Conscience Award, to commemorate his example. The first winner, Qin Yongmin, a human-rights activist, was recently given a 13-year prison sentence. His lawyer withdrew from the case to avoid being punished, since under Xi's leadership the authorities often jail the lawyers of the accused as well as the accused.
This week we received the news that the government has once again destroyed the studio of China's internationally famous artist, Ai Weiwei. He's been the most persistent of the Chinese government's critics, and for the last three years he's been making his art in Berlin.