When President Biden Zoomed with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday, the rooms they spoke from were more than backdrops.
Xi spoke from a vast, pink-carpeted room in the Great Hall of the People, apparently the same room in which he met then-Veep Biden in 2013. Biden Zoomed from the modest Roosevelt Room in the White House. Politico’s Phelim Kine dubbed it the Summit Zoom Room Size Contest.
Of course, everything about China is big (including reception rooms for high-level foreign dignitaries). Yet size symbolizes China’s — and Xi’s — growing power. Even a tongue-in-cheek focus on Zoom rooms reflects rising American unease about how Xi intends to use that power.
Only hours after the two leaders’ call, the Chinese Communist Party anointed Xi as one of China’s most revered leaders, on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and perhaps even greater. As a “core leader,” Xi’s ideas now become unassailable party doctrine. He will soon break the post-Deng two-term precedent, having maneuvered to ensure at least a third term. His word is China’s future.
So Xi’s psyche and goals will be critical drivers of global politics in the coming decade. He has made clear he wants China to surpass the United States in every major sphere by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But will his overweening ego produce a military conflict neither side wants?
Xi’s achievements, glorified
Part of the answer becomes visually apparent at China’s National Museum on Tiananmen Square, which I visited in 2019, just after a total renovation on Xi’s watch.
Mainly focused on China’s ancient history and arts, the museum has one new floor dedicated to The Road of Rejuvenation, that tracks China’s ascent from partial occupation in the mid-1800s through its astonishing contemporary rise. It lays bare the continued Chinese bitterness at U.S. and European imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and pays gleaming tribute to the re-emergence of Chinese greatness.
One wing traces Chinese history from the Opium Wars all the way to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. It includes Mao, but makes no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the tens of millions of Chinese who died from Mao’s mistakes.
The second wing is entirely devoted to the great achievements of Xi Jinping.
The cult like devotion to Xi is stunning. Videos of his speeches, endless portraits with foreign leaders, and cases of Xi’s books compete for pride of place with exhibitions of scientific achievements in space and industry, and models of bullet trains. A huge room is filled with a mockup of a massive military parade complete with rows on rows of model tanks and missile carriers, alongside a moat filled with miniature submarines.
The pride in China’s stunning recent growth is wholly justified, but the cult of personality is unnerving. The ode to Xi’s greatness dismisses the brilliant insights of Deng, who wanted to prevent the emergence of another godlike Mao figure.
Meantime, the tourist shops around Tiananmen Square — where Mao’s mausoleum also sits — all featured medallions that show Xi on one side and Mao on the other.
Biden’s hope, a united front
How then does the museum exhibit link up to the Biden-Xi Zoom?
In their virtual meeting, Biden urged Xi not to allow competition to “veer into conflict.” And Biden pushed for at least low-level talks to reduce strategic risk, given China’s planned massive expansion of nuclear warheads. These talks may happen, even though China is rebuffing substantial arms control negotiations.
In other words, Biden is pressing for some kind of “guardrails” to prevent U.S.-Chinese competition from spinning out of control.
Yet Xi’s conviction of Chinese superiority, his determination to avenge the slights of the past and make China the world’s greatest power, are as palpable in his speeches and domestic actions as in the National Museum. So is his conviction that a weakened West is unable to stop China’s expansion (including the subjugation of Taiwan).
Xi is not ginning up a Cold War that resembles the U.S.-Soviet conflict. That confrontation was far simpler. A U.S. economic giant confronted a Soviet economic midget with nukes, and the two sides did impose arms control guardrails. The nuclear standoff prevented any Soviet ground invasion of Germany across the Fulda Gap.
Xi’s goal is not a ground invasion (except perhaps for Taiwan) or a nuclear war. Rather, it is an economic and technological domination that forces the rest of the world to accept China’s preeminence and mimic its political system. His ego has convinced him that the West can’t compete.
The United States must prove him wrong. Biden has wisely engaged European and Asian allies to present a more united front against China’s economic and military pressures.
To counter Xi’s vision, however, America must dramatically up its domestic game, especially in technological competition. One good start would be passing the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which passed in the Senate with bipartisan majorities in June but is stalled in the House.
Continued interparty warfare in Congress and within the country, mostly fueled by the GOP, will only convince Xi that his belief in U.S. decline is on the money. In which case, the problem won’t be Xi’s ego. We will have defeated ourselves.