To say that the world has seen China differently since the year 2020 would be a debate-worthy topic. On one hand, while one could easily presume that the COVID outbreak is a rock-solid prism that has forever nuanced how we see the red dragon, it would be just as defensible to put forth that there have always been observations people wanted to make about China, only it was thought not prudent to do so.
China gets away with a lot. Name a sector, a walk of life, a policy - and you are likely to find at least one example of how China seems to function outside the ambit of what's permissible in the rest of the world.
Intellectual property, for instance, is a concept largely unheard of there. Sure, China makes plenty of things on its own now, but back then, when it was still finding its feet as a manufacturing powerhouse, there was no iconic brand that you couldn't buy a knock-off of, almost anywhere around the world, that wasn't made in China. Going by the maxim - good artists copy, great artists steal - China has mastered the art of making just about anything, and economically and at scale to boot.
The Internet is another profitable line of inquiry. Land in Beijing, connect to a wifi or data network, and you'll be forgiven for thinking your phone's conked off. Google and Facebook and the rest of the Internet staples don't function there. It's almost as if China has developed its own parallel Internet - Marvel fans will recognise it as a kind of Wakanda - where all the same technology exists as the rest of the world, only different in every conceivable way.
Coming to the environment, China is among the most ruthless deforesters and fossil fuel burners out there. Only strict action and ruthless implementation has stopped Beijing from turning into a smog-metropolis like it was a few years earlier. That is something China needed to do so as to not be a global laughing stock, as the country with the most visibly polluted city. But there are aspects of environmental degredation that we don't notice. Traditional Chinese Medicine, a completely bunkum pseudo-science, is the world's biggest direct threat to wildlife. Rhinos are killed half a world away in Africa for their horns, which are sold in China for a lot of money for medicinal properties that they simply don't have. The same is true of Tiger bone, and the problem is so acute and involves so many species, that even the humble donkey is facing becoming endangered because Pakistan isn't able to meet China's needs.
But China has got away with all this, and a whole lot more, and we're not even talking about expansionism. China's bullying is such a geopolitical white elephant that Taiwan, a democratic country that was founded by an icon of Chinese history and identity - Chiang Kai Shek - isn't allowed to use its name at the Olympics and is instead referred to as Chinese Taipei. Similarly, Hong Kong, once among the most hi-tech and advanced global cities on Earth, is no longer a place you'd envision going to, due to it having come under the Communists' shroud. While Hong Kong continues to protest, however, and the world occasionally shows its support, closer to India, the historic and mystical land of Tibet is hardly ever spoken about, it's government long since exiled to India and its way of life mutilated.
All these, and a whole lot else, were things not spoken of openly, at least not via official channels and by mainstream media outlets. And then, 2020 happened, and it is arguable that whether or not China cooked up the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a lab in Wuhan, its reaction and belligerence since then have turned it into a diplomatic punching bag. Gone are the days where China minces its words. Accusations are now replied to with wilder accusations, and terror groups like Taliban are received warmly and openly, essentially saying that China doesn't care whether the Afghan people prosper or suffer barbarism and discrimination, so long as Beijing gets to build plenty of roads in the country and inveigles it into its debt trap.
As it has got increasingly defensive on a range of matters, China has gone on a full offensive in recent times, and offensively so. And while any nation, much less a juggernaut like China, would occasionally give it back when backed into a corner, for China's President Xi Jinping, this seems like just a little bit more than that, a little bit more personal.
But why, you would ask? Is it not the same Xi Jinping who as recently as 2018 was being spoken of along with the term 'President for life'? The same Xi, who is referred to as 'China's most powerful leader since Chairman Mao Zedong?' The one whose so-called 'thought' has been written into China's Constitution and into its school textbooks? Why is that Xi, ever the picture of calm strength, so hot and bothered by a couple of questions about his foreign policies, about being totalitarian, about the possible leak of a virus mid-weaponisation, or about other people in China, such as Jack Ma, coming to be appreciated for their achievements? Isn't 'Uncle Xi', as Chinese are forced to refer to him, powerful and entrenched enough that all this should be water under the bridge? Well, the answer is, 'it's not as simple as that'.
Xi Jinping is not yet the President for life. He may well come to be so - he has paved the way for himself to lead China forever by removing the limits that were put in place to prevent another 'President for life'. This is after Mao Zedong had ruled China from the time it became an independent country in 1949, till his death in 1976. Mao was a political titan, under whose leadership some of the biggest human calamities and catastrophes in history took place, largely hidden from the rest of the world, and yet he remained firmly in place for 27 years, and for decades since then after his death, as the unshakeable and blemish free founding father & symbol of the People's Republic of China. His so-called 'Great Leap Forward' and 'Cultural Revolution' were anything but what their names imply, with millions perishing due to famines and floods and thousands being persecuted for little or no reason. In comparison, Xi Jinping is a neophyte, coming to power in 2012, by which time China was well on its way to becoming an economic cornerstone of the world. To put things into perspective - the Beijing Olympics, when China welcomed the world in and wowed it with its incredible infrastructure, wondrous Bird's nest stadium and breathtakingly beautiful opening ceremony - that Olympics had taken place in 2008, when Xi Jinping was still 4.5 years away from becoming the top political leader in the country.
In fact, if you are to look closely at how China has come along, it was largely nowhere - the hub of the world's miseries - in the Mao years, just the same way as it came to be a neo-superpower well before the Jinping years. In the middle came the leaders who obeyed the rules, who made an effort of believing in fair play and a rules-based system. Deng Xiaoping, perhaps the most underrated world leader of the last 100 years, took up the structural reforms, technological advancements and opening up of the Chinese economy that an incompetent Mao would have dismissed out of hand. Among Deng Xiaoping's deeds, many of which were heartening and pivotal, while just as many were strong-handed and brutal, was his imposition of term limits, by which China attempted to prevent another Mao coming into power and holding on to it for life.
To be sure, Deng Xiaoping largely followed these term limits himself, while remaining a power behind the scenes, and after him came Jiang Zemin and Xi's immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who both continued China's economic growth and opening up, while also keeping the one-child policy intact and in the end voluntarily relinquishing most of their power and paving the way for someone else to come in. And so, finally, less than 10 years ago, came Xi Jinping, who while standing on the shoulders of leaders that have done things terrible and great to bring China to within touching distance of global supremacy, has seemingly attempted to hoard and harness power to a degree that is unprecedented in the history of the world. After all, bar one, no American president has spent more than 8 years in office.
The answer lies in the intent, which is clear from the goings on in recent years. Since coming into power, Xi has undertaken a number of reforms and policy initiatives that have had far-reaching implications on his own political position. The first of these was a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption within the ranks of the Communist Party of China, in which over time over 10,000 people have been indicted. This includes 'the tigers and the flies', as Xi says, meaning the big fish and the everyday corrupt people. While he's been praised internally for his decisive action and zero-tolerance approach, whispers also claim it has served as a crackdown on political rivals and dissent within the party structure.
He has undertaken a large-scale expansion of China's interests globally, particularly in terms of building infrastructure, with the Belt & Road Initiative coming to be the lifeline of certain countries that had languished for years, but now have tarmac roads and bridges, like in Africa, with the help of the Chinese, and others, like Pakistan who have beggared themselves to such an extent by being dependent on US money, that they have now had to sell their proverbial soul to the Chinese after Washington stopped its aid flowing. Alongside this economic expansionism, China under Xi Jinping has also followed a doctrine of military aggression, camping at its borders with other nations and trying to steal a square km of land or two when nobody is looking. Apart from this magpie-like 'blink and you'll miss it' habit of stealing land, Xi has also cracked the whip on nominally more prosperous and happier regions of the so-called 'One China', such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Hong Kong, which was handed back to China after having been administered by the UK till 1997, has been a hotbed of pro-democracy protests, with the Chinese administration seeking to impose new and authoritarian laws. Taiwan, on the other hand, is the geopolitical hot potato over which Xi Jinping appears to want to flex his nationalist muscles. Taiwan, a prosperous democracy that nonetheless is not recognised by most of the world, despite occupying a prominent island of its own off the coast of China and exporting most of the world's microprocessors. It was founded by the same people who unified China and drove out Japanese occupiers during World War 2. But while Mao Zedong and his Communists won the war for the mainland, the Koemintang, led by Chiang-Kai-Shek had to flee to Taiwan, which over 70 years later now, Xi Jinping still covets.
Similarly, even in the internal economy of China, aggressive and authoritarian tidings are afoot. Jack Ma, the celebrated billionaire, media darling and founder of Ali Baba, has been effectively kidnapped and put under house arrest for questioning the administration, and his vast empire is being ruthlessly scuttled. Tech company founders are being punished for things as small as sharing poems with anti-authoritarian meaning on social media. Economic freedom, just like political freedom, is on the wane in Xi's China. The question is why?
Nominally, since the Deng Xiaoping years, there has been a term limit on the Chinese president's office, which is 10 years. But in 2018, the Communist parliament removed this term limit, paving the way for Xi to become what has been referred to as 'President for life'. In the last few years, every now and then, Xi Jinping's thoughts are written into Chinese Communist Canon - its Constitution, elevating him to a state of reverence only reserved for Chairman Mao. His thoughts, are now thought quintensential to what it means to be Chinese - this for a President of 9 years and a civilisation that is as old as any in the world.
Regardless, To rule China in a de-facto sense, one needs to hold three posts, which Xi Jinping does at the moment. He is the elected President of China, he is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and he is the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
But is Xi Jinping really President of China for life? The question is as-yet unanswered, but we may know in a year, and that's why this year is critical. Essentially, just because China has removed term limits on its presidency under Xi Jinping, it doesn't equate to him running for a third term, though it'd be naive to think otherwise.
In about November 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 20th National Party Congress, where we'll know the definitive answer. Between now and then, Xi Jinping, who is perhaps steelier on the outside than he appears given that he is at least unsure enough of his re-election that he's taking aggressive measures, will have staked his claim. Between now and then, he's likely to be looking behind his back perhaps a little nervously, a cold sweat every now and then. Because while these elections eventually end almost unanimously, there's always been a thought... that all it takes is a voice, and Xi is listening very closely.