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Yet herein lies a problem — one with which Xi Jinping and the party itself are all too familiar: foreign policy and the domestic political order are more closely linked in China than they are in the case of any other major power. Just as domestic challenges to the party cannot be tolerated, since they will provoke disunity and national disaster, so a setback overseas is a setback for party rule at home. The party’s insistence on the monopoly of political power at home means that it is the beneficiary of success but at the mercy of failures beyond its borders concerning events over which it may have little control. This is an alarmingly risky equation in a “non-gambling” political culture — though it does have the merit of curbing adventurism and inducing caution in Beijing on critical questions of foreign policy.

What this means is that China’s national sovereignty is not really “national” at all. It is coterminous with, subordinate to, and indistinguishable from absolute party rule. The goal of foreign policy is to secure and enhance party rule at home. For, in this scheme of things, there is no higher representative of the Chinese national interest and people than the Chinese Communist Party. If it fails, so will the fortunes of the Chinese people. And if that happens, foreigners will again tramp on China’s interests as they did when the country was weak in the century that began with the Opium Wars of the 1840s and ended with the Communist revolution (or “Liberation”, as the party calls it) just over a century later. Thus, there can be no going back, or weakening of party rule, which would amount to the same thing. China’s dignity, an enormously important asset, is at stake. So are the country’s material fortunes, its stability, economic growth and the general wellbeing of the Chinese nation.

Here is the key to understanding Xi’s pursuit of greater power at home, and his strategy regarding relations with the United States in general and Donald Trump in particular. The two are closely linked.

Xi intends to consolidate his authority during a key Communist Party meeting in the autumn. He has already secured the informal title “core leader”, a sobriquet with more meaning than might be imagined in a highly literate Communist political culture where phrases of this kind convey substance as well as symbolism. He is currently working hard to secure the promotion of protégés and allies at the 19th Party Congress, one of whom will succeed him as party leader, assuming Xi indeed steps down when his second five-year term expires in 2022. Succession politics, though conducted in China without the venom and the violence familiar in Mao’s day, is still a scourge of Communist politics wherever it is practised.

Xi is seeking to cement his enhanced status by ensuring that aspects of his “political theory” are incorporated into the party’s charter and, a little later, the state constitution. Previous Chinese leaders have managed to achieve this goal, though it has tended to mean less since “Deng Xiaoping Theory” was incorporated into both texts, helpfully securing the party’s commitment to economic reform in an era when some leaders still contested it on ideological grounds. Xi’s “contribution” will probably consist of a vague commitment to further reform and pursuit of China’s national rejuvenation, a theme he addresses often, using the phrase “Chinese dream”. He has yet to explain exactly what the “dream” means, and whether it will disturb the sleep of those who are not Chinese, such as the Japanese, or China’s southern neighbours, alarmed by Beijing’s assertiveness in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The important thing at this stage is for Xi to demonstrate that he is a “sage” or teacher as well as party leader. All “great” Chinese leaders yearn for this status, Communists, republicans and emperors alike. And many Chinese people expect no less.

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