- - Sunday, September 20, 2015


The state visit of Xi Jinping to the United States this week will include a lot of the usual pomp and nothing much else, given the circumstance. There’s little expectation that the lengthy list of critical issues between Washington and Beijing will be addressed in a substantive way. The international Greek chorus, which sings such a baleful song of American decline, will get another verse, despite the reality that it’s Mr. Xi who’s the vulnerable one.

The secretary of the Communist Party, which makes him the No. 1 man in the Middle Kingdom, desperately needs the increased prestige and illusion of opening a gate to justify his ambitious reach for Mao-like power in a domestic Chinese scene of proliferating problems. The Chinese economic miracle of the last two decades, that replaced a Soviet-style economy with one that is capitalism in everything but name, propelled China into worldwide prominence. But its leadership is coughing, sneezing and spluttering.

Rapid economic growth, in one particularly sweet irony, is the only prop for the one-party regime. Mr. Xi is trying to reach for the kind of personal power not seen before in the collegiate rule of party elders. He orders repression against any hint of dissent, however feeble. The roller-coaster of the Shanghai stock market, though less a part of the economy than it would be in Japan and the West, is nevertheless a propaganda disaster. Mr. Xi and his team have thrown everything at the economy to tame its volatility, but with no success. The party has created a monster worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, an enormous engine that it is afraid to turn over to market forces but an economy it no longer has the power to control.

A traditional anti-corruption campaign, while revealing remarkable stealth and malfeasance at the highest levels of the ruling party, is not actually aimed so much at corruption but to squelch reforms within the party. The struggle nevertheless continues, and one of the strugglers is a former member of the ruling politburo and his followers, who ran the security apparatus. They know where bodies are buried, and if need be how to add to that grim inventory. Mr. Xi, like his predecessors, would be dependent in a crunch on the People’s Liberation Army to save the regime from disintegration. This time the generals might not return control to the civilians among the party leaders.

China’s new role as a world power comes with increasing challenges, many of them of its own making. Claims of an alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, ballyhooed in Western media, does not yet exist. A decade-old attempt to link Russian oil to fuel the Chinese economy, despite repeated announcements that the link is in place, has not solved the problem of financing the pipelines. On the eve of Mr. Xi’s arrival in the United States, Mr. Putin, speaking from Central Asia where the Russians and the Chinese are engaged in a contest for influence and raw materials, suggests an American-Russian alliance of sorts, on Moscow’s terms, to restore a two-superpower world. The Obama administration has responded with mostly rhetoric.

Mr. Obama threatens sanctions against the most grievous cyberwarfare and intellectual property theft. A red line, perhaps, but nobody any longer pays much attention to Mr. Obama’s red lines. The most blatant Chinese currency manipulation, which Mr. Xi hoped would halt falling exports with increased financial subsidies, has gone effectively unchallenged.

When the international community sees Mr. Obama’s nuclear deal with the mullahs in Iran as an American retreat, with the path of retreat paved with concessions he said he would never make, Mr. Xi is offered an opportunity to strike a deal. We’ll need luck.

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