Part of the answer becomes 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 is entirely devoted to the great achievements of Xi Jinping.
The cultlike 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.
The pride in China’s stunning recent growth is wholly justified, but the cult of personality is unnerving. How then does the 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.
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.
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 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 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.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org