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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is entitled to back China’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, especially if she thinks doing so is in her nation’s interests. Her comments on Monday, however, about aspiring CPTPP members needing to meet “a really high bar for what free trade agreements and multi-country free trade agreements can look like” were naive at best, even delusional, about China’s conduct of its trading relations. Human rights standards also were part of the CPTPP agreement, Ms Ardern said. It is not clear how China’s recent hostage diplomacy and its 300 penal camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang province, officially known as vocational education and training centres, fit that criteria.
After dealing with Beijing’s trade war with Australia and its sanctions on barley, wine, coal, timber, seafood, meat and cotton, as well as its refusal to speak to government ministers, Trade Minister Dan Tehan has a more realistic view of China’s application. It would need to restore relations at ministerial level and stop its coercive trade measures before negotiating to join the CPTPP, he says. Any of the existing 11 member nations – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – can veto a potential new member’s application. Taiwan also has applied to become a member. At a time when economic and security interests increasingly overlap, China would regard joining the partnership as a strategic victory. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ government is taking a warmer approach towards China than Canberra, covering the costs of dozens of Victorian firms exhibiting at China’s most important annual trade event. It comes six months after the federal government tore up Victoria’s Belt and Road agreements with China.
Judging by a new 12,000-word tribute to Xi Jinping released by China’s news agency Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party regime will be even more difficult to deal with in future for any nation prepared to stand its ground, such as Australia. Atheistic it may be, but the CCP deifies Mr Xi, who is set to become China’s “forever president”, as a demigod, a man of “profound thoughts and feelings”. As well as leading a great power that has defeated a pandemic, bested foreign rivals and dragged China into the 21st century, Mr Xi is lauded for loving the masses as much as his own mother and for his humanity and humility. “No matter what his position, Xi Jinping effortlessly mingles with the masses … he stands in the rain to have his pictures taken with workers … he worries about the sorting of rubbish in his neighbourhood,” the tribute says. As a youth he read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital three times.
The six-chapter booklet elevates him to the status of “core leader”, on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It appears just as the CCP’s 200-member inner circle meets to discuss the President’s record and recommend he remain for another five years. Chinese leaders normally serve two terms, but Mr Xi changed the constitution in 2018 to remove the limit and become China’s “forever president”. According to the screed, he is “a central figure in navigating the tides of history”. Without such leadership it would be impossible “to do anything, much less to create miracles on earth and win ‘great struggles with many new historical characteristics’ ”.
As evident with the histories of der Fuhrer, Il Duce, North Korea’s Dear Leaders and Stalin, whose name symbolised victory and courage among some in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, such a cult of personality is extremely dangerous. In a one-party dictatorship it would heighten the risks of China’s aggression and military expansion, especially in the Indo-Pacific, when the Pentagon believes it is preparing to quadruple its nuclear stockpile. In such situations, as Swiss theologian Adolf Keller wrote of authoritarian regimes in 1936, the state becomes a myth, seen by the masses as possessing personal and even divine characteristics embodied in the symbolic persona of the leader. The myth’s personifying tendency, Keller wrote, “finds its strongest expression in the mysterious personal relationship of millions with a leader. The leader … is the personified nation, a superman, a messiah, a saviour.”
In China, however, where Mr Xi has denounced video games as “spiritual opium”, it is a hopeful sign that young people are exuberant this week – not over the CCP but because a Chinese team beat South Korea in the final of the world’s biggest computer game tournament. China’s young may yet assert their independence.