Trudy Rubin: Xi Jinping thinks America is on the rocks. Is he right ?

When President Joe Biden zoomed in with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday, the rooms they spoke from were more than backdrops.

Xi spoke from a large, pink-carpeted room in the Great Hall of the People, apparently the same room he then met Veep Biden in 2013. Biden zoomed in from the modest Roosevelt Room in the White House. Politico’s Phelim Kine has dubbed it the Summit Zoom Room Size Contest.

Of course, everything in China is big (including the reception halls for high profile foreign dignitaries). Yet the size symbolizes the growing power of China – and Xi. Even an ironic emphasis on Zoom rooms reflects Americans’ growing unease over how Xi intends to use that power.

Just hours after the two leaders called, the Chinese Communist Party named Xi as one of China’s most revered leaders, on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and possibly more. As a “central leader,” Xi’s ideas now become unassailable party doctrine. He will soon break the precedent of two post-Deng terms, having maneuvered to secure at least a third term. His word is the future of China.

Thus, Xi’s psyche and goals will be key drivers of global politics over the next decade. He made it clear that he wanted China to surpass the United States in all major areas by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But will his oversized ego produce a military conflict that neither side wants?

Part of the answer becomes visually apparent at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, which I visited in 2019, right after a complete renovation under Xi’s watch.

Mainly focused on the history and ancient arts of China, the museum has a new floor dedicated to the Route of Rejuvenation, which traces the rise of China from the partial occupation of the mid-1800s to its astonishing contemporary rise. It bares China’s lingering bitterness towards US and European imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and pays a vibrant tribute to the re-emergence of Chinese greatness.

One wing traces China’s history from the Opium Wars to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. It includes Mao, but makes no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the tens of millions of Chinese who died from Mao’s mistakes.

The second wing is entirely devoted to Xi Jinping’s great achievements.

The worship like devotion to Xi is mind-boggling. Videos of his speeches, endless portraits of foreign leaders, and cases from Xi’s books vie for pride of place with displays of scientific achievements in space and industry, and models of high-speed trains. A huge hall is filled with a mock-up of a massive military parade with rows upon rows of model tanks and missile carriers, next to a ditch filled with miniature submarines.

The pride in China’s astonishing recent growth is well justified, but the cult of personality is baffling. Xi’s ode to greatness rejects the brilliant ideas of Deng, who wanted to prevent the emergence of another divine figure of Mao.

Meanwhile, the tourist shops around Tiananmen Square – where Mao’s mausoleum is also located – all featured medallions depicting Xi on one side and Mao on the other.

How then is the museum’s exhibition linked to the Biden-Xi Zoom?

At their virtual meeting, Biden urged Xi not to let the competition “clash.” And Biden has pushed for at least low-level talks to reduce strategic risk, given China’s planned massive expansion of nuclear warheads. These talks could take place even if China pushes back substantial arms control negotiations.

In other words, Biden is pushing for some sort of “guardrail” to keep US-Chinese competition from spiraling out of control.

Yet Xi’s belief in Chinese superiority, his determination to avenge the affronts of the past and make China the greatest power in the world, are as palpable in his domestic speeches and actions as at the National Museum. So is his belief that a weakened West is incapable of stopping China’s expansion (including the subjugation of Taiwan).

Xi does not start a cold war that resembles the US-Soviet conflict. This confrontation was much simpler. An American economic giant has confronted a Soviet economic dwarf with nuclear weapons, and both sides have imposed arms control safeguards. The nuclear standoff prevented any Soviet ground invasion of Germany through the Fulda Gap.

Xi’s goal is not a ground invasion (except perhaps for Taiwan) or nuclear war. Rather, it is economic and technological domination that forces the rest of the world to accept China’s preeminence and emulate its political system. His ego convinced him that the West cannot compete.

The United States must prove him wrong. Biden wisely urged his European and Asian allies to present a more united front against economic and military pressures from China.

To counter Xi’s vision, however, America needs to dramatically improve its domestic game, especially in technological competition. A good start would be the passage of the US Innovation and Competition Act, which passed in the Senate with a bipartisan majority in June, but is stuck in the House.

The continued war between parties in Congress and within the country, fueled mainly by the GOP, will only convince Xi that his belief in the decline of the United States is based on money. In this case, Xi’s ego will not be the problem. We will have conquered each other.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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