Lorenzo Lamperti: "A Different Form of Communication ... Between Both Parts Must be Found"
The original version of this interview can be found here (Italian).
A year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, revolutions, wars that end and others that seem on the verge of beginning: the intricate world of international relations is complex to understand, especially in the historical period we are experiencing. In the era of globalization then, whatever happens anywhere in the world has consequences for us. This is why it is important to stay up to date, and given this reason, we have tried to comprehend these issues in greater depth together with Lorenzo Lamperti.
Lorenzo Lamperti is currently editorial director of China Files, in addition to doing editorial coordination for the Italy-ASEAN Association. He also writes about China and Asia for several newspapers and research institutes, including La Stampa, Il Manifesto, Affari Italiani, Eastwest, ISPI, IAI, and Wired.
Dr. Lamperti was asked about the People's Republic of China, the relations between it and the United States, China's position towards Afghanistan, and much more, going on to touch on some of the "hottest" points and places in the world.
Lorenzo, could you tell me in general about the PRC before the advent of Covid-19? Also with reference to the figure of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Before Covid-19, China was experiencing a period of great growth from all points of view, both economically, with important growth percentages from Deng Xiaoping’s great openings onwards, and from a political point of view. In the last twenty years especially, growth has been not only economic but also political and geopolitical. I would identify three fundamental moments of this growth, with great importance on the political aspect. At the end of the 90s, the United States above all, but also Europe, thought that they could integrate China not only into their "architecture of globalization" at the commercial and economic level, but also at the political level, thus homologating the Chinese model in the image and likeness of the Western model. It was the period in which Fukuyama wrote "The End of History", and it was believed that capitalist democracy was the only plausible system of government, and therefore it was thought that, by integrating it slowly, China could homologate itself. This was not the case, and there were, as I anticipated, three key moments in this lack of homologation. The first was that of September 11, 2001, here we start to pull the strings of a process that began at that time there. So, war, export of democracy, war on terror and, of course, focus on a part of the world that has allowed and provided China with a period of twenty years of strategic opportunities that Jiang Zemin spoke of at the time. This period ended a little earlier than twenty years, since Jiang Zemin spoke in 2002, and the USA retired from Afghanistan in August 2021, but he was a good prophet. Secondly, there was the financial crisis in 2007/2008, which did not touch, or only partially affected, Asia, and China in particular, whereas it impacted the West significantly. I am talking about the waves of sovereignty that have swept Europe, and Trumpism in the United States. All these elements made China believe that the Western model had entered a phase of decline, if not of real decadence. We have also seen this rhetoric recently, for example in commentary on the assault on Capitol Hill on 6 January, and it has also been used with regards to Afghanistan.
How does Xi Jinping fit into these twenty years of strategic opportunities? He has certainly brought great changes to the message addressed internally and externally by the PRC. From the beginning, Xi has, on the domestic front, reconnected with a whole series of traditions of Chinese culture and Chinese history, which had been neglected or disowned during the Maoist period. Xi Jinping's first visit as president was to what is believed to be the birthplace of Confucius, which sent a significant message. There has been an extensive anti-corruption campaign, which we are seeing a resurgence of in recent months. So we’re seeing a progressive construction of a circle of loyalists at his side in the system of government. Take for example the Politburo in Xi's first term and that of the second term: the percentage of Politburo members who had previously worked with the president has increased dramatically and is expected to increase even more at the next congress. On the external front, he launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, initially, was erroneously perceived only as a commercial interconnection project, when it was, and is, something more. It is in fact inevitable that, while using China's existing architecture of globalization (we have seen, for example, the occupation of top roles in the various international organizations by Chinese officials), there is the proposal of an alternative model, at least at the rhetorical level.
Still speaking of Xi Jinping, there are those who see, and have seen, the similarities between the current Chinese president and Mao, not least the inclusion of Xi's ideology (思想, sīxiǎng) within the Statute of the Communist Party of China (CPC), while he is still in office and alive. In your opinion, is this an exaggeration or are there actually similarities between these two figures?
In my opinion, the component of the man alone in command is often exaggerated in the Western media. Of course there has been and there is an evident personalization, for example with regard to the inclusion of his thought in the Statute, as well as the research centres that have arisen, and continue to arise, especially since 2017. Or even, in the news of the last few days, the inclusion of the study of Xi Jinping thought in the school curriculum. Therefore, the notion that there is a component of Xi's elevation above his predecessors is undeniable, but that this means that everything depends exclusively on his figure I consider to be an exaggeration. The CCP has a very complex structure within it and maintains, although at this moment probably in a minimal form compared to the past, a sort of dialectic that is not transposed to the outside world. It is undeniable that Xi has centralized power on himself and his loyalists, and this can be seen as a sign of strength, but also as a possible form of weakness or at least uncertainty. However, it must be remembered that Xi has eliminated the constraint of the two mandates. Somehow, China has accustomed us to constant surprises, and when we think we have understood it there is always something new, as Professor Kerry Brown told me in an interview published in Il Manifesto last month. So we speak, for example, of the exhumation of the title of "helmsman" (舵手, duòshǒu) for Xi. The elimination of the two-term constraint does not guarantee Xi the presidency for life, but it may mean the creation of an ad hoc role, exclusive to him, perhaps not in the 2022 congress, but in that of 2027. And maybe Xi Jinping will create a role as a supervisor or protection of the correct action of the CPC. All of these dynamics can also be functional to this. Xi has certainly centralized power. He has a preponderant role in all the ganglia of China's politics and life right now, but he is still not a single man in charge.
You mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I wanted to ask you about the impact that Covid-19 has had on this and the possible future it will have.
In the first weeks it was thought, illusorily, that the problem was limited to China. There were those who argued that this would be Xi Jinping's black swan. We actually saw that it was none of that. If ever the BRI was someone's black swan, it was for Trump, at least temporarily. Given what is happening these days and what will happen in these coming weeks, there could be a revival of Trumpism, which has never died. So, the impact was initially thought to be much more drastic not only on the BRI, but in general on China's role in global supply chains. This was not the case for two reasons: the first is that China was the first major country to emerge from the health emergency, and in 2020 the economy grew by 2.3% (it was the only major economy to grow). So, on the one hand, health management has allowed us to get out of the health and economic emergency sooner, yet on the other hand we have seen the readiness, the flexibility that we have learned to expect of the Chinese government, which has promptly reshaped its BRI, its Silk Road, based on health. We have, for example, seen the start of the so-called "mask diplomacy", and then the so-called "vaccine diplomacy" which have been carried out in a virtually undisturbed way for a long time because the West and the United States, as long as they have been in serious difficulty in finding health materials and vaccine doses, have operated following a very protectionist line from this point of view. Now it is starting to change but, simply put, China has been able to act, almost undisturbed, on that front for a long time, and therefore has supported its BRI project with this reformulation in terms of health. It is clear that summing up is still not possible, as we are still inside the pandemic unfortunately, and our conclusions are readily changed from one week to the next. At this time, surely the de profundis rhetoric that had been sung for the BRI at the beginning of the pandemic turned out to be wrong.
Speaking of the United States, in your opinion, is the term "Cold War", sometimes used to define the relations between the PRC and the United States, exaggerated?