Beijing’s propaganda tsunami of shrill, shameless sophistry ahead of the South China Sea tribunal decision is a sign of the contempt it holds for non-Communist Party-led rule of law.
Some are speculating that Xi will be hurt politically by the tribunal rebuke, but Xi appears to have neutralized any elders who might be able to restrain him if they are unhappy with the direction he is taking the PRC, but that assumes there are people at or near the top of the Communist China system who don’t share his xenophobic jingoism. I would like to believe there are but am skeptical, and even if there are some they are likely so cowed by Xi that is politically and personally much safer to toe the line. Again, I hope I am wrong but it is hard to keep making that argument after decades of people looking for the “reformers” in power and never really finding one. (See this April 2011 Sinocism post–Views On Political Reform And Leadership Splits In China for an earlier discussion of this more hopeful approach to viewing elite Chinese politics.)
And of course we have to remember that China’s decision to become a maritime power and to build out the capabilities needed to assert and protect its claimed maritime rights and sovereignty in the South China Sea long predate the ascension of Xi in 2012.
I’d bet that the tribunal loss may strengthen Xi and the other hardline jingoist xenophobes who manipulate the idea of the West keeping the PRC down to further their illiberal, authoritarian China dream.
Beijing’s lack of any real substantive response since the ruling should not be taken as a sign that it is changing its long-term goals. It is certainly positive that communist party censors have tamped down some of the worst of the online jingoism and xenophobia and not arranged or allowed any street protests so far but it is much too early to conclude that the PRC is somehow backing away from some of its claims or going to change its behavior.