Xi Jinping is seduced by a vision of greater isolation. A

In August, there was an unexpected stir in China about a scholarly article. The piece, published in a respected but specialist journal, argued that during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing dynasty (1644-1911), China had been a country relatively closed off to the outside world. Most recent scholarship has assumed that this was a bad thing and that greater openness in the modern era had led to China’s rise in global standing and growth. But the article took a contrarian position, suggesting that there were economic and social advantages to the doors being closed in large part. The argument might have stayed in the realms of the academic. But it was then sent out on the social media feed of a thinktank closely linked to the Chinese Communist party (CCP). There was plenty of social media comment, mostly wondering whether the CCP was hinting that today, too, China should think about whether openness was quite such a good idea.

At first glance, it might seem that the opening speech last Sunday by Xi Jinping at the 20th party congress was giving a very different message: indeed, there was a specific pledge praising the idea of openness in the next five years that will mark Xi’s third term. And attention at the end of the Congress has been on the sudden, still unexplained escorting of former president Hu Jintao out of the meeting, and the new Politburo standing committee whose members owe their standing almost entirely to Xi. But there are other signs that the China of the 2020s may be considerably less open than the one we have known for some four decades from the 1980s to 2020. China since the 80s has been defined by the idea that “reform” and “opening” have gone together. Yet that openness created an anomaly in the first two decades of the present century. China became a society highly connected with the outside world but also deeply controlled and monitored at home: open but illiberal, a combination that many theorists of democracy thought impossible. Unlike the old Soviet bloc, there was little sense that China tried to restrict its citizens, except political dissidents, from travelling abroad. The Chinese of the reform era studied in Britain, did deals in America, and saw the sights and bought luxury goods in Italy. Nobody stopped visitors from observing democracy in all its guises in the liberal world, but they understood that open discussion of the concept stopped when they arrived back at Beijing airport.

That open but illiberal Chinese world ended – at least for now – in March 2020 when China shut down and closed its borders against Covid. Now, its population moves around at home with relative freedom, as long as their regular PCR test remains negative, but always aware that a stray Covid case may cause a sudden lockdown for days or weeks. But travel in and out of China, for foreigners and Chinese alike, has become much harder. China is now the only major country with a zero-Covid strategy. The decision is not entirely political: part of the problem is that China continues to have a huge proportion of unvaccinated older people and its patchily effective domestic vaccines do not prevent infection or transmission very well. But the zero-Covid policy is very much associated with Xi personally and his speech made it clear that there is no prospect of it changing in the short term at least.

The effects are clear. Chinese students are returning in decent numbers to UK universities; yet once here, they know that they had better make the most of their time abroad, as when they get home, they will have to wait days in a hotel, hoping that the green light shines on their app. Meanwhile, the foreign business people, students and tourists who used to flock to China have become a real rarity. People will go there and stay in quarantine if they have urgent business to conduct. But the quick in and out visits that global entrepreneurs regularly take to other countries are no longer possible and over time this may well affect China’s international competitiveness as it seeks to attract talent and finance in areas such as tech.

Instead, the existing technology has created a new Chinese cyber world. China remains connected to the outside world largely through the virtual environment, in particular social media and video apps. Yet the vision of the world created within the country is very partial. State media pumps out images of the west still devastated by the virus. As China’s own technology sector becomes much more sophisticated, a new message is emerging: China’s population is encouraged to work, study and play at home. (Why go overseas, the implication goes, when China is the most advanced society in the world?) Ironically, Chinese technology is becoming more widely spread as its 5G systems are rolled out across the global south, but the Chinese themselves are much less visible in the world they are creating.

The economic policy that Xi has put forward contains a similar sort of contradiction. The central idea of the “dual circulation” policy is that China should increase its trade surplus with the wider world, while simultaneously becoming more dependent on its domestic economy to drive consumption. Many economists think that this will be a hard balance to manage. But, in a sense, the strategy should not be seen as an exercise in economics but in politics. It mirrors precisely the idea of being highly connected to the world while closed to it physically.

However, isolation brings its own problems. Being virtually connected to the world can provide rich data in the abstract, but lived experience matters, too, and there is a tone-deafness to much of China’s recent international forays. Diplomacy, academic links and trade can’t really function if one of the partners is only rarely willing to step into the wider world.

The Ming dynasty analogy tweeted out in August is not a simple one. Yes, the era was one where China was, in general, not openly accessible to the outside world. But there were plenty who did make it in, including the Jesuits. There was also considerable private maritime trade with the wider world. China’s seclusion was porous – yet it was also real. A “Sinosphere” in which China itself remains harder to access for outsiders, even while it engages with the outside world on its own terms, is a real possibility. Yet compared with real openness, it is one that would leave both sides poorer.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University