[As Donald Trump steers the US towards isolationism and protectionism, China’s leader is casting himself as a champion of internationalism and free trade. But are Xi’s values really compatible with those of the rest of the world?]
By Tom Phillips
Chinese president Xi Jinping at a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing
in 2015. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Some call it Xi Jinping’s Big White Book; a 515-page, 2.5kg tome in which China’s paramount leader lays out his thinking on everything from tree planting to macro-economics; from Karl Marx to the importance of being earnest.
More than five million copies of Xi’s The Governance of China now adorn bookshelves and coffee tables around the globe, if Communist party propagandists are to be believed, in languages including Russian, Cambodian, Portuguese, Arabic and Nepali.
And with Donald Trump’s America seemingly poised to relinquish its role as world leader on issues from climate change to free trade, some now wonder how long it will be before the Chinese president starts work on his next bestseller: The Governance of the World.
“Particularly today, in a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China,” German economist Klaus Schwab told delegates at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, capturing the way in which Trump’s once-unimaginable rise has unexpectedly thrust Beijing into the spotlight. “People are looking for signposts in a complex and uncertain world.”
China’s 63-year-old leader – a man better known to his own people as Xi Dada or Big Daddy Xi – took control of the world’s most populous country and its second-largest political party in 2012, promising his citizens China’s answer to #MAGA, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
He has earned international notoriety for waging an uncompromising crackdown on corrupt officials, political foes and human rights activists, and is often portrayed as a ruthless “Chairman of Everything” bent on keeping his party in power no matter what the cost.
But Xi’s write-ups have become distinctly more flattering as Trump’s chaotic succession has played out. In mid-January the Leninist strongman received rave reviews after using the first appearance of a Chinese leader in Davos to cast himself as an improbable champion of globalisation.
“Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air,” Xi told the annual summit’s packed opening session, in a thinly disguised swipe at Trump, to rapturous applause.
“It sounds like he’s been reading The Economist!” a journalist from that magazine said of Xi’s unlikely paean to liberal economics. Last year The Economist’s editors infuriated Beijing by portraying the Communist party’s authoritarian chief as a would-be 21st century Mao. But after Davos and Trump’s inauguration, its front page hailed China as “the global grown-up”.
Editorial boards around the world waxed lyrical about the communist leader’s address. “President Xi Jinping’s message … was timely and perhaps visionary as well, in this time of extraordinary global uncertainty,” said a piece in India’s The Hindu. The Communist party’s own press lapped up China’s moment in the sun. “President Xi has become the general secretary of globalisation,” a commentator celebrated in the China Daily.
Experts say Xi’s elevation to such a position will have delighted Beijing’s spin doctors, who have for years struggled – largely in vain – to boost the country’s soft power and its standing on the world stage. “They’re cracking open the baijiu,” said John Delury, a China expert from Yonsei University in Seoul, referring to China’s throat-scorching national tipple. Bill Bishop, the publisher of the influential Sinocism newsletter, said he believed Beijing was revelling in a once-inconceivable opportunity to contrast its “adult leadership” with the “deranged, ignoramus” one that had taken up residence in the White House: “It is an absolute gift from Trump, both from a short-term PR perspective, but also from a longer-term perspective.”
Bishop predicted the billionaire’s “complete abdication of global leadership” would open a vacuum into which China would launch itself by seizing the narrative on issues ranging from the global economy to climate change, which the American president has rejected as a Chinese “hoax”.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and China is now in a position to push their model of governance and their model of economic development much faster and harder than they had expected, in order to give themselves an even greater role in global governance,” Bishop said. That did not mean attempting to export communism around the world as the Soviet Union had once done, he explained. “It does mean they want respect.”
Chinese diplomats are careful to portray their country as a reluctant leader responding selflessly to a situation not of their making. “If anyone were to say China is playing a leadership role in the world, I would say it’s not China rushing to the front but rather the frontrunners have stepped back, leaving the place to China,” Zhang Jun, a senior foreign ministry official, told reporters in Beijing.
One day after his triumphant outing in Davos, Xi used a speech in Geneva to pitch his country – the world’s largest polluter – as a green superpower, and attack Trump’s threats to abandon the Paris climate change deal. “We must ensure this endeavour is not derailed,” Xi said of the agreement.
With Trump reportedly preparing to slash US funding for the United Nations – an organisation he recently called “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” – Chinese state media has played up Beijing’s increasingly active role within the UN. China is also pushing for a greater say in writing the rules of global trade. After Trump abandoned the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Beijing has signalled it will forge ahead with attempts to establish an alternative pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
“In China, we have an old saying,” Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat who was the interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, told Bloomberg. “If a ship idles by the river bank by itself, other ships will keep sailing forward, and will leave the idled ship behind.”
Delury said Xi’s primary foreign policy goal would remain unchanged: establishing China as the pre-eminent economic and military power in Asia. “[But] if Trump withdraws American leadership from a lot of global issues then it allows China to advance another part of its strategy, which is to be a great power on the global stage that acts in the interests of the international community,” he said.
Those two goals meshed well, said Delury, the co-author of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century.
“[Beijing] can be more aggressive pursuing narrow national self-interests in Asia while presenting itself on the global stage as a champion of all. That’s quite nice from the perspective of China’s rise – it’s a good opening for Beijing.”
Both in and outside China, there are voices who welcome Xi’s apparent willingness to take on greater responsibilities in a post-Trump world. Zhang Haibin, a Peking University politics scholar, said he believed Beijing could now offer meaningful leadership on issues such as sustainable development, the environment and the global economy. “I think Xi has a good vision for the future,” he said, but also warned that the path ahead would be “bumpy”.
Susan Shirk, head of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said she was delighted Xi’s China was stepping up as a dependable multilateral player just as Trump’s US seemed to be abdicating that role.
“Let’s lavish praise on them … I think it was super-smart of Xi Jinping to go to Davos and give the speech … More credit to him, really,” said Shirk, who was the US deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton.
Shirk said the US had been encouraging China to become what Robert Zoellick once called a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community since the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao reestablished relations between Washington and Beijing. “When I see Xi Jinping at Davos defending the open global economic order, I feel very good about that – and even a small measure of personal satisfaction as somebody who worked in the government on China policy,” she said. “I believe the United States actually has sponsored China’s emergence as a constructive global power – not just allowed it but really, actively encouraged it – and I don’t see anything bad about that. The only bad thing is that the United States is not just sitting by the sidelines, but actively subverting [the status quo].”
But Xi’s breakneck transformation into a supposed saviour of liberal economic order has left many of those who spend their lives tracking China’s politics and economy dumbfounded. “For him to stand up in Davos as an advocate of globalisation and free trade is insanity. But that’s the kind of field we have left open,” said Winston Lord, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to China, describing Trump’s sinking of the TPP as the single biggest blow to US interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Let’s be honest, a month ago there is no way anyone would have looked to Xi Jinping as a leader of globalisation,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise. “There is such horror with Trump that anyone who steps up somehow is acclaimed as a hero,” he added. “But that’s just not true. It’s Xi Jinping.”
The new poster boy for globalisation is certainly cut from unlikely cloth. Part of China’s so-called “red nobility”, Xi was the third of four children born to card-carrying members of the communist revolution: guerrilla leader Xi Zhongxun and Qi Xin, an employee of Beijing’s Marxism-Leninism Institute.
He grew up in 1950s Beijing, in the early days of post-revolution China, but as a teenager was packed off to the countryside to be “re-educated” by the rural masses after his father fell foul of Chairman Mao. There, official hagiographies claim Xi lived in a cave and – when he wasn’t herding sheep or shovelling coal or manure – pored over the teachings of Mao.
“[The experience] has given him the status of someone akin to a peasant emperor,” Kerry Brown writes in CEO, China, his biography of Xi. Brown describes Xi, who spent decades rising through the party’s ranks before reaching its pinnacle in 2012, as a man with a quasi-religious devotion to the 88 million-member organisation he now controls. “Looking into the eyes of Xi Jinping, you look into the eyes of the party itself,” he writes.
But to the outside world China has tried to promote Xi as a more international figure; an urbane, globe-trotting statesman whose shelves are packed with the works of Chekhov, Flaubert, Shelley and La Fontaine. From London to Lima, Xi’s speeches are peppered with literary and cultural references carefully curated to project an image of wisdom and worldliness. While addressing Britain’s parliament in 2015 Xi quoted Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Davos he reached for Dickens, starting his lesson on globalisation with the line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Xi’s critics scoff at the president’s attempts to pose as a book-lover abroad while cracking down on the arts at home.
His claims at the Swiss ski resort to support “global connectivity”, “investment liberalisation” and an open-door policy for foreign investors have met with similar derision. Xi painted his country as a beacon of stability and collaboration at a time when other countries were turning inwards, and said all nations were welcome to board “the express train of China’s development”.
But many observers balk at the idea that Xi’s ever-more repressive, nationalist and, in some ways, insular nation might become a standard-bearer for a progressive economic policies. Foreign companies complain that under Xi they feel increasingly unwelcome in China. More than 80% of respondents to a recent US chamber of commerce poll felt the business climate was growing frostier; few had faith China would fulfil promises to further open its markets to outsiders.
China’s 710 million internet users are also feeling the heat. According to anti-censorship group Greatfire.org, almost 20% of the world’s top 1,000 websites, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in Xi’s China, as part of a bid to keep out western ideas and competition. In recent weeks authorities have moved to make it even harder to circumvent their draconian internet controls. Free speech is also increasingly curtailed in Chinese universities, publishing houses and the fawning, party-controlled news media; foreign NGOs have been shown the door; and even mild critics of the regime have found themselves spirited into secret detention. “If Xi’s our saviour, then we are all screwed,” said Bishop. “If this is the kind of state or model that is becoming the leading state in the world, then that is a very dangerous thing for all of us.”
Howie said Xi’s decision to evangelise about an open economy showed he was terrified that, after decades in which China benefited from globalisation, it was now in for a much tougher ride under a protectionist Trump administration. But in trying to paint China as a progressive and open power, Xi was stretching credulity. “Anyone who knows China knows that the first thing is: do not believe what they say; watch what they do. And what they do is: restriction of information; economic bullying; military bullying,” Howie said.
While Xi sermonised against Trump-style economic nationalism in Davos, Howie said the US president’s attempts to cow automakers who had shifted production to Mexico were straight out of the Chinese playbook. “Economic blackmail and bullying? China has been doing that for years,” he said. Bishop agreed that while Xi’s address sounded “warm and fuzzy on the surface … in reality we all know that the Chinese view of globalisation is quite a mercantilistic view – it’s very much focused on what can the world do for China.”
Others are more charitable about how Beijing is seeking to cast itself as a prefect in a rowdy classroom. Shirk said one-party China – a country most still associate with little more than economic success and autocratic governance – saw a chance to rebrand itself as a benevolent great power acting in the common good. Bishop said Beijing’s joy at the turmoil of Trump’s transition would be tempered by fears that change was coming too fast, and that a White House packed with China hawks would usher in an era of chaos and conflict between the two nuclear powers.
Reflecting those fears, the Communist party’s official mouthpiece this week warned that a war between the US and China would be a disaster for the world. A report published on Tuesday by some of the world’s leading China specialists said the onset of the Trump era threatened to plunge US-China relations into a dangerous new phase. However, fears of an imminent crisis appeared to recede on Friday after it was reported that after nearly three weeks in the White House Trump had finally held a telephone conversation with Xi in which he signalled he would not challenge Beijing over the thorny issue of Taiwan.
“As the world’s major countries” China and the US had a responsibility to get along, China’s ascendant leader told Trump, according to Beijing’s official news agency, Xinhua. “For his part, Trump said he was glad to talk over the phone with Xi,” it added.
In one joke doing the rounds among China watchers, Communist party theoreticians, after decades preaching the demise of democracy and capitalism, find themselves in a sudden state of panic after seeing their predictions come true so far ahead of schedule.
“Holy shit! We were right!” Bishop imagined the theoreticians telling each other. “What do we do now?”