Last month, the elite World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland welcomed a sitting Chinese head of state for the first time ever. In a highly polished speech after which he accepted no questions, Xi Jinping presented the People’s Republic of China as a full-fledged member of the global community and a champion of globalization. He spoke out against protectionism—ascendant throughout the world, not least in the United States—and called for greater global economic governance and innovation.
Xi was a hit. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister, remarked that the Chinese leader clearly intended to make a bid for the leading role in global trade that the US until now has played. The Berlin-based banker André Loesekrug-Pietri claimed to see Xi becoming the “leader of the free world.” Papers around the world were abuzz with the news of Xi’s pitch to replace the US as the guarantor of the world economic system. Germany is one country that is apparently particularly receptive to this move. On January 25 Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang spoke by phone to recommit themselves to worldwide trade and investment liberalization.
This isn’t the first time China has shown global ambitions. At the September 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou—the city that was Xi Jinping’s launchpad as a regional Communist Party secretary and is now home to Alibaba, the massive online retailer—the Communist Party displayed a similar appetite for primacy. The official agenda called for boosting the global economy through stimulus and innovation and combatting the subversive tendencies of protectionism and populism. Though for a communist party these are rather strange ambitions, the overall thrust was clear: China wanted to present itself as a global leader.
But what kind of leader would China be? Delusions of bankers like Loesekrug-Pietri aside, China has a very particular—and not very reassuring—notion of what its ideal global order would look like. Notice, for example, that in Xi’s Davos speech, he avoided the unmodified term “globalization” in favor of “economic globalization,” the better to emphasize his complete lack of interest in the legal and human rights obligations that usually form a key part of global engagement. Premier Li’s January 26 Bloomberg op-ed likewise referenced “economic globalization” and “economic openness.” International notions of human rights and “universal values,” on the other hand, are specifically denounced by the Communist Party. China’s Great Firewall most certainly excludes the free flow of information from any notion of openness with Chinese characteristics. Even something as basic as the rule of law is a non-starter—while Xi was in Davos, the head of China’s Supreme People’s Court announced from the bench that the Communist Party was above the law. Is such a country ready to be the “leader of the free world”?
Even in the economic sphere, China’s version of globalization raises questions. While China has seemed to signal its adherence to the global liberal framework by reducing its currency manipulation and successfully pushing to have the renminbi included in the IMF’s pool of special drawing rights currencies, it has also long showed its ambitions to displace the IMF and World Bank by setting up the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the One Belt One Road project. Meanwhile in Germany, Chinese companies and investment funds with convoluted ownership structures leading eventually back to the communist state are pursuing aggressive investment campaigns in cutting-edge technological sectors with the aim of vacuuming up all the most important new discoveries. Even China’s massive censorship apparatus acts as a trade barrier—every time China forces out a major foreign internet firm like Google, the company’s Chinese competitor gets a huge boost.
Global pageants like Davos and the G20 allow the Communist regime to flaunt its power and prestige. The Hangzhou summit provided an opportunity to show off the flawless façade of the Communist Party under the leadership of General Secretary Xi. The event went off without a hitch—but it’s funny how things like that happen in a totalitarian state. Not only did officials close factories and roads for the duration of the summit in order to reduce pollution, they actually paid more than one third of its residents to leave the city, reducing it to a ghost town, and replaced them with swarms of security personnel, including 760,000 “citizen volunteers” patrolling the streets. Those seen by the regime as potential troublemakers were pressured even harder: all local dissidents were placed under house arrest, and Uyghurs were monitored, harassed, and in some cases even forced from their jobs.
China’s recent pitches for a global leadership role have certainly made an impression. Yet dig a little deeper under the surface, and you can find the explicit repudiation of human rights and the rule of law, crackdowns on dissenters, the removal of inconvenient people, surveillance, patrols, ethnic discrimination, and censorship. Whatever the future of the global economic framework, a regime built on foundations like that cannot be the free world’s leader.