The world has had its delusions about China over the years, but none quite as fantastical as the notion of Beijing assuming the mantle of global leadership.
Ever since Donald Trump’s election, it has been a journalistic trope to speculate that China is about to take the lead on globalization, climate change and international diplomacy.
A Washington Post headline mused late last year, “If the U.S. withdraws, China wonders whether it is ready to lead the world.” According to The New York Times, “China Poised to Take Lead on Climate After Trump’s Move to Undo Policies.” On the occasion of last week’s G-20 summit, Bloomberg reported, “China, Germany Step Up as U.S. Retires From World Leadership.”
The Economist a little while ago dubbed China “the global grown-up.” Really? The one-party state that tortures and jails dissidents and maintains a dangerous rogue state in its hip pocket, North Korea, for strategic leverage?
Knowing his audience, President Xi Jinping has stoked this tripe by mouthing all the right cliches in front of the right audiences. He gave a speech at Davos heavy on the theme of openness and promised to help lead globalization. “Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries, and people between economies,” Xi said, summoning his best Thomas Friedman, “is simply not possible.”
Somehow, China manages the impossible nonetheless. When it comes to information (which Xi omitted from his litany), China cuts itself off from the rest of the world quite adeptly. According to the pro-democracy group Freedom House, China ranks last in the world in internet freedom, behind Iran and Syria. It blocks Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and jails people for spreading rumors online, i.e., criticizing government officials.
How about the free flow of capital? China has tight rules against capital outflows. Technology? China is an expert at stealing it, especially from foreign companies operating in China. Products? Despite its membership in the World Trade Organization, China is robustly mercantilist. Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that imported manufactures as a share of the Chinese economy peaked in 2003 and have been falling since. As a practical matter, what Xi calls “win-win cooperation” is the rest of the world opening its markets to China while China refuses to reciprocate.
Xi also toes the Davos line on climate change, to the delight of credulous Westerners. China’s leadership consists of making a pledge as part of the Paris accords to reach peak emissions in 2030 — a goal consistent with the trajectory of its economy anyway — and planning to make a mint by selling to the West green technology it has developed through its characteristic unscrupulous means.
There is no doubt that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is much more assertive on the international stage than it used to be, but the idea of it as a global leader, or as a responsible power, or even as an admirable country is daft.
It is a systematic abuser of human rights. “The outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, remains dire,” according to Human Rights Watch. It props up the lunatic regime in North Korea because it fears the prospect of a unified, democratic Korea. It is pushing for control of the South China Sea, ignoring a sweeping ruling by an international tribunal against its claims of sovereignty. It is investing massively in its military — and not to support the cause of global openness.
Clearly, one motive for the dewy-eyed coverage of China’s purported leadership is a distaste for Donald Trump, who wears his disregard for the global elite on his sleeve. The romance with Xi is a way to tweak him. But, whatever his views on trade or climate change, Trump doesn’t run a repressive one-party state. It’s perverse to be more comfortable with the president who bans Twitter over the president who uses it indiscriminately.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.