Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Getting the China option in perspective

Reading Time: 5 mins
Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the 47th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 17 January 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Laurent Gillieron/Pool).

In Brief

The advent of the Trump administration has left the world faced with the threat of disintegration of the economic and security order that has been the lynchpin of global prosperity and stability for more than three-quarters of a century.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

With Europe in disarray and the United States in the hands of a leadership that breathes contempt for democratic institutions and appears bent on destroying the open economic  regime on which we’ve all relied, where is there to turn to?

China certainly has a huge stake in the current global order. And China’s President Xi Jinping stood prominently at Davos this month defending globalisation.

Many people, he said, are asking what’s gone wrong with the world. The answer to this question, he retorted, is not to blame economic globalisation for the chaos in the world. In its commitment to the WTO and the Paris climate accord, China embraces globalisation, Xi declared, and it is the ‘right strategic choice’. ‘No one,’ he added, ‘will emerge as a winner in a trade war’.

Can Xi be taken at his word? Can the rest of the world do anything to influence Chinese policy to deliver on his commitment? Is China’s leadership an option to that being so unceremoniously vacated by Mr Trump’s America?

As Suisheng (Sam) Zhao writes in this week’s lead essay, ‘recently, a neo-authoritarian sentiment has emerged in China criticising the decentralisation of the state authority for weakening central planning bureaucracies and creating opportunities for some intellectuals to advocate liberal ideas from the West.

President Xi is an emblem of this sentiment, significantly strengthening state capacity through concentration of personal power, anti-corruption campaigns, empowering state-owned enterprises, and launching the largest ideological campaign against ‘Westernisation’ in post-Mao China. Xi has centralised policymaking at the highest levels of the party by moving a large proportion of decision making into small leadership groups. ‘Underlying these moves is a recentralisation of power from Beijing and the CCP to Xi Jinping’, says Zhao.

Putting trust in Xi and China to genuinely embrace the liberal economic order could put at risk the liberal political order on which all our freedoms are built — however unsafe the pair of American hands to which it’s now entrusted.

Such a choice seems a devil’s choice but that’s what confronts us now.

To play off Xi’s Davos line, ‘Honey melons hang on bitter vines; sweet dates grow on thistles and thorns’, nothing is perfect in the world. Any claim that something is perfect because of its merits, or useless because of its defects, fails to comprehend the nature of the choices that must be faced in life.

So the leadership on globalisation that Xi appears to offer is attractive if it’s credible.

China faces immense problems with its high-wire transition to an advanced economy and an open society. And now that Trump has declared another course, there is a premium on Chinese openness to sustain the economic liberalism to which it pretends.

Zhao argues that there is both an opportunity and the need to change the political direction in China, although change of political leadership in China this year will not occur in auspicious times.

When Xi assumed the Chinese presidency, the need for decisiveness and confrontation of debilitating corruption was overwhelming. There is little doubt that Xi has taken up that call.

The challenge of his second term will be how to reconcile the contradictions, as well as the advantages, of the consolidation of power at the centre of the Chinese state and its policy machine with the political transformation that’s needed to deal with the range of social ills and trials that confront China over the coming decade — from pollution to the intrusion of the state on citizens’ freedoms that will ultimately stifle the liberal economy.

That transformation is unlikely unless the Chinese government builds more effective institutional checks on state authority and places greater focus on boosting accountability. That’s not achievable without openness to ideas, including ideas from the West. Commitment to a liberal economic order involves at some point commitment to a more liberal political order.

Reaching out to China on these interests is compatible with continuing the strategic relationship if Trump chooses continuity. US allies like Australia can insist on nothing less, including the right of consultation as equal partners on any change.

Building common cause with a wider group of countries, including China, will be crucial to the liberal economic and political orders which are central to a secure and prosperous global future. It will require a new framework for collective leadership in which China certainly plays a more active part, but is not the only player.

This is a time for seeking to harvest sweet melons where they can be found, from bitter vines and in rocky places.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

4 responses to “Getting the China option in perspective”

  1. Editors:

    You seem to give the leader of a totalitarian regime the benefit of the doubt but then state the United States is “in the hands of a leadership that breathes contempt for democratic institutions.” An election is won straight and fair, but many people, including the media and as I see here also academics, do not want to accept the results of the democratic process. That refusal by “elites” is part of what perpetuates the unmitigated hate and violence on the streets of people that think they are above the law or even common decency and continue to attack the democratically elected leadership of the U.S.
    So at least some facts show the exact opposite from your statement, unless you think personal opinion about a candidate and the subjective interpretation of his words allows to label him with the most hateful names while absolving oneself from the need to engage in as objective and ideally impartial analysis of facts as possible. If that really is the case, such statements cannot be distinguished anymore from just about any other erratic and unfiltered Facebook post…

    Nothing the current administration has decided has been done outside democratic rules or institutions. It just is the case that many people, often for good and sometimes very good reasons, do not agree with some of these decisions or with future strategies that they suspect may be pursued. Interpreting those as “contempt for democratic institutions” is taking the low road, and incidentally use the same words that many US talk radio hosts have used for years to describe Obama’s administration. How does that advance the discourse?

    It becomes hypocrisy and hysteria that should not be acceptable in an academic environment. A related example is that the media is saying the travel ban (again, good, indifferent or bad) would be anti-Muslim even though it only affects countries with civil war and a lack of record keeping while the word Muslim does not even appear in the executive order itself and 90% of the Muslim world is not affected! Please stick to strict facts and choose your words more appropriately. Otherwise it will negatively reflect on the rest of your analyses – which I usually value a lot!

    To the points: It is a fact that trade relationships are almost never “fair” in an absolute sense. It can be argued that Germany and other European nations subsidize almost all of their exports (i.e. by giving preferential tax treatment), China went through a deliberate process of currency devaluation and state-sponsored effort to ‘internalize’ Western technologies, sometimes with means most of us would consider “illegal” (i.e. hacking, stealing of trade secrets, price dumping), and America had both advantages and disadvantages by owning the World’s main trading currency. This warrants elaborate debate, not hateful words.

    Please cool it down.

    Thanks, Bert

    • 1 To label China as a totalitarian state is misguided when she has lifted over 900 million people (3 times the population of the USA) out of abject poverty in the last 38 years alone, to become the second largest economy in the world and the world’s biggest trading nation. So please “Cool it down” Mr Kastel.

      2 In 1978 when Deng Xiaoping declared that “It is not the colour of the cat that counts (anymore) but whether it can catch mice” and “To be rich is glorious”, the communist ideology was tossed out of the window. Today China is a socialist state, based on an effective system called Meritocracy.

      3 Winston Churchill once said that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for others, but he did not vilify Meritocracy. And if Democracy is so potent why is it that Greece, its birthplace, is now in tatters, economically?

      4 Today the US is no longer a full democracy, according to the EIU.

      “The U.S. has been demoted from a full democracy to a flawed democracy for the first time, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

      America’s score fell to 7.98 last year from 8.05 in 2015, below the 8.00 threshold for a full democracy, the EIU announced in a report on Wednesday. That put the world’s largest economy on the same footing as Italy, a country known for its fractious politics.

      A flawed democracy is a country with free elections but weighed down by weak governance, (voter fraud which is now under investigation by the Trump administration), an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation, according to the EIU.” Unquote. (brackets mine).

      5 Please note that 47% of US voters did not vote in the 2016 presidential election and only about 26.5% voted for Trump, which can hardly be called a democratic process.

      6 To claim that “Nothing the current administration has decided has been done outside democratic rules or institutions” is also flawed.

      In case the nuance escaped Mr Kastel, by not closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Trump administration, like the Bush and Obama administrations, violated Amendment 14 of the US Constitution, which guarantees the legal principle of ‘Due Process’.

      In addition, president Trump publicly stated that he supports torture, which violates not only the US military code but also the UN Convention Against Torture, which the US ratified 20 years ago.

      Btw, General Mattis, the newly minted Secretary of Defense and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief have stated during the Senate hearing that they are against torture.

      7 To claim that “China went through a deliberate process of currency devaluation” is also flawed because prior to 15 August 1971, each oz of gold was worth US$35, as agreed at Bretton Woods in 1944.

      Today the price of an oz of gold is US$1,204 which means that the US dollar has been devalued by 3,340% since 1971.

      In case Mr Kastel has also not noted the biggest trading desk in the United States is located at the New York FED and the biggest PGM and currency manipulator is the United States of America.

  2. Editors – Your identification of the central challenges, both to China and to the new Trump administration, is spot-on. Alas, your deep and complex view of China is largely missing in Washington. We hope Australian leaders, and those of many more of the “wider group of countries” you identify, will calmly work toward common causes now. That prospect has evolved from a nice hope to an absolute necessity. Examples of how to handle the US’s rogue president are already appearing: Angela Merkle and Malcolm Turnbull are two good examples. Trumps group, which includes almost the entire Republican Party, are far beyond healthy political discourse. Their contempt is for not only democratic principles, but also social progress and for community itself. Our courts will be the main battleground for the fight we are now in. Your points about the proper role of democrats and friends of the US are most welcome.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.