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.