by Teodoras Žukas

What are the reasons of China’s leader Xi Jinping’s recent performance as a preserver of global economic order? As Donald Trump rejected the Trans-Pacific-Partnership agree-ment, perhaps it is a great momentum for Beijing to be the manifest leader of global capi-talism – and perhaps, modernisation and great economic achievements can be the path to a more open style of government.

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this January, China’s President Xi Jinping addressed the audience with an unlikely keynote speech regarding China’s role in “en-couraging economic globalisation and the way of promoting a liberal economic order’’. For the leader of a country calling itself “Communist”, this odd to say the least. It would be quite the same as if Bernie Sanders gave an encouraging speech at a neo-con congress or Edmund Burke had addressed the summit of the promoters of the French revolution.

However, the situation is rather different.

The West is witnessing the rise of anti-globalist powers: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a curse word for the ordinary worker and most importantly, the United States elected a President whose first action included the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and who is not quite willing to promote global economic liberalism. At this moment, China has embraced its role as a defender of globalisation and multilateral economic arrangements.

In the hour long address during the conference in Davos, Xi took a number of sideswipes at the US President, attacking Trump’s protectionist views without mentioning him by name. Comparing protectionism with “locking oneself in a dark room’’ to avoid danger, but at the same time depriving the room of “light and air’’, Mr Xi cautioned Trump against pursuing U.S. interests at the expense of others.

Vice-versa, Mr Xi made commitments to open China to more imports and foreign direct investment. He further assured the audience that China’s exchange rate policy, highly criticised by Washington, did not destabilise the global economy.

However the question which naturally springs to mind is why China is so interested in de-fending and preserving the global economic order?

First of all, China is increasingly dependent on imports of raw materials. Secondly, they are very dependent on foreign markets for their manufacturing, which means they need a stable international structure to assure reliable access both to raw materials and to market outputs. Despite these two fundamental aspects of China’s economy, it is worth mentioning a completely new paradigm of China’s global self-positioning.

The country itself has gone global, buying up foreign assets from football clubs to Hollywood studios at a record pace last year. Mr Xi’s entourage in the World Economic Forum in Davos were the owners of China’s port and rail companies, which also reflects the strategy to go global by reviving ancient trading links between Asia and Europe via infrastructure projects.

However, according to some political scientists, the election of Donald Trump has given China’s Xi a convenient opportunity to advance his goal of giving his country a more assertive leadership role on the world stage.

China’s economic “opening to the world” is nothing more than the platform for promoting its geopolitical interests in the Far East and Central Asia. David Shambaugh, director of George Washington University’s China Policy Program, argues that “China remains a very self-interested power, with minimal means and willingness to get involved in addressing and solving the world’s chronic and pressing problems.”

China’s adventures – such as the construction of artificial islands in the neutral waters of the South China Sea – in one way prove that China is an expansionist power which uses the global economic order for its raison d’être.

Prosperity is the road to democracy?

Besides the fact that current Chinese foreign policy could be called “revisionist” and the state itself autocratic, there are some signs of hope for a bright future. For the past fifteen years, China’s economy has grown rapidly and at the present moment constitutes the world’s second-largest economy. According to the political scientist Roland Ingelhart, the general modernisation and economic growth is the cause of occupational specialisation, urbanisation, rising educational levels, which, for the most part, lead to democracy.

Due to China’s imperial past, China is a difficult example to apply this theory to, but recent conducts of Beijings leadership are quite promising. One of the things the leadership is conducting right now is a public discussion on how to infuse “more democracy’’, whatever that means, into a non-democratic system. If they want to go global, they know they have to accommodate the popular desire for a more open government.

According to Zbiegniew Brzezinski, for about five years now, the Chinese leadership is organising high-level seminars for top level leaders. Those are full day sessions led by some mostly foreign specialists, which are called: “The importance of the Constitution and Understanding the Rule of Law’’, “Better Understanding of the World Economy and Particularly of Globalisation Trends’’, ‘’Overview of World History with an Emphasis on the Rise and Fall of Imperial Powers’’, “International Trade, Investment, and the Importance of China Going Global’’, “Intellectual Property Rights’’, “How to Democratise a One-Party System’’.

This shows clearly that the Chinese regime understands both the potential of its power and also the dangers of exceeding its limits; it comprehends the advantage of liberal economic policy with all its components: free trade, direct investment, private property. Above all, as these seminars shows, Chinese leaders did not reject the possibility of a presumably slow transition to some sort of democracy.

Today’s China indeed is a surprising ally of global capitalism. In their economic development, they are now realising that they need the world with all its benefits and opportunities for further economic enlargement. However, time will show whether Beijing is guided by an expansionist Manichean ideology, or a pragmatic attitude bent on wealth-creation which, hopefully, someday could transform China into a democracy.

25 May 2017
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This text was published in Bullseye issue 68