President Xi Jinping wants to usher in a new era of Chinese world leadership. The West should be wary of Beijing’s growing economic and political ambitions
‘Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.” This précis of Chinese foreign policy, set out by President Deng in the 1990s, was consigned to history by President Xi at the Communist Party’s congress yesterday.
China, Mr Xi said, has “stood up, grown rich and become strong”. It should aspire to “global leadership”, he said. There is no doubt that he means it, and the world should welcome any Chinese undertaking to live up to its responsibilities as a global citizen. Yet the West should be wary. For all its economic might, China still refuses to respect or even recognise the norms that prevail in the developed world.
Mr Xi promises to inaugurate a third epoch in postwar Chinese history. He thinks himself the heir to Mao and Deng, supposed intellectual titans of Chinese socialism. If Mao was responsible for establishing China’s political and economic model, and Deng for a wave of reform that accelerated growth, then Mr Xi wants to turn his country’s gaze outward and establish China at the head of the global economy, with the president alone at the head of the Communist Party.
Mr Xi’s drive for domestic domination has been fronted by an energetic anti-corruption campaign, but the president himself is open to the charge of being corrupted by power. He has tightened the party’s grip on government, business, media and civil society. It maintains extraordinary control of internet usage and social media. The political ambitions of the middle class, once beginning to make themselves heard, have been muted.
Mr Xi is only scheduled to remain in office for another five years, but his speech suggests he intends to remain on the scene much longer. The world will have to get used to his vision of Chinese power, and the United States will have to square up to the challenge. Already China has gained confidence. It has established a military base in Djibouti and flexed its muscles in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Beijing has also built a formidable edifice of soft power, with capital spending on railways in sub-Saharan Africa, factories in Pakistan and nuclear power stations in Britain.
Such is the size of the market that Chinese demand, whether it emanates from the state or consumers, is now its own force in the global economy. The price of solar panels has fallen thanks to a Chinese glut. When electric cars transform the automobile market, it will be to a large extent because of China’s rush to dominate the industry. Mr Xi may have more control over the fate of some American firms than President Trump. Equally, if China sneezes, other nations could catch a cold. The economy has grown rapidly, but that has obscured a big sovereign debt pile. Some economists think this is a bubble waiting to burst.
The ascendant power of Beijing may seem to the West a disruption to the status quo, but for China it is the restoration of a millennia-long equilibrium. China was the biggest economy in the world for most of the past 2,000 years, only comfortably overtaken by Europe in the 19th century. When Adam Smith, father of the Scottish enlightenment and free market thinker, published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he described China as “one of the richest, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world”, and “much richer than any part of Europe”.
Mr Xi points out China has been growing rich again. Its years of double-digit growth are over, but the Chinese economic miracle of recent decades stands nevertheless as a challenge to western democracies. They must demonstrate again that political and economic liberalism really are the best routes to prosperity and stability as well as to the respect of human rights. As Mr Xi digs in, the West cannot afford to shrink from that challenge.