It's rather sickening to watch self-described liberals embrace China as a responsible power. The headline on the cover of this week's Economist, which I now read solely to find out what is not the case, is "China: the global grown-up." The Washington Post purports to explain "Why China will be able to sell itself as the last liberal great power." These articles, besides being wrong, have the distinction of following the line set by Beijing itself: "China may lead globalization movement," says propaganda outlet CCTV.
How one can argue that a Communist oligarchy that practices mercantilism and industrial and diplomatic espionage, builds islands in contravention of international law, disappears lawyers and writers critical of the regime, feeds its people a steady diet of ethno-nationalist propaganda, threatens America's allies, enables the North Korean psycho-state, recently sailed its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, massively censors the Internet, and has some of the worst air pollution in the world is "liberal" in any sense of the term is beyond me. Ironic, isn’t it, that the same press that examines every utterance of Donald Trump with Talmudic scrutiny is utterly credulous when Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is quite self-consciously modeling himself after Mao Zedong, tells the elite assembled at Davos that he will defend free trade and—I had to laugh—immigration. How many Syrian refugees are there in China?
Credit to Xi, though, for putting one over on self-described globalists and others so eager to embrace foreign critics of Donald Trump that they are more than happy to check their belief in human rights at the door. It ought to be obvious that China's commitment to liberalism does not exist; Xi's rhetoric is a veneer overlaying the deeply illiberal principles that animate his regime. And that regime, it seems to me, is on the defensive for the first time in 20 years. Surprised like so many at Trump's victory, Xi understands the danger a nationalist and protectionist America poses to Chinese stability. America's trade deficit fuels the economic growth that (barely) contains Chinese dissent. So his appeal to the Davos crowd was defensive, an attempt to rally favor among the men and women who have benefited personally from the economic arrangements of the post-Cold War era. It worked.
Makes you wonder, though. If China is invested so heavily in the status quo, perhaps Donald Trump has something of a point when he says that that status quo hasn't benefited the average American. I know this isn't a zero-sum world. But Xi seems to think it is, and so does Trump, and so do the millions of U.S. voters who feel that international trade agreements privilege Chinese oligarchs over American workers. A world in which the Chinese autocracy is fat and happy is not exactly a world conducive to liberty, at least not to the traditional liberty of non-dominated peoples. The Economist might have another definition in mind.
Reading the gushing coverage of this dictator's turgid and clichéd speech, I can't help but think of the last time America's liberal elite went gaga over China. "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks," Tom Friedman wrote in 2009. "But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages." Chief among those advantages, according to Friedman, is the Chinese Politburo's ability to "just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century." Spoken like a true apparatchik. Six months later, on Meet the Press, Friedman confessed his fantasy: "What if we could just be China for a day?"
It’s a confusing world. Many are puzzled at the international aspect of the new nationalism, the collaboration and commonalities between nation-state populists across North America and Europe. I'm not puzzled, because the nation-state populists are reacting against elites who are internationalized as well. The Frenchman and American applauding Xi at Davos have more in common with each other than they do the mass of their countrymen, especially those who live outside the major metropolitan areas. I think they share a common understanding of liberalism as well. They take it to mean the system of privileges and prerogatives that enriches and empowers meritocratic knowledge-workers like themselves. They are therefore more sympathetic to the world Xi Jinping wants to preserve than the world Donald Trump wants to create. That democracy or self-rule plays a far larger part in Trump's world than in Xi's should not be forgotten, however. Least of all by people who think of themselves as liberal or progressive.