Tuesday, 17 January 2017

What A Difference A Davos Makes--Except in Local China

What a difference a Davos makes.

Until yesterday, China’s President Xi Jinping was cast by many in the international media as a Mao Wannabe: Someone interested primarily in political supremacy at home, locking up lawyers and political activists and cleaning up the Communist Party, while pursuing an assertive policy of projecting Chinese power abroad. Xi was in command, looking to possibly extend his tenure. All of that had been quite disturbing to many observers outside China (that is, when they weren’t talking about his “challenges” and how any day now—any day now—there would be a backlash from society that would threaten Party rule)[1].

Suddenly, following his lengthy speech at Davos, Xi’s become to many the Great Global Stabilizer, interested in securing trade, opening economic frontiers, expanding commercial cooperation—in a word, what’s been known by many outside China for decades as “globalization”—a term that Xi was careful to qualify by speaking of “economic globalization” [经济全球化]—namely, untrammeled trade for China though not open borders where outside ideas from other societies are allowed free rein. Nonetheless, for a world terrified by the election of Donald Trump as the next American president, Xi and his speech are being cast as a vote of confidence in the existing world order.

Local residents and local Chinese companies here don’t quite understand what the fuss is all about. Their views are varied to be sure; yet more than a few, even in affluent provinces, are anxious about their own economic futures. Many see Beijing as having been very good at bringing benefits to a narrow elite (what Marxists used to call the “comprador class”), while not caring all that much for small businesses and entrepreneurs trying to break into markets, local and otherwise. Some residents see the factory floors and offices in large industrial parks and innovation hubs under construction as already reserved for the well-connected and the well-heeled, with little prospect for themselves. They understand that when Xi is talking about “globalization”, he’s referring to globalization with Chinese characteristics. When Xi praises the status quo, he’s signaling that China is relatively satisfied with its position—and that citizens and local officials should follow suit.

Not everyone here will be persuaded. Many locals here wonder when their children will get to study abroad like their classmates who can afford private tutoring; when their prospects and the small business they’re trying to run will be as good as those who they see as politically-connected, tied into the local power structure where the government still dominates the market. Of course, there’s growing entrepreneurship. But while Alibaba might be seen as a sign of China’s innovative spirit by many observers overseas, for more than a few residents here, Taobao is a place to buy goods cheaply, not a platform to expand their business and grow their income and place in Chinese society.

There’s also a political context to this sort of local unease. Websites and social media extolling Chinese pride (and the need to keep foreign goods at bay) often stoke local sentiment of being sidelined by economic policies which may play well inside China’s beltways but have little impact on the country’s many counties. China’s conservative intellectuals do have a stronger presence here that they usually given credit for, and Xi and his like-minded comrades haven’t been very interested in countering their narrative of a country that’s been shortchanged by foreign forces and foreign companies. Xenophobia is far easier to tap into here in China than it is in the United States.

None of the local disquiet that does exist means that social revolution is simmering; that farmers will be aligning with students and “China’s new generation” (whatever that means this week) to challenge Communist party rule. Nor is the opposite suddenly true here: That Beijing’s rule is especially robust and getting stronger, squeezing out the last breaths of a suffocating civil society and dictating local policies without pushback. Both scenarios are absurd, written from far, far away in what could be another galaxy entirely. For many here in China, Xi's vision is sound and it's secure.

At the same time, what Xi’s speech does connote is very much business as usual for Local China. For the well-positioned in China’s beltways and beyond, that’s delightful news. For the rest, it’s really no news at all. Davos to them makes no difference.

[1] It says quite a great deal about the bizarre nature of many analyses about China and politics here that these two very different views—that Xi’s in charge and that Xi’s in trouble-- often coexist, sometimes from the same commentators within a very brief time frame. 

China Isn't Leading But Pondering

The US presidential election has been done with for over two months, and the clear winner, we’re told, is China.

China, readers of various newspaper and media sites are informed, is moving into the vacuum created by the anxiety and uncertainty produced by President-elect Donald Trump’s policy statements, tweets, and pronouncements. The Modern Middle Kingdom is looking to guide the world in climate change initiatives, renewable energy programs, high-speed rail and other infrastructure, health care, education--pretty much everything that Trump is looking to subvert or slaughter, the story goes. The world isn’t looking to Washington any longer for leadership, readers are told, but to Beijing, and President Xi Jinping’s presence in this year’s summit in Davos is proof.

But such conclusions aren’t prognostication; they’re projection—in the classic psychological definition, wherein someone attributes to others qualities that they see themselves as lacking. And the reason one can be sure that’s the case here is that China's leaders haven’t said they’re ready and willing to steer the world in place of the United States.

It’s understandable that Americans et al are concerned about losing status and face to Beijing as Trump tries to upend tradition through Twitter, just as it may make sense for Beijing to move at some point into the breech being generated by Trump’s lack of restraint. And it might be strategically sound for Xi and his comrades to seek to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by Trump's missteps and broadcast that they’re set to assume a leading role in global affairs.

But that’s not happening yet.

The usual suspect sources of State media that are regularly cited by many international media outletsChina Daily, the English version of Global Times, English-language websites of Xinhua and the like—are, at long last, carrying commentary decrying Trump’s tweets and statements about Taiwan and One-China. But those outlets are designed for foreigners to read, not China’s party cadres or Chinese citizens; they’re placeholders in lieu of actual instructions to officials and the public about the Party line. Chinese officials don’t pay attention to those editorials because they know that they don’t have to.

Major television news programs are starting to talk about Trump and dismiss some of his more outlandish statements; yet nowhere are there signs or statements from Chinese officials that they plan to, say, introduce a new strategy for bringing peace to Syria, or want to convene a global summit on climate change. For all the claims that China is blazing new paths where renewable energy is concerned, there’s ample local evidence arguing against that view. China is still far the follower, reluctant to step out in front for all sorts of important reasons, including the depth of its own domestic challenges.

Far more important in this context of what Beijing thinks is that the authoritative outlets here in China (Peoples’ Daily, in particular) have been reticent to comment on Trump. That’s not a strategy by Beijing to bide its time, but a clear sign that there’s a lack of consensus in China’s leadership about how to cope with the soon-to-be new American chief executive. Officials here depend on Party media to instruct, and thus far there have been no clear directives provided to them. Indeed, what little is known about the reaction in China’s inner policy circles (and there’s very little known, despite claims to the contrary) suggests that advisers here are scrambling to try to find out whether Trump is just talk. The fact is, Beijing still doesn’t quite understand Trump, and elites and advisers here are still debating how to respond. China's policymaking system is like that when confronted with the unfamiliar—not nearly as decisive as outside observers believe, and prone to conflict more than consensus. The latter so far is proving hard to come by.

That’s the real story: Not that China’s leaders are ready to take command and interested in doing so, but that they may in fact be neither.