Editor’s Note: Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Politics and director of the Lau China Institute at Kings College London. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Brown: China needs growth to keep its emerging middle class happy
Deeper links with the outside world continue to be a necessity rather than a luxury
We all now recognize that 2016 was a highly unusual year. Political events that we are witnessing today seemed simply impossible 12 months ago.
One of the less noted shifts in global politics – but probably the most profound in its long-term impact for us all – is the emergence of Xi Jinping’s China as the world’s great champion of globalization.
This year is the first time that a Chinese president has graced the Alps’ elite enclave of Davos. The symbolism is heavy. At the epicenter of capitalist, free-market internationalism, the leader of the last remaining major country where a communist party has a monopoly on power was able to enjoy his moment. Xi’s speech did not disappoint.
If there was a hint of schadenfreude, it did not show. Xi is one of the best public orators China has produced in recent times. But his message was an elegantly simple one: China will stand by globalization, no matter what protectionist fads contaminate the discourse in Washington or elsewhere.
It will do this for two reasons. One, Xi set out clearly in his speech: globalization has served his country well. He himself will know – along with every other Chinese person of his generation – what a China with closed markets and rigid borders looks like. This was the reality under Mao.
Since 1978, China has been an increasingly open country – at least economically. This process has replaced poverty and domestic instability with a country now poised to be the largest economy in the world. No wonder Xi speaks as a fan and ardent supporter of global free trade and open economic borders.
The second reason is more prosaic. China needs growth to keep its emerging middle class happy. The sources of that growth are becoming more elusive. So deeper links with the outside world continue to be a necessity rather than a luxury. Xi’s China has no choice about committing to globalization. His speech as good as admitted that.
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The world is shaping up to be dominated by two hungers: that of China for its moment of renaissance and greatness, and that of the US, seeking restoration of its once secure position as the number one superpower. The two have always been competitors. But until recently, their competition was subliminal and concealed. Under Trump, it looks likely to spill out into clear day.
If these fears of competition become a reality, the question is this – who is hungrier for success?
Based on Xi’s fierce defense of the kind of world he wants his country to exist in, he sounds like a man with a good appetite. And to be honest, many in his audiences and the wider world are starting to see his offer as more appetizing and preferable than the meager fare currently being prepared for the world by President-elect Trump and his administration.