To become a global leader, China must first be ready to do some heavy lifting
Zhou Xin says Beijing should begin to take on the responsibilities of an international heavyweight, and walk onto the G20 stage in Hangzhou as an open and confident emerging power
In 1972, the Chinese city of Hangzhou (杭州) was picked to host visiting US president Richard Nixon – a decision made by an impoverished country to present a beautiful face to the American delegation, amid the frenzy of a Mao Zedong (毛澤東) cult. In a guest house by the scenic West Lake, premier Zhou Enlai ( 周恩來 ) and Nixon inked a communiqué that turned out to be one of the most important documents in history, one that shifted the global power balance.
Almost half a century later, President Xi Jinping (習近平), a strongman leader who resembles Mao in many ways, will host the planet’s most powerful men and women in the same city of scenic landscapes and elegant lifestyles. This time, China will be keen to showcase not only what its state capitalism has achieved but also what it can do to continue its success and shape global growth for the future.
This is why China has been sparing no effort to create a flawless stage in Hangzhou – for China and Xi himself to tell the world that the country is now ready to jostle for leadership on global economic governance. Beijing has shown that it is not shy about expanding its regional influence through “One Belt, One Road”, to compete in international finance by creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and to push for the renminbi to become one of the International Monetary Fund’s reserve currencies.
Chen Fengying, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government-backed think tank, said the G20 summit would be a chance for China “to guide and to lead” the global economic agenda. “It’s an underestimation to say China just want to ‘participate’ – China has been participating in all the past summits, it wants to be a leader.”
China’s quest for “institutional leadership” in the world comes at a time when globalisation is facing a backlash in rich economies – the emergence of Donald Trump as a serious US presidential candidate, British people’s vote to leave the European Union, and the rise of the far right in continental Europe are taken as signs of popular resentment against the inequities associated with global growth. The world’s top leaders need to send out a note of confidence.
As a major beneficiary of globalised trade, China perceives that its interests are at stake. In Xi’s own words, China is now the flag-bearer for globalisation. “Twenty or even 15 years ago, the major promoters of economic globalisation were Western countries, such as the US, but today we are often taken as the flag-bearer for trade and investment liberalisation in the world, fighting against all kinds of protectionism in Western countries,” he said in a speech published in May.
While China has made clear its desire to make the G20 summit a springboard for its global leadership, the jury is out on how the rest of world will buy into its vision for itself and the world.
Without a doubt, China has created great wealth through several decades of breakneck growth – the longest economic boom in modern human history – and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just one generation. G20 participants gathered in the affluent city of Hangzhou will see for themselves signs of this progress.
However, the country’s growth has come at horrific costs, including a yawning wealth gap and severe environmental pollution. The Chinese economy is in dire need of retooling itself, as the traditional growth engines of investment and exports slow down.
The Chinese leadership knows this. In fact, leaders appear to have a clear understanding of the problems at hand. Their vision is sound – in fact, the G20 vision of an “innovative, invigorated, interconnected, and inclusive” world economy largely resonates with China’s answer for its own economic future. The problem is, doubts are growing as to whether Beijing has the guts and capacity to follow through.
Three years after Xi assumed power, real progress on key areas that are vital to rekindle growth, from state-owned enterprise reform to land ownership liberalisation, is, to put it politely, limited. By contrast, policy missteps, including a stock market rout and a sudden renminbi devaluation, have often caught investors off guard.
To top it off, an opaque decision-making apparatus sends out conflicting policy messages – China wants to break the state monopoly but also hopes state firms can become “bigger and stronger”; China wants to “urbanise” migrant workers to make them modern consumers but also sets unreasonably high thresholds for them to settle in the country’s most attractive cities; and so on.
Wu Jinglian (吳敬璉), a renowned economist who has advised China’s policymakers, could barely contain his disappointment in a recent speech over the progress of Chinese reform. “We must reflect on why there are swings in thinking and delays in action in terms of reforms,” Wu, 86, said.
Therefore, if China really hopes to lead the G20, a voluntary grouping where action plans are forged through consensus and peer pressure, rather than dictation, it must get its own house in order first. That would make its leadership more convincing.
Meanwhile, as an aspiring leader, China must be prepared to take on the associated responsibilities. Beijing’s willingness to include the problems of excess capacity – a thorny issue with its major trading partners – into the communiqué from the meeting of G20 finance ministers in July was a good sign; similarly, its commitment to reduce carbon emissions to fight climate change. Xi’s latest comment that China’s “One Belt, One Road” programme must bring benefits to all participating countries was also encouraging, as it could ease concerns that the initiative was a way for China to dump its excess products in foreign lands.
In a broader sense, Beijing should accept that, as a heavyweight on the global stage, its policies will face questions and criticism, and it’s not always in line with the country’s long-term interest to react with a nationalistic mentality – publicly humiliating lawyers or booksellers in state television confessions and blaming “overseas hostile forces” for domestic unrest, for instance, will do no good to a respected global leader.
Ultimately, the G20 summit will at best be a reflection of China’s power, rather than a source of it. China’s economic might is the result of decades of its people’s hard work, pragmatic policies from its government and the winds of globalisation blowing in the country’s favour. It’s rarely about a two-day meeting, no matter how dazzling the fireworks or how impressive the dinner menu.
In this sense, the value of a G20 summit in Hangzhou will be decided by what face China chooses to wear. If China walks onto the centre stage as an open and confident emerging power, the world will certainly be the better for it.
Zhou Xin is a Post editorial staffer in Beijing who writes about the Chinese economy