Here’s the latest sign that the global economic order is shifting swiftly beneath our feet: The leader of the Chinese Communist Party just criticized an American president-elect for closing his economy off from the world.
Not by name. But everyone knew what he was getting at all the same.
On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered remarks about the global economy at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first time a Chinese president has ever attended the ritzy annual conference, where predominantly Western political and business elites network and discuss economic trends over lavish meals and at glittering parties.
Xi used the opportunity to argue that globalization has made the world richer, and to present China as an enthusiastic participant in the increasingly interconnected world of cross-border trade. But some of his remarks on the perils of turning one’s country inward were particularly striking — because they offered blunt critiques of the economic policies of Donald Trump without ever saying the words “Donald Trump.”
“Pursuing protectionism is just like locking one’s self in a dark room. Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so are light and air,” he said during his address. “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”
Xi doesn’t mention Trump once during the speech, but the subtext is clear. Trump is the leading advocate of protectionism among the elected leaders of the world’s largest and most developed economies, and he has threatened to slap tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese imports into the US, an act that could prompt reciprocal tariffs from China and spark an economically crippling trade war. Xi’s rhetorical broadside against protectionism is a way of pushing back against Trump’s agenda, which Chinese leaders fear will deal a huge blow to their economy.
Xi’s speech wasn’t just about defensively trying to persuade the economies that it relies on to consider the folly of employing tariffs against his country — it was also a power play. “There is a vacuum in global leadership. Xi sees it and he seizes it,” Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, said after the speech, according to the Wall Street Journal. “If the U.S. does take a more mercantilist route, overall the Asians and Europeans will have to combine to preserve global free trade.”
In his speech, Xi acknowledged that globalization has its costs, but argued that criticism of it can often be glib.
“Just blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems is inconsistent with reality, and it will not help solve the problems,” he said. “One should not just retreat to the harbor when encountering a storm, for this will never get us to the other shore of the ocean.”
Xi’s remarks were a fairly straightforward retort to Trump’s relentless depiction of China as the American worker’s foremost threat. The thrust of his argument is that economic openness ultimately benefits everyone who participates in it. If he were to get more specific here, he might say something along the lines of: “Yes, many of the world’s economies lost millions of jobs to our manufacturing sector, but they’ve also benefited from our extremely cheap exports, as well as from selling their goods to our colossal consumer market.”
Trump is not the only one calling for a departure from a consensus on free trade that’s prevailed throughout the Western world since the end of the Cold War. In Europe, nationalist parties calling for protectionism and withdrawal from the European Union are on the rise, and in the case of the UK, which voted to leave the EU last summer, they’ve succeeded in upending trade and movement norms.
In fact, on the same day Xi waxed poetic about interconnectedness and free trade at Davos, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech revealing that the UK will make a fairly clean break from the EU and sail into uncharted territory in its trade relationship with Europe.
Xi’s speech contended that these movements are not only misguided, but that they’re on the wrong side of history. “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from,” Xi said.
Xi is eager to step up into the void that could be created by the US turning inward economically — something that Julian Gewirtz, a Rhodes scholar studying Chinese history at Oxford University and the author of a new book on the history of China’s economy, noted in December in Time:
He will likely promise continuing outbound investment from China around the world and reiterate that the U.S. is welcome to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development bank proposed by China and including US allies like Germany, South Korea, and the UK... He will also dangle promises of greater access to China’s massive domestic market. With the prospect of a protectionist U.S. and a diminished Europe, the political and business leaders gathered at Davos may see little choice but to look to Xi for global leadership.
China still has many huge state-owned enterprises, restricts political liberties like freedom of assembly, and keeps its internet on lockdown — so it’s by no means on a path to becoming a conventional liberal capitalist society. But it’s desire to push for a world of free trade and protect its status as the world’s greatest exporter is causing a reversal in the rhetoric on trade that has often existed between the West and China.