President Donald’s Trump’s rise is proving to be a boon for China. His first presidential actions and undiplomatic style have opened a void in global leadership. This comes just as China, after years of strong economic growth and with a powerful new leader in charge, seems ready for prime time.
At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping seized this golden opportunity, strode into the spotlight and presented his country as ready and able to fill the many gaps in the international order that Trump’s “America First” approach is creating. But becoming a world leader is not just simply a matter of wielding economic, diplomatic and military clout: there is a moral dimension as well. China has the first three other characteristics, but does it have the fourth?
This question is important in part because of how far Trump has gone in undermining American global moral authority. He has jettisoned some of the core values that made many across the world find America attractive. Gone are the White House goals of striving to safeguard civil rights at home and abroad, protecting an independent press and helping democracy flourish overseas. And then there is Trump’s moral style, which replaces Obama’s audacity of hope with his own mendacity of despair.
This has opened a void. But is China the country to step up?
Maybe what Beijing has to offer as a moral global leader is political ― a meritocratic mode of efficient governance, as some China boosters would have it. Post-Mao China has been one of the few authoritarian countries in the world that successfully survived the global wave of democratization. After Mao, Chinese leaders developed a collective form of leadership, with rules and institutions that have allowed peaceful and predictable leadership transitions, both at the national and local levels. Some observers claim that China stands as a well-functioning meritocracy that appeals to those living in democracies who have been hurt by massive electoral rifts and populist, post-fact politicians. We are not persuaded by this idea and find it particularly hard to square with how Xi is governing.
Xi’s ascent came amid a power struggle with a rival faction in the Communist Party. Right before his term started, Xi was incommunicado for two weeks. After he took power, he immediately launched a still ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has targeted his opponents. He has effectively ended collective leadership and expanded the authority he directly controls beyond that of any of his post-Mao predecessors, much more powerful at least than any leader since Deng Xiaoping. He has even enjoyed a budding cult of personality. The emphasis on his personality in the press, the way he is referred to as Xi Dada (Big Daddy Xi) and the fact that books by and about him fill bookstores all seem like throwbacks to Mao’s time in power (1949-1976). Meritocracy may be attractive, but personalized power cults are not a foundation for moral leadership.
“Meritocracy may be attractive, but personalized power cults are not a foundation for moral leadership.”
But Beijing really does offer an anti-Western moral vision for the world. This is not new, of course. Mao sharply rejected both Western capitalism and even Soviet-style socialism. Since Mao, China has adopted many Western ideas, from the market economy to cultural goods to even individual rights and some notion of governance based on law. It has always done so in a very careful way, while stressing Chinese and socialist characteristics.
In the last decade or so, we have seen a clear turn against Western influences. Under Xi’s leadership, this transformation is evident in an influential internal communiqué called “Document 9.” This edict forbade any discussion of several things ― the “seven unspeakables” as they became known ― deemed to be Western notions, including the rule of law, judicial independence and civil society. Many of these had become quite normal in China, and there were many higher education centers and book series dedicated exactly to these concepts. Ironically, even the party’s Constitution and the national Constitution talk about rule of law and human rights.
But Beijing’s anti-Western stance has only continued. A set of new security laws has tightened the space for civil society and largely excluded foreign non-governmental organizations from operating in China. And last month, China’s highest judge came out with an unusually sharp warning against Western legal influence: “We should resolutely resist erroneous influence from the West: ‘constitutional democracy,’ ‘separation of powers’ and ‘independence of the judiciary.’ We must make clear our stand and dare to show the sword.”
“Beijing’s rediscovery of Confucian values has not been successful enough to serve as a basis for moral global leadership.”
When Mao rejected Western influence, he tried to offer his own revolutionary vision. But what alternative to the West can current Chinese leaders offer the world? The obvious answer, though ultimately a problematic one, is a reboot of traditional “Confucian” principles.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, promoted the Confucian-sounding pursuit of a “Harmonious Society,” where growth was no longer sufficient and harmony would serve as the basis for a balanced society and reduce internal conflict. Hu also introduced a list of 16 do’s and don’ts, the so-called “Eight Honors and Eight Shames,” which included stressing the values of nationalism and the Confucian virtues of duty, hard work and plain living.
Beijing’s rediscovery of Confucian values, however, has not been successful enough to serve as a basis for moral global leadership. Stressing Confucian values is less about showing how strongly these values are embedded in Chinese society and more a desperate attempt to rebalance the excesses that have emerged with China’s massive growth and urbanization, which created immense inequality, out-of-control materialism and a further frying of the fabric of community.
To bring this into sharper focus, we only need to look at two recent laws. One law mandates that children must regularly visit elderly parents. The other stipulates that parents must educate their children so they don’t spend too much time online playing video games. Both laws show a society in which basic Confucian values ― like filial piety (xiào, in Chinese) ― are clearly weakened. It is especially ironic that Chinese leaders have turned to law to correct for this moral gap. A true Confucian leader rules by example, not by rules. As a famous Confucian scholar wrote more than two millennia ago: “I have heard it said that a state which is about to perish is sure to have many governmental regulations.”
“Stressing Confucian values is a desperate attempt to rebalance the excesses that have emerged with China’s massive growth and urbanization.”
Trump’s first weeks in office have upset many of America’s closest allies and foes and upset global priorities like combatting climate change, helping refugees, ending armed conflict and terrorism and ensuring equitable global trade. The world needs a new global leader, one that can reinvigorate morals and values that can guide the world toward addressing these immense challenges.
Given its internal political and moral crises, China does not seem ready. To rise to the occasion and become a global moral leader, Beijing will need to do more than present an authoritarianism-that-works blueprint, double down on tired forms of anti-Western rhetoric and offer traditional values that do not even convince Chinese people.
Chinese leaders may instead turn back to the pragmatism and diligence through which the country rebuilt itself following the disasters of the late Mao years and find inspiration for a moral vision to China’s own problems and global challenges. It’s a tall order, though, for a country whose leaders are prone to both bravado and insecurity and who view China’s rich history and experiences more as cards to play than as sources of genuine inspiration.