At first glance, it looks like a standard cartoon for kids. Claymation figures of different ethnicities dance, clap, rap and play little clay instruments, frolicking in front of neon backdrops and singing out peppy lyrics.
“I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine. Everybody, let’s make friends!” they sing.
But it's not a simple kids' cartoon. It's a propaganda film from the Chinese state-run media outlet People’s Daily aimed at promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt, a massive investment infrastructure project to link Asia and Europe.
The video is just one piece in a series of articles, speeches and videos from within China that have recently portrayed the country as a defender of globalization and free trade.
In another from the state media organization China Daily, cute kids of various ethnicities peak out from behind giant animated camels and jump around in front of animated factory settings.
“When trade routes open up, that’s when the sharing starts. Resources changing hands and shipping auto parts!” they sing.
As China paints itself as a pro-free-trade agent of global harmony, it also notes that the United States passed on opportunities to join the Asian infrastructure project. And while Trump is not named, the videos draw a clear rhetorical contrast with the new president, who frequently derides globalism and won the election running on an anti-free-trade platform.
But that self-characterization is a bit rich, experts on the country say.
“Having China be the world’s leading advocate for globalization is like having Al Capone be put in charge of tax reform,” said Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“It is beyond ironic,” he added.
The problem with this characterization is that China’s economy is still far more closed than the United States' when it comes to trade and especially investment – and China has shown less, not more, willingness to open its economy to foreign investment in recent years.
China’s economy was completely shut off to foreign investment for decades under Mao Zedong, and since the 1980s, it has done a lot to open to foreign business, becoming an integrated part of the global supply chain.
Yet much of that business is still done on China’s terms. In many industries, state-owned companies still dominate, and foreign businesses face high barriers to entry. In some industries, such as automotive manufacturing, foreign companies can operate only by forming joint ventures with Chinese partners. In other sectors, such as media, energy and banking, foreign companies are entirely excluded – often in contravention of World Trade Organization rules.
Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership over the past four years, China has tended to show more-intensive government intervention in the economy, not less, Kennedy says.
It is true that China is becoming a de facto leader in foreign trade. But the sole reason that China can make this claim is that the United States is receding from that role, Kennedy says.
Trump signed a presidential memorandum to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact, on one of his earliest days in office, and he has repeatedly questioned the importance of multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and NATO.
“The only reason China has a leg to stand on in this argument is the campaign rhetoric and ongoing statements of President Trump and his advisers,” Kennedy says. “We’re Alice in Wonderland and we have gone down the rabbit hole.”
As the United States has withdrawn, China has very transparently tried to fill that vacuum. But without significant liberalization to further open its economy, the country’s professed dedication to free trade and globalization rings hollow.
In January, Xi, the leader of the Communist Party of China, gave a speech at Davos to an audience of the most powerful capitalists on the planet, expounding on a doctrine of “inclusive globalization.”
China is pushing its own international trade deal that excludes the United States, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And it has launched the Silk Road Economic Belt (also called One Belt, One Road), in which an institution it created, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is leading investment in roads, railways and ports across the Asian continent.
In a speech at a forum for the project on Sunday, Xi called the plan the “project of the century" and emphasized its open and inclusive nature.
The United States declined to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, viewing it as a potential challenge to the U.S.-dominated multilateral institutions such as the World Bank. The United States' absence is noted in China’s propaganda videos.
“Some countries are moving away from globalization. So the Belt and Road is an opportunity to move globalization forward,” a bespectacled man tells his daughter in a video made by the state media organization China Daily. “But the United States hasn’t joined the initiative.”
“Is that because it’s too far away?” the little blonde girl asks.
“Actually any country can join anywhere,” the man responds.