The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s president — a new kind of ‘Davos man’ for a new, less-liberal, era

China's President Xi Jinping, speaks during a Press Statement in the Hotel Bellevue Palace during his visit to Switzerland, in Bern, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (Anthony Anex/Keystone via AP)
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Chinese President Xi Jinping, "red princeling," son of a revolutionary, general secretary of the Communist Party, this week travels to a ski resort in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum to rub shoulders with what remains of the liberal elite.

He is set to deliver a keynote speech on the Chinese economy and, per his loyal press corps, discuss his "global vision" of "a better world for all."  Don't expect soaring oratory — Xi, an old school sort, sticks to scripted, "Socialism with Chinese characteristics"-steeped speech.

While his talk is unlikely to thrill Champagne-swilling guests, his presence at the annual conclave is revealing — for two reasons.

First, it tells us something about China.

Xi was born in the desperate aftermath of the Chinese civil war, spent the Cultural Revolution living in a cave, then climbed the ranks of the Communist Party to become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He's made it his personal mission to oversee the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," a plan that sees China, having endured a century of humiliation, taking its rightful place at the center of the world.

Since taking power in 2012,  Xi has stepped up China's global presence, spending billions on far-flung infrastructure projects, strengthening the country's role in multi-lateral organizations and, with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, creating international institutions of its own.

But China's efforts to step confidently on to the world stage have been hurt by questions about its economic fitness. Over the last year and a half, the surprise devaluation of the Chinese currency and a stomach-turning string of stock market interventions spooked the global economy and called attention to stalled economic reforms. Xi, China's "chairman of everything," responded by taking more direct control.

For those reading the economic tea leaves, it is therefore significant that it is Xi, not premier Li Keqiang, who is representing China at Davos. "In the past, the premier controlled the economy and the president controlled politics, but that no longer exists," said Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian.

"I am not surprised that Xi is attending the World Economic Forum; he controls the economy and Li Keqiang is just his assistant — it shows his power has increased."

Second, it seems significant that it is the dissent-crushing head of a nominally socialist state, not the United States or its allies, that will lead the call for global cooperation on issues like trade and climate change.

For years, critics have questioned the use of bankers and celebrities playing politics on the ski slopes, casting World Economic Forum attendees as symbols of an obscene and out-of-touch transnational class.

The late Samuel Huntington dubbed these private plane-riding plutocrats as the "Davos man." They have "little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations," he wrote.

This year, voters in the United State and Europe delivered what feels like a death blow to the Davos man — nationalism is on the rise and President-elect Donald Trump, who knows a thing or two about private jets, has promised a retreat of the elites.

With the U.S. and the U.K. looking inward, Xi, an authoritarian nationalist, will step in — a new and different kind of Davos man.

Luan Lin and Xin Jin reported from Beijing.