The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China plays the adult as Trump attacks the system

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The World Economic Forum, which kicked off amid the glitzy alpine splendor of Davos, Switzerland on Tuesday, is everything supporters of President-elect Donald Trump and the world's populists are supposed to hate.

Here is a gathering of unrepentant "globalist" elites, power-brokers and cosmopolitan glitterati. On one stage, there's a Colombian pop star lecturing you on children's rights. Outside, billionaire CEOs hit the slopes between cocktail soirees and parties with Leonardo DiCaprio. At dinner, celebrity master chefs will present a new chocolate bonbon meant to "raise awareness" of global hunger. Seriously.

The forum's organizers are certainly aware of the world's inequities and injustices. But Davos, with all its preening self-regard and clubby smarm, makes itself an easy target of popular derision. In the past, it has been picketed by leftist protesters. This year, it's right-wing nationalists, including the American president-elect, who are giving Davos the cold shoulder.

Trump — who, to be fair, has other stuff on his plate — is not in attendance. A member of Trump's transition team told Bloomberg that the president-elect felt a star turn at Davos would betray his populist image. Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive now tapped to be his top economic adviser, also bowed out despite regular appearances in the past.

The United States does have a formal representative in Vice President Joe Biden, but one British journalist suggested that Davos in 2017 without Trump is "like Hamlet without the prince."

Perhaps aware of this vacuum, China chose this year to make its global pitch. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to the conclave and delivered the event's de facto keynote speech with an hour-long defense of globalization on Tuesday. His remarks were a thinly-veiled riposte to Trump's hostility to free trade deals and open borders.

Xi insisted that globalization, an economic phenomenon, should not be blamed for the "regional turbulence" in the Middle East that prompted the wave of refugees that unsettled Europe.

"We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization ... and say no to protectionism," Xi said. "Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room."

He then issued a direct warning to the new administration in Washington: "No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war."

Xi went on to insist that his government "has no intention" of devaluing its currency, and he championed China as a leading player in a liberal and open global economy.

"World history shows that the road of human civilization has never been a smooth one, and that mankind has made progress by surmounting difficulties," Xi said. "We should join hands and rise to the challenge. History is created by the brave."

The acclaim from the gathered delegates seemed almost breathless. Consider this reaction from a prominent CNN journalist:

Or this Swedish former prime minister and veteran diplomat:

"In these times of a lack of leadership, particularly in Europe, [Xi's speech] was quite impressive," Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank, the E.U.'s lending institution, said to the Wall Street Journal.

The irony of the moment wasn't lost on most observers.

Yet neither figure seems a likely hero of the liberal global order.

Trump has been quite clear about his desire to upend the international system, stem the tide of globalization and immigration and even potentially slap tariffs on Chinese goods. Xi, meanwhile, presides over a stifling one-party state that will have much to prove and that needs significant political reform if it's going to match its leader's lofty rhetoric.

Xi's political career so far has been an exercise in the ruthless consolidation of power, as my colleagues report. Trump enters the White House with record low approval ratings. Both are driven by narrow, nationalist agendas, and the two men are more likely to clash on those interests than fuss over the guardianship of global stability.

One of the few members of Trump's camp to journey to Davos, hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci, told assembled reporters that China was benefiting from existing trade agreements "asymmetrically."

Scaramucci said that Beijing would have to adapt to a new reality under Trump: "If the Chinese really believe in globalism … they have to reach now towards us and allow us to create this symmetry."

We'll see how a Trump administration goes about creating that "symmetry," but all signs point to a spike in tensions in the coming months and years.

"Team Trump is making a bet on assertive nationalism as a way of imposing America’s will on a world that can stand a bit of arm-twisting. Peace through strength, they call it, reviving a Reagan-era slogan. But other countries have assertive populations, too," notes a column in this week's Economist, referring to China.

And it concludes ominously that the two countries are on a collision course: "In the absence of clear global rules, Mr Trump may find himself pitting his populist mandate to 'make America great again' against Chinese nationalism, say. Could get messy."

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