XI JINPING took a stab at seizing the mantle of global economic leadership on Tuesday, delivering a lengthy defense of free trade and globalization at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. To some extent, it worked: Many in the elite crowd of business leaders, government ministers and journalists seemed thrilled to hear the Chinese president, in his first appearance at the swishy forum, proclaim that there was “no point in blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems” — particularly as he spoke on a day when British Prime Minister Theresa May was outlining a “hard exit” from the European Union and European newspapers were quoting President-elect Donald Trump on his plans for punitive tariffs.
Mr. Xi certainly was shrewd to position himself as the alternative to Mr. Trump, and the eager response to him was a demonstration of the vacuum of U.S. leadership the incoming president may soon create. But before China’s ruler is crowned the new champion “Davos man,” it ought to be pointed out that his regime is, in most respects, far less liberal or embracing of globalization than the Trump administration will be even if the worst fears of its critics come true.
For example, Mr. Xi declared that “we must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, promote trade and investment liberalization . . . and say no to protectionism.” Yet his own regime has sharply tightened the flows of capital and investment across China’s borders. Imagine a Trump administration placing controls on the transfer of more than $5 million out of the United States, as the Xi regime just did in China. Foreign companies that wish to invest in the country often still are forced to partner with local companies and hand over their technology. Major U.S. Internet companies, including Facebook and Twitter, remain locked out of the market.
Inconveniently for Mr. Xi, the American Chamber of Commerce in China released a report on Wednesday showing that 81 percent of 462 surveyed companies said they felt less welcomed in the country than before, and a quarter were reducing their operations or planning to do so. “It is becoming apparent that the benefits of globalization are being taken for granted or even forgotten” by Beijing, said a statement by AmCham China Chairman William Zarit.
That’s not to speak of the side of globalization conspicuously omitted by Mr. Xi, who carefully used the modifier “economic.” Since he took power in 2012, flows of information inside China as well as across its borders have been radically curtailed. Independent civil society has been virtually shut down, and critical journalists and academics silenced; even lawyers who defend them have been persecuted and imprisoned. While China barrages U.S. satellite viewers and newspaper readers with state-produced propaganda, the New York Times is banned in China, Google is censored, and critical journalists and academics are not allowed into the country.
None of this justifies a mercantilist response from Mr. Trump; Mr. Xi was right in saying that “no one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.” But if the Chinese regime really wishes to assume global economic leadership — or, for that matter, avoid endless conflict with the new U.S. administration — it would do well to follow up its speeches with genuine liberalization.