While news and analysis in the United States continue to be obsessed with President Trump’s daily antics and insults, halfway around the world, something truly historic just happened. China signaled that it now sees itself as the world’s other superpower, positioning itself as the alternative, if not rival, to the United States.
This is not my opinion based on reading the tea leaves of Chinese politics. It is the clearly articulated view of China's supreme leader, Xi Jinping. In his speech last week to the 19th Communist Party Congress , Xi declared that China is at a "historic juncture," entering a "new era" that will be marked by the country becoming a "mighty force" in the world and a role model for political and economic development. He asserted that China's "political system . . . is a great creation" that offers "a new choice for other countries." And he insisted that the country will defend its interests zealously while also becoming a global leader on issues such as climate change and trade.
Ever since China abandoned its Maoist isolation in the 1970s, its guiding philosophy was set by Deng Xiaoping. At that time, China needed to learn from the West, especially the United States, and integrate itself into the existing international order. According to Deng, it should be humble and modest in its foreign policy, "hide its light under a bushel," and "bide its time." But the time has now come, in Xi's view, and he said the Middle Kingdom is ready to "take center stage in the world."
Xi's speech is important because this party congress made clear that he is no ordinary leader. He ascended to a second term in office without naming any obvious successors from the next generation of party officials, thus maintaining a grip on power far more secure than his immediate predecessors. More important, the party enshrined his thoughts in the constitution, an honor previously accorded only to Mao Zedong in his lifetime. (Deng's thoughts were added, but only posthumously.) This means that for the rest of his life, Xi and his ideas will dominate the Communist Party of China.
In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Andrew Nathan noted that Western policy toward Beijing has generally assumed that, over time, as China modernized its economy, it would become more pluralistic at home and more cooperative abroad. Nathan added, however, that a few writers and journalists, such as James Mann, worried that China instead would stay authoritarian and provide support for other anti-democratic countries.
The reality is not quite as extreme as Mann predicted. China has remained resolutely authoritarian — in fact, even more so in recent years. But on issues such as climate change, trade and North Korea, it has in fact become more cooperative. While Beijing has tried to set up a few alternative international institutions of its own, it is also the third-largest funder of the United Nations and the second-largest contributor to the international body's peacekeeping budget. China seeks a revision of the international system to accommodate its own rising power, not a revolution and wholesale replacement of the Western-built international order.
In part, China's new stance toward the world, and the way it has been received, are a result of the continued strength of the Chinese economy and the growing political confidence of the party under Xi. But these changes are also occurring against the backdrop of the total collapse of political and moral authority of the United States in the world. A recent Pew Research Center survey charts a 14-point drop in those who view the United States favorably across the more than 30 countries polled.
Countries such as Australia, the Netherlands and Canada now all have a more favorable view of China than of the United States. Many of the countries surveyed — including Germany, Chile and Indonesia — have greater confidence in the leadership of Xi than that of Trump. China has aggressively sought to improve its image in the world, spending billions on foreign aid, promising trade and investment, and opening Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture.
Meanwhile, consider how the United States must look now to the rest of the world. It is politically paralyzed, unable to make major decisions. Amidst a ballooning debt, its investments in education, infrastructure, and science and technology are seriously lacking. Politics has become a branch of reality TV, with daily insults, comebacks and color commentary. America’s historical leadership role in the world has been replaced by a narrow and cramped ideology. Foreign policy has become a partisan game, with Washington breaking agreements, shifting course and reversing policy almost entirely to score political points at home.
The shift in reputation that we are witnessing around the world is not so much about the rise of China but rather the decline of the United States.
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