“You have to realize that democracy is not working very well,” Fang said. “You need political reforms in your countries.”
He added that he meant this “with sincerity.”
Fang’s remarks drew collegial chuckles from the Davos crowd but left behind a lingering unease. On one hand, it’s not unusual for an emissary of authoritarian Beijing to deflect criticism by pointing out the weaknesses of political systems elsewhere. On the other hand, it seemed blindingly obvious that Fang was right.
“We need to breathe fresh life into democracy,” Kumi Naidoo, the secretary general of Amnesty International, told Today’s WorldView. He decried how illiberal leaders such as President Trump have gained power through divisive campaigning, “undermining public institutions” along the way.
Set against these profound anxieties, China can look almost serene. In 2017, China stole the show at Davos when President Xi Jinping styled himself as a guardian of the international order in the face of imminent Trumpist chaos. This year, Vice President Wang Qishan echoed Xi’s stance.
“Many countries are increasingly looking inward when making policies, barriers to international trade and investment are increasing, and unilateralism, protectionism and populism are spreading in the world,” Wang said on Wednesday, jabbing at the Trump administration. “All these are posing serious challenges to the international order.”
Of course, things aren’t quite as calm as they were two years ago. China is now locked in a protracted trade war with Washington. Beijing has detained several foreign nationals — including two Canadians — on flimsy grounds. Its ambitious global infrastructure plans have both excited and worried observers, who fret over how a budding authoritarian hegemon may refashion the world’s politics. If there were once any illusions that Xi’s China could be a “liberal” power, there certainly aren’t any now.
Yet at Davos, China seemed far more an opportunity than a boogeyman. No major conversation on trade, climate change or new technologies seemed worth having without reference to Chinese perspectives or practices. While Chinese companies and business executives were ubiquitous at the forum’s sessions, talk of China’s repression — not least Beijing’s detention of possibly more than a million people in the far-western region of Xinjiang — or its allegedly unfair trade practices was conspicuously absent.
On Wednesday evening, the local government of the Chinese port city of Dalian hosted a lavish dinner for forum attendees, flying in dumpling chefs from Dalian’s Shangri-La Hotel while touting the city’s cutting-edge broadband connectivity.
“This year, China is really the country everyone is talking about,” Karin von Hippel, the head of the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Today’s WorldView. “China is a growing power and is obviously a threat in some ways, but at the same time, it’s so big and will be so powerful that we can’t treat China as an enemy. We all have to figure out ways to work with it.”
That’s exactly what Washington is not doing, according to experts at the forum. Kishore Mahbubani, a leading Singaporean academic and former diplomat, argued that Trump has his approach backward. Rather than playing the disruptive actor and unsettling its Asian allies in the process, he said, the United States should have moved to rein in Beijing by bolstering its partnerships throughout the region.
“Rationally, what the U.S. should be doing is to strengthen multilateral institutions that will ultimately constrain China,” Mahbubani said at a panel.
But multilateralism is hardly Trump’s cup of tea. After all, in his first week in office, he hammered the final nail in the coffin of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama-era multilateral trade pact that would have bound the Asia-Pacific region more closely to an American-led status quo.
“We are already seeing the effects of the trade tensions,” Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s finance minister, said at another panel. Heng warned of the potential havoc that sustained U.S.-China animosities may exact on global supply chains.
“The big uncertainty is the U.S.-China trade negotiation, which is not really about trade; it’s about a new world order,” Hendrik du Toit, the chief executive of major asset management firm Investec, told CNBC, forecasting dangerous economic head winds. “And if we get a dysfunctional world order having come from a space which was very, very good for business over the last 20, 30 years since communism fell, then there may be some big hits along the way and there may be some big challenges.”
The attendees at Davos looked toward the uncertain weeks and months ahead, as U.S. and Chinese officials wrangle over a trade compromise that could calm the markets. But whatever happens in the short term — or in the life span of Trump’s presidency — there’s a longer-term reckoning that will have to come when China eventually unseats the United States as the world’s largest economy.
“Can we live in a world where America is still a strong power but doesn’t have the kind of primacy it had in the past?” asked Mahbubani. That’s a reality an “America First” administration is staunchly trying to resist. In Davos, though, it is a fait accompli.