It is perhaps safe to say that when it comes to preaching about globalization and openness or how to build a better world, very few, if any, other world leaders could do better than Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Over the past few years, especially since Donald Trump was elected America’s 45th president in November 2016, Xi has repeatedly urged other countries to uphold – and, consequently, painted his country as a, if not the, champion of – an open world economy, globalization, multilateralism and fundamental international norms.
All this was evident in his remarks before and during his recent European trip. For instance, before his arrival in France, the last stop of his six-day outing that began in Italy on March 21, he penned an op-ed for Le Figaro, one of France’s main newspapers.
In that so-called “signed article,” Xi, who often regards himself as an altruistic leader of not just the 1.3-billion-people country but also the whole of mankind, opined that “humanity stands at a critical stage of development. The challenges and risks we confront are ever more complex, and the opportunities we could grasp are just as unprecedented.”
With such a view, he hoped, “the two sides will seize the historic opportunity, meet challenges with joint efforts, and deepen strategic mutual trust in order to broaden the horizon for our common development and shared prosperity.”
“To succeed in this endeavor,” he suggested, “it is most important that we act out four key principles” – namely “independence,” “openness and win-win,” “inclusiveness and mutual learning” and “a strong sense of responsibility.”
In expanding those principles, he hailed China’s “reform and opening-up” over the past four decades, pledging that his country “will only open wider in the future,” and urged France and China to work together to “unequivocally reject protectionism, uphold an open world economy and make economic globalization more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial for all.”
He also hoped that China and France – two of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members – could cooperate with each other to “safeguard multilateralism,” “uphold the basic norms governing international relations as underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” “promote global prosperity and stability and build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
All this sounds very good. But for those who are aware and wary of China’s policies and practices, especially in recent years, Xi’s diplomatic rhetoric sounds too good to be true.
Ten days before the Chinese leader’s European tour, the European Commission (EC) and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy published a communication on China, which described the Asian country as “a key global actor and leading technological power” whose “economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed” in the last decade.
The joint communication said China’s “increasing presence in the world, including in Europe, should be accompanied by greater responsibilities for upholding the rules-based international order, as well as greater reciprocity, non-discrimination, and openness of its system. China’s publicly stated reform ambitions should translate into policies or actions commensurate with its role and responsibility.”
It also stated, “As a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council and a beneficiary of the multilateral system, China has the responsibility to support all three pillars of the [UN], namely Human Rights, Peace and Security, and Development.”
However, according the document, the Asian power does not always take or fulfill those responsibilities. For instance, it said, “China’s engagement in favor of multilateralism is sometimes selective and based on a different understanding of the rules-based international order.” The country “has not always been willing to accept new rules reflecting the responsibility and accountability that come with its increased role.”
Concerning Beijing’s human-rights record, while recognizing “China’s progress in economic and social rights,” the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service pointed out that “in other respects, the human-rights situation in China is deteriorating.”
The communication also pointedly observed, “China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea and the refusal to accept the binding arbitration rulings issued under the [UN] Convention on the Law of the Sea [awarded on July 12, 2016] affect the international legal order and make it harder to resolve tensions affecting sea-lanes of communication vital to the EU’s economic interests.”
What’s more, the document said the Asian behemoth had “increasingly become a strategic competitor for the EU while failing to reciprocate market access and maintain a level playing field.” It noted that “China preserves its domestic markets for its champions” and listed a wide range of unfair practices by Beijing.
These include “shielding [its state-owned and private-sector companies] from competition through selective market opening, licensing and other investment restrictions” and providing them with “heavy subsidies.” Beijing also favors “domestic operators in the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights and other domestic laws” or limits access to government-funded programs for foreign companies. “One of the sectors where the lack of reciprocal market access is particularly acute is financial services,” the EC’s communiqué underlined.
China’s lack of reciprocity was particularly highlighted by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EC President Jean-Claude Juncker during their joint meeting with Xi Jinping in Paris on Tuesday.
In a press conference after the talks, Macron, who declared last week that the “time of European naïveté” toward China was over, told the Chinese president that while Europe’s opening of its markets had helped take “700 million Chinese out of poverty,” it had generated “deep tensions in our society,” which led “to the need for legitimate protection.”
Juncker reiterated EU calls for better trade reciprocity so that “European businesses could have the same degree of access to the Chinese market as Chinese businesses have in Europe.” In her remarks, the German chancellor stated, “We, Europeans, want to play an active part” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But she added, “that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit.”
In remarks on March 22, China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, rejected Brussels’ complaints about Beijing’s unfair competition and lack of reciprocity. He said, “It’s true that China has developed fast. But absolute reciprocity, though [it] sounds nice, is still far-fetched between China, whose industrialization did not start until 40 years ago, and Europe, whose industrial revolution already started 260 years ago. Just as it is premature to ask a Chinese U15 soccer team to be on a par with a UEFA champion.”
But the Chinese envoy’s comments are unconvincing, hypocritical and contradictory.
As the EC’s China communication (rightly) pointed out, the world’s second-biggest economy is no longer “a developing country,” but “a key global actor and leading technological power,” which has “ambitions to become a leading global power.”
In his remarks at the joint press briefing with the three European leaders on Tuesday, the Chinese president himself acknowledged that, boasting: “In 40 years, we [the Chinese] have achieved what it took Western countries three centuries to do.”
In October 2017 and March 2018, Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, already publicly and assertively declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” “with an entirely new posture … now stands tall and firm in the East,” strides forward “at the forefront of the world” and will “take the center stage in the world.”
On this note, EU leaders are right to tell China to play fair on trade and behave more responsibly in other key areas, such as the South China Sea and human rights, if it wants to be seen as a truly responsible, benign and altruistic power, as its core leader has vehemently depicted.