Opinion

Don't believe China's lies

China is trying to use Trump's unpopularity to make itself look good. Don't buy it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has a message for you: He is the grown-up in the room, and he only means well.

Don't believe a word of it.

Over the weekend, China organized what it calls the "Belt and Road Forum," a gathering of 30 countries. During his speech, Xi pledged money to the One Belt One Road initiative, an infrastructure project involving countries across Europe, Asia, and Africa. He also urged countries to join hands with him in pursuit of globalization.

As is the case with most international forums, this was mostly a PR exercise. But PR matters in international relations, and the entire affair was essentially a subtweet of one man: Donald J. Trump.

Here's the picture of China that Xi is hoping his stunt will paint:

While America's economy is stagnating under Trump, China is a new rising economic superpower. While America bombs left and right, China doesn't mean any harm to anyone (unless "provoked," of course), and is pledging $100 billion for development banks. While America retreats from globalization under Trump, China stands for an open, friendly world, extolling the benefits of free trade. While America's leader is erratic, unpredictable, and nationalistic, China's leader is a boring technocrat who only wants boring technocrat things like economic growth and development.

Of course, this is all balderdash.

America's economy could be doing much better, but it's not doing too badly, either. More to the point, it's still the most phenomenally productive economy on Earth, whose poorest states are richer than Germany and Sweden. Meanwhile, far from an economic superpower, China might as well be split into two countries that are increasingly at odds: an advanced country of 50 to 100 million people yoked to a dirt-poor country of one billion and change. While China has undeniably had some real growth, most of that is built on unsustainable bubbles — stock market bubbles, credit bubbles, real estate bubbles, and government-driven make-work elephant projects. America has historically been the world's economic engine; whatever else you may say about China, it is nowhere near a position to replace it in that role.

Meanwhile, China's concept of "peaceful rise," whereby China claims that even though its power is increasing, it doesn't intend to use it to aggravate anybody, would be met with bitter laughter in surrounding states. Consider its aggressive recent power grab in the South China Sea, which flies in the face of international law. And China claims it wants to be the good kid in the class when it comes to international institutions? I don't think so.

And on trade, while China and the United States seem to be at opposite ends, the reality is that they're the same: preaching one thing and doing something else. Under Donald Trump, the U.S. talks about reining in free trade, but has thus far done almost nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, while Xi talks a good game about free trade, China does anything but practice it. It engages in stringent capital controls, curtails foreign investment in its economy, and engages in massive subsidization of its export sector, from currency manipulation to soft loans to exporters from government and government-linked banks. Whatever the merits of free trade versus protectionism in the abstract, it cannot be said that China truly engages in free trade.

Finally, while it's true that America's leader is irrational and unpredictable, and China's isn't, Xi is very much a nationalist. He has concentrated power under himself to an extent unseen since Mao, as compared to previous Chinese leaders who, while vested with autocratic powers, tended to rule more by consensus and involving the country's various stakeholders in decision-making. More to the point, it has been his decision for China to engage in brinksmanship in its near abroad, and he has set up a nationalistic personality cult through state propaganda that is also a throwback to China's totalitarian past.

The point is this: Whatever the problems with Trump, and whatever you think about China, don't believe the hype. In terms of PR, Trump is the perfect foil for China, an opportunity to suggest that America is decadent and chaotic while China's technocratic authoritarians are patiently winning the future. And many in the West believe this story. But it's not real.

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