OUR MAN IN Davos sends word that he can barely pick his way through the crowds at the annual gathering of the world’s great and the good at the World Economic Forum without tripping over yet another member of the largest government delegation China has ever sent, not to mention more than 50 leading Chinese chief executives and their entourages.
Their presence is even more noticeable in the absence of a US delegation, US officials being instructed by President Donald Trump not to attend because of the US government shutdown.
The ‘optics’, as they say, of the US president rubbing shoulders with the global elite at a time when many of the 800,000 US federal workers furloughed by the shutdown were queuing at soup kitchens or for unemployment cheques, would not look good to his still-adoring domestic electoral base. However, it is easy to imagine also that Trump would not find the Burning Man of globalisation much to his ‘America First’ tastes, or his reception particularly warm.
Vice-president Wang Qishan, leading the Chinese delegation and vying with outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the star political turn this year, certainly gave the United States the thinnest of thinly veiled workings over.
While painstakingly mentioning neither Trump nor the United States by name, his speech relayed a self-confident message of the great renewal of the Chinese nation and how China was duly asserting its place in the world, one that was a leadership role.
In essence, that message was:
It is a new world. China’s is back. It is a world player and you, United States, had better realise that not only do you no longer rule the roost alone, but we and the other developing nations are no longer going to be takers of the rules of the global order that you alone write, but givers of those rules. And, by the way, don’t bully us over technology, and don’t interfere in our national sovereignty or economic and industrial policy, i.e., lay off Made in China 2025. We can run our economies as we choose, not how you say.
Wang did not, of course, use any of that language; it is entirely our man’s decoding.
How Wang expressed it was:
Adjustments need to be made both economies and societies domestically and to the rules of the international order of economic governance…[China has] the right to take part in the global technological governance system as equals…It is imperative to respect national sovereignty and refrain from pursuing technological hegemony, interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs, and conducting, shielding or protecting technology-enabled activities that undermine other countries’ national security…We reject the practices of the strong bullying the weak and self-claimed supremacy.
Those are lines that do not take much reading between.
Wang also said:
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. All these are posing serious challenges to the international order. Will economic globalisation move forward or reverse course? …What we need to do is make the pie bigger while looking for ways to share it in a more equitable way. The last thing we should do is to stop making the pie and just engage in a futile debate on how to divide it.
Even though US officials were not in Davos to rebut Wang, plenty of Western business leaders are there, and have let senior Chinese officials know in the private dinners that are the real power centres of Davos of their concerns over the way intellectual property protections are abused in China and the legal or illegal acquisition of Western technology IP in support of Made in China 2025.
And one US government heavyweight still managed some pre-emptive retaliation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who addressed the forum by video link the previous day
Pompeo rehearsed his stump speech from his recent swing through what Washington now calls the Indo-Pacific, where he warned of China’s state-centred economic model, its belligerence towards its neighbours, and its embrace of a totalitarian state at home, before holding out an olive branch of sorts:
There are those who say that conflict, superpower conflict between our two countries is inevitable – we don’t see it that way. We want to find places where we can work together.
The old win-win. The question is, will there eventually be just one winner?