Under fire for introducing and spreading Coronavirus across the world and reproached for their move to assert control over Hong Kong, China’s officials are in firefighting mode. Their approach has two parts. First, sell the China story – emphasizing its success in the fight against the coronavirus. Second, attack those who seek to tarnish the country’s image.
President Xi Jinping has left this battle to his subordinates. With the world spinning into crisis, he has a bigger campaign to occupy him: taking over the international institutions, like the World Health Organization and the United Nations, that manage the world.
Interestingly, the plan also bears a suitably benign title – “Community with a Shared Future for Mankind.” First proposed by Jinping in 2013 and introduced at the United Nations two years later, the concept revolves around the importance of consultation and dialogue, of inclusivity and consensus, of win-win cooperation and shared benefits. It is, in short, entirely vague. And that’s the point.
China has always said it is not seeking to overthrow the global order. We should listen. Why would China go to the trouble of capsizing the global order when it can simply take it over, whole and intact?
After all, China is the biggest beneficiary of globalization. It has systematically used Western-led multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, to advance its interests and influence. Though still fighting for greater control of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it has captured the leadership of four key United Nations agencies that set international rules and standards.
China’s message to the world is simple: China is ready to pick up the slack, as the United States retreats from its global responsibilities. For a world exhausted and impoverished by the pandemic, it’s a seductive proposition. Anybody who takes the reins will be good enough.
There’s good reason for the gamble. The pandemic may have exposed shortcomings of China’s system, but it also uncovered many deficiencies of the West. The United States and Europe, each burdened by political difficulties and social challenges, are struggling to contain a virus for which they were unprepared. The global institutions they created after World War II are directionless. The rest of the world has been left to fend for itself as best it can.
Even though China stumbled at the start of the pandemic, the West appears to be losing the moral high ground. By the time the United States chooses its next president, China hopes to have regained the confidence of the world. It will then firmly have the advantage.
It’s hard to remain optimistic at such a prospect. The world needs balance – at the moment, no country other than the United States has the means to ensure it. At a practical level, its leadership is indispensable.
But it’s more than that. The world needs American leadership to remind it that respect for freedom and human dignity provides the best path to a shared future of humankind.
The Beijing model — where an authoritarian party-state single-mindedly exalts economic betterment over free political choice — cannot be widely emulated. Dependent on China’s unique culture and history, the method can work only there. Democracy, by contrast, is based on universal principles that can be followed everywhere, by everyone.
If the West can’t recover its faith in the universal power of democracy, China could then take the world, as it is.