World Economic Forum organizers are expecting leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for a virtual gathering next week — after the COVID-19 pandemic doused plans for the annual in-person event in Davos, Switzerland….
Borge Brende, the forum president, said Xi and Modi will be joined also by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in for the event, and such leaders will consider “the role that Asia will play in the recovery.”
There are those of us old enough to remember an earlier occasion when Xi’s presence at Davos was seen as a rebuke to the newly elected Donald Trump, an unruly type who threatened not to play by globalization’s rules, a rebuke none too subtly echoed by the Chinese leader in segments of his speech.
Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a vigorous defense of free trade at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday in a speech that underscored Beijing’s desire to play a greater global role as the United States turns inward…
In the first appearance by a Chinese leader at the annual meeting of political leaders, CEOs and bankers in the Swiss Alps, Xi also cautioned other countries against blindly pursuing their national interests, in an apparent reference to the “America first” policies of Donald Trump…
“In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility the world is looking to China,” WEF founder and chairman Klaus Schwab said before welcoming Xi to the stage.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, reacting to Xi’s speech on Twitter, said: “There is a vacuum when it comes to global economic leadership, and Xi Jinping is clearly aiming to fill it. With some success.”
China went from being lambasted for being an irresponsible stakeholder in the mid-2000s, to now being seen as the linchpin of global economic stability. This reality set in for many on Tuesday as China’s President Xi Jinping took the stage to deliver a staunch defense of economic globalization, and international cooperation on issues that threaten global prosperity and growth.
Contrast these remarks to the outbursts from President-elect of the United States Donald Trump about the unfair advantages built into the global economy’s rules of the game…
Well, you get the picture.
The fact that China then, as now, was an authoritarian state, actively pursuing a mercantilist economic policy (for all its fine words about free trade), actively pursuing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and actively persecuting minorities, whether Tibetan, Mongol or, increasingly, Uyghur, was no secret. Yet none of this seemed to matter too much to those attending at Davos. After all, Xi said the right things, however implausible, about China’s commitment to free trade, and even paid (however implausibly) his respects to the Paris Climate Agreement:
All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.
In other words, Xi made a good enough pretense of being an upright global citizen that the Davos crowd was prepared to overlook a few . . . shortcomings.
And so, when Klaus Schwab, the man behind Davos and the future propagandist for a “Great Reset” could announce, evidently admiringly, that “the world is looking to China,” few, if any, of those present seem to have demurred.
Now fast forward four years and Xi is reportedly going to make a virtual return to Davos (or, more accurately, the World Economic Forum).
So what else will be discussed there?
Klaus Schwab said the aim of the virtual “Davos Agenda” meeting starting Jan. 25 is to restore trust and engage all stakeholders in business, government, civil society and beyond to help build a “more peaceful and prosperous post-corona era.”
Under the circumstances then, it might seem odd to be hosting Xi (even in the context of a discussion on Asia’s role in the recovery). After all, 2020 saw China’s military adventurism extend to the Indian border, and the regime has also brutally extinguished most of what remains of Hong Kong’s autonomy, effectively tearing up an international treaty to do so — disappointing behavior for a country allegedly so committed to the global legal order. And then there is the little matter of what has now become the genocide of the Uyghurs. It might have been hoped that the WEF would at least draw the line at that, but apparently not.
Now, of course, statesmen have to meet, and to deal with, their grisly counterparts from across the globe. That goes with the job, and, despite the occasionally nauseating exchange of flowery platitudes that accompany such meetings and dealings, they need not denote any sort of approval.
But, for all the WEF’s pretensions (and somewhat alarming ambitions), Schwab is no statesman, representing his country. There was no need for him to invite Xi, other perhaps than to help pull in a crowd and/or feed his already swollen sense of self-importance. But that Schwab has done so, is, along with that reference to “stakeholders” (a Davos staple), yet another reminder that, on a not unreasonable interpretation of what the WEF stands for, democracy does not rank very high.
As I noted last year, the WEF’s technocratic vision and, more specifically, its embrace of “stakeholder capitalism” looks a lot like a derivative of corporatism:
Corporatism [is] a hydra-headed ideology with origins in the premodern, and a very mixed past — sometimes benignly (it influenced the formation of West Germany’s social market economy) and sometimes not (it was an important element in pre-war fascist theory.) The different forms corporatism has taken make it tricky to define with precision, but they share a common core: the conviction that society should be organized by and for its principal interest groups — let’s call them “stakeholders” — intermediated by, and ultimately subordinate to, the state. The individual does not get a look in.
Although China may still be nominally Communist, it is far better seen as a corporatist state, and, worse still, a corporatist state that draws on corporatism’s fascist variant.
Quite what that says about Xi’s forthcoming appearance at the WEF’s event, I will leave to you to decide.