Reckoning with an empire state of mind
Let’s start with a hypothetical: It’s early 2022. Countries around the world are beginning to recover from nearly two years of social distancing, illness, and a shocking amount of death. Mass vaccination for COVID‑19 has been under way globally for several months and — gradually, carefully — people are emerging from their isolation to resume a more normal rhythm to their lives.
Slowly, as friends, families, and colleagues gather to share their stories and remember the dead, conversations turn to the other pandemic casualty: the devastated economies of those countries where it hit the hardest. As governments dealt with an unprecedented halt to economic activity, they opened the spending taps; central banks printed money and bought bonds. Now, the bills are coming due. Faced with a mix of significant tax hikes, spending cuts, currency devaluations, and other unpleasant fiscal and monetary measures, people all over wonder if their countries should take advantage of China’s post-pandemic answer to the Marshall Plan, the so‑called Li Wenliang Plan, named after the ophthalmologist who first raised the alarm about the novel coronavirus back in December 2019.
While China did not emerge unscathed from the pandemic, it did manage to limit the severity of its own economic downturn by acting quickly in early 2020 to limit the spread of the virus within its borders. Even with depressed global demand for made-in-China products, the country’s vast and growing domestic economy meant that its recession was relatively mild. Consequently, China was able to use its vast foreign reserves to launch its ambitious Li Wenliang Plan, with a goal of helping “strategically important” countries offset the costs of their own pandemic spending. Initial results will be reported back at the Twentieth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later in the year.
Most Western governments initially balked at Beijing’s offer. However, when faced with the reality of their debts, they began to reason, “Well, the virus did emerge in China. Why shouldn’t it pay?”
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But why wouldn’t China’s leadership think this way? It would be a clever evolution of the country’s growing global clout.
Internationally, China’s economic influence has increased vastly over the past decade. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2013 and has become one of the largest infrastructure and investment projects in history. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which China controls, has a subscribed capital base of $100 billion (U.S.) and includes such Western countries as the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, France, and Canada. China is now the second-largest contributor to the United Nations and seeks understandings, connections, and closer trade, banking, and business relations with Russia, Europe, and key African and South American countries simultaneously. Depending on the model, China has either the world’s largest or its second-largest economy.
In other words, China is projecting its economic might as we would expect a great power to do. At the Nineteenth Party Congress, in 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and proudly asserted that the country had entered a “new era,” when it would “take centre stage in the world” and make “a greater contribution to humankind.” So while a Li Wenliang Plan may be fictional now, it could certainly become reality tomorrow.
What might China seek to do with its enhanced power? Does it wish to reclaim the full scope of its erstwhile glory and once again project unique central power, this time at the head of a new global order fashioned in its image and around its interests? Is its ambition more parochial, extending regionally throughout the Asia-Pacific and Central Asia, where it assumes its place in a global balance of power alongside the United States and certain ascendant nations? Do the leaders think past the consolidation of China’s dominant position at the centre of global supply chains, manufacturing networks, and emerging technologies driven by artificial intelligence? If so, what do they see? Over the past decade, such questions have consumed elected officials, civil servants, business leaders, development specialists, and international relations scholars around the world.
And it may be too early to tell. After all, China remains, on a per capita basis, relatively poor, and it faces daunting challenges at home. However, while the country may not be launching an overseas Marshall Plan just yet — and nobody knows what the economic fallout of the pandemic will ultimately be — it is not unreasonable to assume that China’s economic growth will continue.
Before COVID‑19, the country had already begun to rebalance its economy from an overreliance on export-led growth to greater domestic economic activity, and from labour-intensive manufacturing to higher-margin products and services. This trend will likely accelerate in the wake of the crisis, as countries that found themselves reliant on China for critical health care and pharmaceutical products (among other things) will likely bring home these and other critical manufacturing capacities, further encouraging China’s development of its own domestic market.
Even then, given the country’s scale and position in global supply chains and the sheer difficulty others will have in breaking away from overseas production, much manufacturing capacity will likely remain in China for the foreseeable future. Even Donald Trump, who was elected in some measure on the promise of returning manufacturing capacity to the United States, has had difficulty delivering on this front. What limited success the Trump administration has had seems to have been a result of corporate tax breaks, a rollback of environmental and other regulations, and low energy prices — all fickle factors that can change rather quickly.
China’s GDP may no longer be growing at 7 percent or more a year, but it’s a safe bet it will continue to achieve the growth levels needed to sustain its transition from a developing to a middle-class economy. Beyond its commercial relationships, it is also reasonable to assume that China expects greater and greater deference as it reclaims the central position beyond its borders that it occupied for most of human history. There are numerous recent examples of this tendency, ranging from land and resource claims in the South China Sea to engineering and infrastructure projects in Africa to acquiring strategic ports in the Indian Ocean.
Canadians can see Beijing’s increased demands for deference at play in the Meng Wanzhou saga. As deputy chair and chief financial officer of China’s largest private company, Huawei, itself a world-beating enterprise, Meng is an example of her country’s rising dynamism and global ambition. Authorities in Vancouver arrested her in December 2018, at the request of the United States, for her alleged role in Huawei’s breach of sanctions against Iran. And Canada’s move has led to significant retaliatory action: China has banned certain agricultural imports from Canada, for example, and has detained two Canadian citizens, the former diplomat Michael Kovrig and the development consultant Michael Spavor.
It’s not that China’s leadership doesn’t understand the obligations Canada has under its extradition treaty with Washington; it just sees those norms as subsidiary to its own interests and grievances. Meng’s arrest is seen as an affront to China’s international stature and an unpleasant reminder of its relative weakness over the past century and a half.
In his 2014 book, World Order, Henry Kissinger wrote that the Chinese “expect — and sooner or later will act on this expectation — the international order to evolve in a way that enables China to become centrally involved in further international rule making, even to the point of revising some of the rules that prevail.” That emerging global order is still taking shape, but to assume China will not play a central role in it is to deny reality.
To be sure, some prominent voices have argued that COVID‑19 — far from being a strategic opportunity — may well end up being the Chinese Communist Party’s “Chernobyl moment.” (Even Mikhail Gorbachev has suggested the lies, cover‑ups, and official dissembling during the 1986 nuclear disaster were “the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union” in 1991.) But the evidence is thin and may reflect more wishful thinking than thoughtful analysis. The pandemic is unlikely to lead to the outright collapse of the CCP, which is far more nimble and vigorous than the old Soviet Communist Party, with its plodding apparatchiks. If anything, the crisis seems to have persuaded many Chinese citizens to rally around their flag and has encouraged other authoritarian leaders to use the moment to augment their own powers.
China’s mixed model of authoritarianism and state-directed capitalism has brought undoubted benefits: according to the World Bank, the country’s poverty rate fell from nearly 90 percent in 1981 to about 2 percent in 2013. Assuming a poverty line of $1.90 (U.S.) per day, based on international purchasing power parity, this suggests more than 850 million Chinese people have escaped penury. Since the CCP cannot point to a democratic mandate for its legitimacy to govern, it touts such accomplishments as justification for its rule. And it has a point: owing to its vast geography, enormous population, and historic poverty, tens of millions of Chinese have perished during times of instability — from famine, drought, disease, natural disasters, war and warlordism, and other calamities. Democratic freedoms, the CCP argues, cannot take the place of social stability, which is the paramount proof of good leadership.
However, that stability comes at a frightening cost. To choose just two current examples, it is used to justify the monstrous extrajudicial internment of as many as one million Uighurs, to cleanse them of anti-party or anti-Chinese sentiments, and to defend the truly Orwellian mass surveillance punishment-and-reward system known as social credit, whereby the CCP aims to regulate the personal behaviour of all citizens.
Canadians might ask, So what? What the CCP does at home has no bearing on us. But, in fact, China’s emergence as a global power means that its actions increasingly affect us all.
As COVID‑19 began to spread, China’s leadership tried to cover it up. Irwin Cotler and Judith Abitan have observed in the Times of Israel: “The world would have been more prepared and able to combat COVID‑19 had it not been for President Xi’s authoritarian regime’s widespread and systematic pattern of sanitizing the massive domestic repression of its people.” And in the Sunday Times, the historian Niall Ferguson has argued, “China’s problem, like Russia’s before 1991, is the One Party Problem. And so long as a fifth of humanity are subject to the will of an unaccountable, corrupt and power-hungry organization with a long history of crimes against its own people, the rest of humanity will not be safe.”
Neither China nor the Chinese people are responsible for COVID‑19. However, the actions of the country’s leadership at the beginning of this crisis were unacceptably negligent. The CCP’s reflexes of secrecy, censorship, and denial were the pandemic’s original sin.
Unfortunately, this instinct seems to be a feature, and not a bug, of China’s current political system. The great hope of the 1990s — that the country would liberalize politically as it grew economically — has not materialized. For now, its model of (increasing) authoritarianism and economic growth continues to attract popular support among its citizens. For now, the China we see is the China we’ve got.
The wish to see China liberalized is understandable to those in liberal societies who see the abuses to individual dignity and worth and find them in stark contrast to our values. At the same time, it has become unfashionable to defend liberalism: the political expression of the Enlightenment ideal of inherent individual autonomy, dignity, and worth. Many Westerners — from the so‑called progressive left, which finds liberalism systematically exploitative of all minority groups, to the reactionary right, which sees liberalism as inherently and dangerously disruptive of all tradition — feel the liberal creed has failed us. They may well agree with Vladimir Putin, who says that liberalism has “outlived its purpose.”
Indeed, liberal democracy’s ability to deliver a better future for its citizens has experienced some significant setbacks, notably the 2008–09 financial crisis and the rise of twenty-first-century populist demagogues, who have been elected because of deep and very real divides. However, despite these failings, feelings, and frustrations, liberalism is the most successful set of ideas of the last half millennium. (In defence of liberalism, one is tempted to say “Know history,” but a more manageable task would be to read some recent books, including Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, and, yes, even Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works.)
Liberalism owes much of its success to its flexibility: when you cherish the rule of law, individual rights, equality of opportunity, and democratic elections, you are handed a powerful set of tools with which to identify and correct errors and injustices, and to bounce back from crises. Do liberal politics have problems today? Yes. Does liberalism provide a solution to these problems? Also yes.
Of course, China’s rise is not occurring in a vacuum. It coincides with the relative decline of the world’s leading liberal power, the United States. The country that Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth” is having one of its periodic flirtations with fascism (putting kids in cages is not a liberal ideal), which makes the job of defending liberalism in general, and the United States in particular, much more difficult.
The critically incompetent domestic American response to the pandemic further drives home that country’s political shortcomings. For the first time in a long time, few (if any) countries are looking to the United States for leadership during a global crisis. And this shift presents a particular challenge for Canada. Our country has benefited enormously from the global order led by the United States since the end of the Second World War. Today, however, we’re faced with the unpalatable prospect of maintaining relations with a country run by a sinister administration that seems uninterested in, exhausted by, or hostile to its leadership role. However, let’s make no mistake: there is no country willing or able to take on America’s role as the indispensable liberal power.
The next few decades will be marked by a growing rivalry between the United States and China, and Canada, which will remain a medium-sized power, has no choice but to maintain a close relationship with our neighbours to the south. Despite deep misgivings about the Trump administration, Canadians, on the whole, understand that our interests and values are inextricably bound to a liberal world order.
Canadians must continue to use whatever modest diplomatic and commercial resources we have to nudge Washington away from its current course. We must hope that American voters remember that liberalism is the animating feature of their country’s political life — despite its illiberal lapses — and we must also hope they defeat Donald Trump this fall. The alternative, a world without a liberal great power — a world shaped by the Li Wenliang Plan — would be far worse.