China’s place in today’s world

In just one generation, China has achieved through capitalist development what it could not accomplish by exporting Maoist socialism. Credit for this unprecedented global clout is generally given to Deng Xiaoping, who once reminded his people that “to be rich is glorious.”

This heresy, which became a popular slogan, was a turning point in China’s ideological transformation. From the doomed effort to form the socialist human being through agrarian socialism, the Chinese Communist Party sought instead to create a robust economy using the tools of market capitalism. Rather than view it as a reversal of the socialist vision, however, the Party interpreted the modernization of the Chinese economy through capitalism as building the precondition for a socialist society, in which prosperity — not poverty — is democratized.

No better confirmation is there of Deng’s genius than to see China today preside over a gathering of world leaders and top business executives to discuss how to spread the benefits of capitalist development through the integration of the world’s trade, manufacturing and communication infrastructure. This is what the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is about — at least on paper. Launched in 2013, the BRI has generated interest from at least 150 countries.

At the second BRI Forum in Beijing this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the assembled guests: “The Belt and Road cooperation involves new ways to improve opportunities for common prosperity and economic globalization. We should keep the parties motivated in the spirit of multilateralism. In going ahead, we should focus on opportunities.”

This sounds more like standard IMF-World Bank-ADB rhetoric than the fraternal assurances typically given by a socialist leader to visiting comrades from communist parties and movements. No talk of revolution here, only of promoting the gospel of globalization. Having succeeded in gaming the world capitalist system, the new China seeks to open all doors and lift all barriers to trade and investment. Together with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping has become a leading critic of protectionism.

Armed with its tremendous economic capacity, China today behaves more or less like the United States at the end of World War II, or surplus-rich Japan in the 1980s. It leverages its economic clout not just to create more wealth for itself and its companies, but to extend its sphere of influence to other areas. The use of economic aid or official development assistance is key to this strategy. It is certainly not unique to China. The old term for it is neocolonialism.

Having succeeded in establishing a firm foothold in the global capitalist system, China is inescapably caught in its logic no matter how much the communist party leadership tries to regulate its insertion into the system. The big question is how long it can sustain the dynamism of its open economy, while keeping its political system closed.

The communist party’s tight grip on China’s political system, and, in turn, the Chinese state’s control of its market economy remains a kink in the country’s economic modernity. The close intertwining of economic interests with political objectives introduces a complexity that other countries’ business enterprises are not comfortable with when dealing with Chinese companies. The lack of transparency breeds distrust, fosters corruption and raises concerns about “debt traps” and other hidden agendas.

These negative perceptions inevitably seep into the politics of countries that receive Chinese aid and loans or host Chinese investments, often blending dangerously with existing anti-Chinese prejudices. Yet, there is no denying the fact that the rise of China as a global economic power has raised economic productivity worldwide. It has made the world’s wealthy people richer than before. But, it has also made many commodities, hitherto only dreamed about, available at cheap prices to poor people in low-income countries.

China’s rise, on the whole, has been good for world capitalism. And, perhaps, no one knows this better than the big capitalist conglomerates themselves that saw their profits rise beyond imagination when they started relocating segments of their production to China. China was no fool to merely allow foreign companies to exploit its cheap labor. It saw in this the opportunity to learn new techniques of production, to transfer technology and to gain access to new markets.

But, while it has phenomenally succeeded in actualizing its vision of the Chinese future, the country continues to grapple with image problems. And these pertain not only to the Chinese state, but also to its people. Flush with cash and eager to see the world outside, mainland Chinese are only beginning to learn the norms of international travel. Their reputation for unruly behavior precedes them.

These perceptions do not die easily. They manifest themselves in nearly every public opinion survey. Like the almost blanket trust they reserve to the United States, Filipinos’ distrust for China is axiomatic and unexamined.

Of all the unconventional positions President Duterte has taken, it is his declared pivot to China that is potentially the costliest in political terms. That public approval of his presidency remains high despite his obsequious pro-Chinese pronouncements only shows the public’s general indifference to foreign-policy issues. But the moment Filipinos begin to feel that mainland Chinese are taking over their neighborhoods and their jobs, the political equation could change overnight.