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What China's Davos Coverage Reveals About Its Global Ambitions

 
 

China was represented at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by Liu He, an influential economic adviser to President Xi Jinping. But according to the Chinese media coverage of the event, Xi himself was front and center – not physically, but through the echoes of his “historic” and “enlightening” speech given last year at Davos. China’s state-run media outlets have been in overdrive, pumping out articles extolling Xi’s speech from last year and its supposed acceptance by (and influence on) the leaders at Davos.

Exhibit A is an article that appeared as the headline on Xinhua’s webpage during the Davos gathering, remembering Xi’s “historic” speech at Davos in 2017. A sample quote: “After the speech finished, the audience rose to their feet and applauded for a long time, overflowing with approval and praise for this Chinese leader’s deep reflections.” Another, similar Xinhua article claimed that WEF founder Klaus Schwab had told media that the theme for this year’s forum – “Creating a shared future in a fractured world” – was a continuation of Xi’s call last year for a “community of shared future for mankind.” Similar claims have been repeated throughout Chinese media (though Quartz claims to have caught the English-language China Daily fabricating a quote on that subject from Davos’ mayor).

The takeaway of the coverage is that, according to Chinese media, Xi Jinping shaped the entire agenda of the 2018 Davos conference – even though he did not attend. That, in turns, signals China’s victory over the conference’s most high-profile actual attendee this year: U.S. President Donald Trump. In fact, in Chinese media coverage, the entire event can be boiled down to a clash of ideas – “shared future” vs “America first,” as one English-language article in Xinhua put it. Given that “shared future” was part of the very title of this year’s forum, it was easy for China to claim victory.

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The Xinhua commentary, titled “Shared future or America First,” makes its case bluntly:

The world is indeed fracturing, if not completely fractured yet… Underneath all the fragmentation is a tug of war between the two distinct outlooks, primarily on economic globalization, the defining trend of world development over the past decades…

The zero-summers choose to build walls. They pursue their own interests at the expense of others. Although they are mostly the biggest beneficiaries of modern economic globalization, many tend to claim that they have been taken advantage of.

The positive-summers choose to open arms and join hands. They believe that what economic globalization needs now is not a bullet in the head, but a better compass in the hand. They are confident that the world can work out a way together to cushion its negative impact and deliver its benefits to all nations.

The article, unsurprisingly, concludes: “The right choice is the latter — the Xi-style collaborative approach.”

It’s not noteworthy that Chinese state media is elevating a major speech by Xi Jinping, to the extent of claiming it has been embraced and praised around the world. What is different is the bluntness of the narrative Xinhua, China Daily, and other outlets are presenting: the world has a choice, Xi’s way or Trump’s. According to Chinese media, the world is overwhelmingly choosing Xi’s vision.

Interestingly, this narrative is also echoed in some Western media outlets. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece titled, “At Davos, the Real Star May Have Been China, Not Trump.” The Washington Post had a similar title: “China casts a long shadow over Trump and Davos.”

This is despite the fact that the actual speech given this year by Liu He was viewed as underwhelming, largely repeating earlier promises and rehashing Xi’s points from last year. Foreign experts, speaking with the South China Morning Post, expressed frustration at Liu’s unwillingness to make any concrete promises on how China will open its markets.

Setting aside the Davos meeting itself, the bigger story here is the one revealed by the triumphant tone of China’s media coverage. A front page article in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily from earlier in January urged China to “tightly grasp the highly promising period of historic opportunity.” As China watcher Bill Bishop put it:

President Xi Jinping sees a remarkable opportunity, enhanced by the Trump presidency and its “America First” policies, to reshape the global order in ways that legitimize the Chinese political system and create more strategic advantages for the China. 

More specifically, according to People’s Daily, right now is a “historic opportunity” for the Chinese nation to “achieve its great rejuvenation” and for the theory of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to increase its leadership ability and attractiveness.” That “historic opportunity” is a key part of what marks China’s entry into a “new era,” as Xi Jinping famously put it during last October’s National Party Congress. The CCP spent over six decades working to create such an opportunity – now the time has come to take advantage.

The article notes that, historically, China has not always taken advantage of its historical changes, especially falling short during the period of modern history just before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (often referred to as the “century of national humiliation”). But there’s clear optimism that this will not be another wasted chance: With another historical opportunity in front of China, “We are more confident and capable of grabbing this opportunity than at any time in history,” the article says.

The self-confidence, coupled with a heady sense of historic destiny, is what underpins the latest WEF coverage in Chinese state media. The Davos gathering was a competition for global influence; Xi won (an in absentia, no less). Whether or not that’s an accurate perception is, in this sense, less important than the fact that China believes it.

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