The talk of Davos about Xi and Trump
A spectre was haunting Davos, and its name was Donald Trump.
I hadn’t been to Davos for a few years, but last fall, in that happier time, I was offered a writing gig I used to do regularly for the World Economic Forum. Naturally I took it: For someone like me, with neither the wealth to pay my own way nor the professional attainment to be invited to speak, working as an official writer is the perfect way to attend Davos.
And what a year to return. Trump really did seem to hang over every conversation. Last year, the theme was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” that revolution being the rise of big data, AI, and advanced robotics. This year, the numerous sessions around AI and robotics offered a post-Trump, chastened version: They all dutifully focused on how to mitigate the impact on the workers that 4IR (yes, they’re calling it that) will inevitably displace.
As the Annual Meeting commenced, the tone of many conversations was humbled and even contrite. This year’s theme was “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” and what was the whole “responsive” side of that formulation if not a tacit acknowledgement that leaders, well, haven’t been responsive?
No surprise, then, that President Xi Jinping’s speech was highly anticipated. This was the first time that a Chinese head of state has attended Davos. The timing was perfect. Xi arrived with these bruised and demoralized globalists all aching to hear him say he’d take up that tattered banner of economic globalization — a banner that Brexit, Trump, and the unruly mob of national populists who carried them to their victories had trampled underfoot.
Xi’s speech landed well, and it would have been hard for it not to have. He offered the obligatory caveats about the regrettably unequal distribution of globalization’s fruits, but his message was clear enough. “Any attempts to cut off flows…and channel the waters of the ocean back into lakes and creeks is simply not possible and runs against historical trends,” he said. “We should not develop a habit of retreating to the harbor whenever we encounter a storm, for this will never get us to the other side of the ocean.” The various riparian and maritime metaphors might have been a bit on the nose, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone with the opening cliché from A Tale of Two Cities to lead, but it was a serviceable paean to the benefits of trade and just what the beleaguered globalist elites needed to hear.
Of course, there’s a rather glaring irony that an autocrat at the head of a technocratic authoritarian state whose experiments in capitalism began only 37 years ago is now one of the lone voices for free trade. And there’s the fact that while compared with other emerging economies, China’s may be relatively open but certainly isn’t when compared with the economies of developed countries: Many sectors remain heavily protected. But China is, as Xi duly noted, a country that has both benefited from and suffered the ravages of globalization, in its massive wealth disparity and nightmarish environmental problems.
Xi also got in some good none-too-subtle digs at Trump: “When encountering difficulty, we should not complain, blame others, or run away from responsibilities,” he sniped. And he reaffirmed his commitment to the Paris climate change agreement: “The Paris climate deal is a hard-won achievement…all signatories should stick to it rather than walk away.” He did stop short of denying to the president that climate change was a Chinese hoax.
No one in their right mind would believe that Xi is staking a claim as inheritor to the entirety of the grand liberal tradition. His years in office so far have been marked by a disturbing deepening of illiberalism in China. And yet it’s easy to see how Trump’s hostility to free trade regimes is giving China an opening — and that should Trump actually tear up NAFTA, a China-centered free trade zone might, as Nouriel Roubini noted in one session I reported, extend all the way to Mexico.
On Friday, the last day of Davos, as the writers were finishing up their last summaries in the late afternoon, across the Atlantic, the Trump inauguration was underway. Some of us tuned in to hear Trump’s dark descriptions of American “carnage.” (I couldn’t watch, but you could hear people repeating snatches of it in disbelief.)
It was, as Trump adviser Steve Bannon told the Washington Post shortly after the speech, “an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and kind of nationalist movement.” Indeed it was. “I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural,” said Bannon. “You’ll see two different worldviews.”
I do see two different worldviews. And I know which one I find much, much more compelling.