As US turns inward, Chinese public have divergent views on taking global leader role

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/5 19:03:39

While elites ready to embrace world leader role, ordinary people want ‘China first’

○ Most Chinese people are against the country picking up the baton of world leadership that the US seems to have discarded with its turn inwards

○ While some in the public are calling for a "China first" policy, experts say the government has embraced an internationalist stance

Shoppers stroll around the Taikoo Li commercial complex in central Beijing. Photo: IC

As the Trump-led US seems to be laying down its baton of world leadership in some important ways, should China pick it up? For most people in China, the answer seems to be a resounding "no."

In January, US President Donald Trump formally withdrew the country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The TPP had 12 signatories bordering the Pacific Ocean and the accord intended to slash tariffs and foster trade between these nations.

On June 1, Trump announced he would pull the US, the world's second largest greenhouse gas emitter, out of the Paris climate change accord.

While the US seems to be going through a turn towards introversion and even protectionism, Chinese President Xi Jinping defended economic globalization in a speech delivered at Davos, Switzerland, winning applause and shoring up global market confidence.

Last month, China - the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases - restated that it would continue to abide by the Paris agreement and that it is still determined to fight climate change, taking the international lead on this issue.

Given the US's seeming rejection of its leadership role and China's growing presence on the world stage, discussions about whether China should take on this role have intensified.

In July, Li Woteng wrote an article in the Chinese version of the UK-based Financial Times, titled "China should actively fill the leadership vacancy left by the US."

He argued that China's ongoing support for the Paris Agreement shows its stance on leadership, and urged China to be more active in taking in refugees and participating in anti-terror efforts.

However, in the comments on the article on Sina Weibo, netizens gave Li's advice the cold shoulder, stressing that China should focus on its domestic development rather than taking on more international responsibilities.

"The will to pursue the world leader role is confined to a very tiny portion of elites and some people of the lower classes in China. Most people are calm and don't want the country to take the lead," Liu Weidong, a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the China Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.


 Lack of will

Typing in "China" on Google returns headlines including The Guardian's "Beijing's global military ambitions are growing as the nation seeks to counter American primacy" and Bloomberg's "China, Germany step up as US retires from world leadership."

On English-language question and answer site Quora, many people have raised anxious questions such as how will the US contend with the growing power of China? Will China's GDP exceed that of the US any time soon?

One Quora user said that China is catching up with the US and predicted it will overtake the US in 20 years if the country can keep up its current level of economic growth. "It's too soon and too optimistic to say China is overtaking the US now," read the post. 

In comparison, Chinese netizens don't like the idea of the country taking on any kind of international leadership role.

"China can barely safeguard its own national interests. How can we have more energy to take on a leadership role? We still don't control the South China Sea and Taiwan yet. We need to concentrate on our own development," netizen Chaiye commented.

Liu told the Global Times that taking on the baton of world leader is a beautiful expectation. China was once the most powerful country and now that China is becoming more powerful it is actively shouldering more responsibilities in the world.

But at the current stage, the country doesn't have the ability to fulfill or the intention to seek a leadership role. "And we shouldn't say that we want to be a world leader because it will incur antipathy from the US and will cause us troubles. They will then use it as an excuse to contain China," said Liu.

"We aren't a world leader. We should still focus on development. If other countries say it, let them be and we shouldn't be distracted by them," he said. "We won't make the mistakes we made before, like setting our goal as overtaking the US and Britain in a short period of time."

In the 1950s, China announced its economy would overtake the UK's within 15 years and catch up with the US in 50 years, to stimulate development of its heavy industry, especially its iron production, which lead to a monumental waste of resources.

Netizen Hello Zhoutao said that voices which claim China may overtake America and will become the world's largest economy in the next two decades are misleading. "China can't even catch up with the shadows of some developed countries. How can we dare to compare ourselves to the US? You need to use statistics to talk," he wrote.

Some others even argued that Westerners who say China should take on a leadership role may have ulterior motives.

"These comments must have suspicious intentions," one netizen wrote. Another believed that these comments aim to make China conceited. "As Chinese people, we should keep calm and not be deceived by sugar-coated bullets," wrote Xiaotiantian.

Sun Chenghao, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that being a "world leader" is a big concept and involves diverse fields.

If it's about hegemony and the global role that America now has, China doesn't need it, he said.

According to Liu, China can choose what fields it wants to be a leader in, such as in fighting global warming, but not in every field, especially extremely sensitive areas.

Sun added that China can also play an active role in aiding underdeveloped countries in basic infrastructure. 

"We should say less and do more, while simultaneously focusing on carrying out projects that could result in win-win or multi-win results. This is in favor of our long-term interests," Liu said.

Greater duties

Many Chinese people are unhappy with the idea of being a world leader because it means the duty to participate in international affairs, and sometimes, needing to make sacrifices to help other countries.

They stress that there are still many major domestic problems China has to tackle and some say that Beijing should have a "China first" policy, following in the footstep of President Trump's "America first" policy.

Every time news articles about China aiding foreign countries or potentially taking in refugees are published, people have loudly complained.

When news about a Chinese NGO sending free lunch boxes to African children came out this year, people harshly criticized the NGO. "There are so many children in China's rural areas that are starving, why don't you help our people first?" some people said.

During the most recent World Refugee Day, comments flooded onto the UN's Weibo account, expressing their dissatisfaction with the organization's request that China take in refugees.

Liu said it's understandable that many people have this mindset. China is still developing and has many problems of its own to address.

Problems including air pollution, poverty and developmental disparities perplex both the Chinese government and its citizens.

But on the other hand, China has benefited tremendously from globalization. Ever since opening up in the 1980s, China has been profiting from its status as the world's factory.

In the past three decades, low-cost manufacturing elevated China to become the world's second largest economy in 2010.

Sun stressed that it's unwise to pursue a "China first" policy and seek isolationism.

"China has benefitted from globalization. Pursuing isolationism will harm our country's interests. 'America first' doesn't mean they will totally recede from world stage, but refers to how they will change their approach toward international affairs. Instead of being a world leader that may come at a cost, it now wants a favorable position in every deal made on the international stage," said Sun.

He added that China's reaching out into other countries by offering aid and building basic infrastructure is necessary as it helps to "improve the country's image and strengthen its presence."

According to Liu, if China pursues "China first," the country will definitely face more of a backlash than the US has. "The US is a hegemonic power and other countries have no choice but to tolerate its deeds. If China chooses this road, we will meet more resistance," he said.

Also, there is discordance between those netizen's mindset and the government's policies. The government has never pursued "China first." For instance, the Belt and Road initiative embodies their internationalist stance, he added.

Newspaper headline: Power and responsibility

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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