Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Xi Tells the World What He Really Wants

| Jan. 29, 2021

A close reading of this week’s revealing speech by the Chinese president.

On Jan. 25, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a speech to the online version of the World Economic Forum's Davos conference, with the lofty title "Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light Up Humanity's Way Forward." It was important not because it offered new revelations about Xi's thinking or China's ambitions, but because it provided a handy summary of how China wants to be seen by others.

Although much of Xi's speech may have been completely honest and sincere, the public nature of the performance and some obvious inconsistencies suggest that it needs to be read with a careful and critical eye. How should it be interpreted, and what is the best way for other states to respond?

All great powers try to attract support and minimize opposition by presenting themselves in a positive light. China under Xi is no exception, and he went to considerable lengths to portray China as a rising but benevolent great power that only has humanity's best interests at heart. He called for macroeconomic coordination to "jointly promote strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth of the world economy." He repeated China's familiar plea that states "abandon ideological prejudice and jointly follow a path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation." Saying "no two leaves in the world are identical," he emphasized that "each country is unique" and "none is superior to the other." Instead of judging social systems according to some set of universal values, therefore, "the best criteria are whether a country's history, culture, and social system fit its particular situation … [and] serve to deliver political stability, social progress, and better lives."

"Difference in itself is no cause for alarm," he suggested, warning further that "what does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice, and hatred" and trying "to force one’s own history, culture, and social system upon others." These sentiments are wholly consistent with China's long-standing defense of the norm of noninterference in domestic affairs, and its explicit rejection of a world order based on universal liberal principles.

Xi also made a point of reaching out to the global south, labeling China a "steadfast member of developing countries." He advocated closing "the divide between developed and developing countries" and said that countries should "come together against global challenges and jointly create a better future for humanity." Referring to multilateralism no less than a dozen times (including in the title of the speech itself), Xi said the nations of the world should "stay committed to openness," "reject the outdated Cold War and zero-sum game mentality," "say no to narrow-minded, selfish beggar-thy-neighbor policies," and oppose efforts to "reject, threaten, or intimidate others [or] to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption, or sanctions."...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen.“Xi Tells the World What He Really Wants.” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt