China wants to be the leader of the global south
meno t every day someone from Xi Jinping’s inner circle drops a reference to Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s top diplomat. But the specter of dapper Zhou hung over a recent speech given in Havana to developing world leaders by Li Xi, head of the dreaded Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection. In fact, the entire speech was filled with nods to the past. Mr Li recalled the mid-20th century struggle for “national independence and liberation”. He mentioned the “Bandung Spirit” and “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”. That refers to the Bandung Conference in 1955, at which Zhou pledged China to a non-aggressive and non-interventionist approach in the affairs of other Asian and African countries.
The control chief was sent to Cuba as Mr Xi’s personal envoy to a summit involving China and emerging economies from G77 organizations. He promised that China “will always be part of the developing world and a member of the global south”, no matter how advanced it becomes. As an explanation, Mr. Li reached back to history. China is forever linked to other countries that fought against the colonial era “engaged in violence and oppression”, he said.
Mr Li, who was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the main governing body, was not talking about the curve. His lesson about the history of the cold war was not a one-time lesson, inspired by seeing old Cadillacs with sharks passing through Havana. China has launched a new, concerted campaign to present itself as a natural leader for the developing world, starting with countries that have painful memories of being bullied by colonial powers or America.
On September 13, the foreign ministry published the “Proposal of the People’s Republic of China on the Reform and Development of Global Governance”. This calls for major changes to the rules and institutions that govern international development, security and human rights. He found many lessons in history. America (referred to as a “special country”) is being asked to learn from past crimes, including ignoring Russia’s “legitimate security concerns,” making “useless ” of sanctions and hindering scientific progress with “hegemonic” controls on the sale of technology.
In the name of correcting a “historical wrong”, China wants developing countries to be given a far greater voice at the United Nations, including seats for Africa on an expanded Security Council (no the proposal refers to the development of China’s rival, India, a giant that has long sought a seat on the council). Echoing long-standing Chinese arguments, the proposal calls for the rights to livelihood and development as “the most important basic human rights.” All other rights must move to “national truth”. To promote that world view, China is proposing that UN human rights organizations should recruit more citizens from developing countries as soon as possible. More clearly than ever, the document weaves together Mr. Xi’s major foreign policy proposals, from the Belt and Road Initiative to the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. It presents them as China’s unified plan for dealing with everything from climate change to cyberspace governance. The stated goal: “to create a better future for humanity”.
The proposal was followed days later by a joint statement issued by Mr Xi and Zambia’s president, Hakainde Hichilema, who was on a state visit to China. The statement then mentions and supports Mr. Xi’s various global initiatives. China’s preferred foreign policies are presented as being in the common interest of developing countries. Rich states are being reminded of their “irrevocable historical responsibilities to climate change”, and are being asked to take the lead in reducing emissions. Zambia cites China as a new model for countries seeking independent paths towards modernization. Independence is relative, of course. Zambia has billions of dollars in China. After a long struggle, Chinese lenders agreed to restructure much of this debt in June, but mostly by extending maturities and offering to defer interest payments for several years, rather than by canceling loans.
Towards an order made in China, led by China
Chinese officials and scholars search for a turning point in history. Many low- and middle-income countries resist Western arguments about right and wrong. They blame sanctions on Russia, imposed by Western countries over their invasion of Ukraine, for high food and energy prices. In response, China is presenting itself as the leader of what appears to be a new, independent movement. China wants “true multilateralism”, delivered by international organizations, from the UN to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are no longer controlled by America and other wealthy liberal democracies. He talks about respecting the diversity of the world’s civilizations: code for rejecting liberal values as a form of Western-centric racism.
China’s non-aligned position, however, remains understudied. In the original non-aligned movement, Egypt, India, Yugoslavia and others succeeded in creating a group that was ideologically ambiguous, says Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group. national, think tank. This time, for all the “cheerful anti-colonialism”, what China is offering is a “China-led coalition of states”.
By announcing that a wealthy China would remain a developing country, Chinese leaders are manipulating language so that “development” does not become an economic term and means “non-Western”, says a diplomat. The aim is to rally non-Western countries around Mr Xi’s preferred vision for global governance. Some will be careful, says the diplomat, because they want to “diversify their strategic, economic and political interests”, not to sign up to a bloc led by China.
However, foreign leaders can expect pressure to support China’s new proposal for global governance. There are so many Xi-branded initiatives that Chinese diplomats must encourage, or risk looking disrespectful to their leader. Chairman Mao’s long-suffering ambassador, Zhou Enlai, would understand. ■
Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
Xi Jinping builds 21st century police state (September 14)
The Belt and Road, as seen from China (September 7)
When China Thought America Might Attack (August 31)
Also: How the Chaguan column got its name