The China Institute in New York City on Oct. 5 featured a discussion with Harvard scholar William C. Kirby, author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth, on the question: "Can China Lead in the Age of De-Globalization?" Although he didn't state it explicitly, his answer appeared to be "no." Kirby began by echoing the prediction that as the 19th century saw Great Britain as the dominant world power, and the 20th saw the United States of America, the 21st could belong to China. But Kirby sees this succession as now threatened by the "destabilization of global norms" and the rise of "anti-globalist neo-authoritarian movements everywhere." He invoked the Brexit, the rise of Le Pen in France—and finally Donald Trump, who, Kirby noted, is rather obsessed with China.
Kirby argued that China has come as far as it has thanks to global engagement, noting that Sun Yat-sen's 1921 manifesto for his vision of a modern and democratic nation was entitled The International Development of China (PDF). Even China's revival under the Communists was owed in large part to cooperation with the Socialist bloc, which formed its own "global system." But Kirby hailed as an early icon of progress the privately-held Wanxiang auto-parts company, which was launched in the inauspicious year of 1969—the zenith of Maoist orthodoxy—and is today a globe-spanning multinational headquartered in Hangzhou.
Kirby stopped just short of explicitly stating that President Xi Jinping is also part of this de-globalization trend. Kirby characterized him as China's "most authoritarian leader since Mao," and anticipated that like the Great Helmsman he may soon be bestowed with his own sixiang ("thought"). He especially invoked the recent death after long imprisonment of dissident Liu Xiaobo, which he called "shameful."
Kirby acknowledged that vast wealth iniquities have opened as post-Mao China has embraced capitalism, but portrayed this, at least in part, as due to insufficient capitalist reform. "Farmers have suffered the most," he said, because they "don't own the land." He actually called "property rights" a "magic bullet" that could revitalize Chinese agriculture.
But, as we've argued, if "property rights" include the "right" to sell land, or use it as collateral, such a reform could be the death knell of China's small farmers. It is precisely such "property rights" that have permitted the expropriation of the peasantry in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. And this points to a contradiction in Kirby's view. Globalized capitalism planted the seeds of the anti-globalist backlash by leaving millions behind—whether the Mexican peasants and North American industrial workers betrayed by NAFTA, or the British miners and French labor similarly betrayed by neoliberalism and Euro-integration. Xi, however cynically, could also exploit Mao-nostalgia among China's disenfranchised.
After his presentation, Kirby was asked by this writer if he was concerned about the threat of an actual military confrontation between the US and China, given the recent brinkmanship in the South China Sea. He responded that he is more worried about the Korean peninsula. "The last Korean war was due to miscalculation by Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and finally the Americans. It cost the lives of millions of Koreans, a hundred thousand Chinese and thousands of Americans. A repeat can be avoided with more visionary leadership in both Beijing and Washington. Let's hope we get some."