BUENOS AIRES – Xi Zhongxum was one of China's champions of economic liberalization, which he and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping saw four decades ago as the only way to avoid a major economic collapse. It earned him Mao Zedong’s wrath and prison time. After 17 years of solitary confinement and prison labor, he returned to his family but was unable to recognize his children.
One of those children is Xi Jinping, China’s new leader.
This anecdote is important because it reveals the force that shaped Xi Jinping’s life. He has lived in the extreme poverty left by his father’s ruin just as he has lived in riches and privilege after his father was rehabilitated, and even directed the first experiments with economic liberalization in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in 1980.
On the other side of the planet, Barack Obama might be able to identify with this leader who is arriving at a very strange moment in history.
Months ago, The New Yorker played with the idea that both leaders were marked by their respective fathers’ notable histories, but in very different ways. Obama wrote a memoir called Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in which his father is a central figure– even though he had known him for barely a month. And Xi, who is a princeling, a prince of the Chinese communist aristocracy and who was only nine years old when the family’s misfortune started, ended up being much more than that - he is really the son of one of the founders of modern China.
That is not the only similarity that is being passed on. After a short-lived period of unipolarity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States is now once again sharing the world podium in a return to bipolarity.
The economic crisis in 2007-2008 accelerated the global realignment of power, and if China was hesitant about the restructuring of the global power structure, its place is now much clearer. In a very short time, by the end of 2016, China’s economy will be larger than the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD also says that by the end of this year, China’s economy will be larger than all of the countries in the euro zone combined.
The transition that this Asian giant has been making for some time now implies a higher level of responsibility to the rest of the world. President Hu Jintao demonstrated that during the economic collapse of the U.S. in the last months of the Bush administration, when Beijing could have aggravated the crisis for its former rival by pulling its enormous holdings of U.S. treasury bonds from the market. Beijing did not do that, because hegemony at that price is no longer a victory, it is a defeat for everyone.
Pygmies in today’s world
Comparing the two worlds unveils some interesting truths. These powers are perhaps not what people thought they were, or what they pretended to be. They are giants, but pygmies if you factor in the realities that the world is facing.
Obama is leading a country imprisoned by fiscal problems and a debt equivalent to its entire GDP, which is forcing the country to prune the budgets dramatically, including the defense budget. It’s the decline of the notion that guns are the only tool with which to establish imperial priorities.
China’s economy, on the other hand, grew four times over the course of Hu’s leadership, with formulas for ‘scientific development’ and a ‘harmonious society,’ which imposed a shift to more moderate policies. The first policy put an end to the mode of ‘growth at all costs’ that was making pollution skyrocket; the second allowed millions of rural Chinese to finally share in the economic growth.
But the growth rate is unlikely to return to its previous level, since the economic crisis has knocked down crucial trading partners in Europe, where many countries are still reeling from the recession.
So the two empires are recreating a bipolar world with the inevitable dose of realism that is going to force them to get along.
Xi Jinping will be the Chinese leader as his country becomes the biggest economic power in the world. Both countries need a realism that should not be treated as a pragmatic worldview, but as an essential part of a doctrine that will push for multilateralism and accept others as they are, not as one wishes they would be– in contrast to the neo-conservatism of the U.S. Republican far right.
The U.S., led by Obama, has shown that it understands the notion, even if Obama and the rest of the Western world have trouble acknowledging that the changes in China will not necessarily mean a new America.
“We are exceptional, just like the United States is, but it is not the same exceptionalism,” an academic from the Tsinghua University in Beijing once told me. The academic also rejected the improbable notion that China would copy the administration style of the Western world.
What is sure is that Xi will govern a country with a population that is expressing itself through hundreds of daily strikes and protests, with a growing demand to influence national policies. That agitation is fed by anger over the incessant corruption scandals, which President Hu has said would be the biggest danger for the state’s future.
That realism that America is learning might be the same realism that fluttered in Wen Jiabao, China’s departing Premier, when he dared mention that just as the economic system was liberalized, perhaps the political system should be liberalized as well.
But the word democracy has many meanings in China, some of them different from what we would understand, but the thing that the two cultures’ understanding of democracy has in common is the need to channel popular demands before they get out of control, a risk that makes a drop in incomes due to the crisis potentially explosive. Perhaps the Chinese and the Americans will discover that in this case necessity will have to postpone competition. Of course, nothing is that simple. But nothing is how it used to be, either.