One is not likely to hear a positive comparison between President Ronald Reagan and China’s President Xi Jinping – and for good reason. In terms of political principles of governance, they are at opposite ends of the left/right political continuum. Reagan is situated on the right side – the limited government Republican side — of the continuum, believing in the inalienable right of the people to govern. In Reagan’s world, government is to be guided by the will of we the people.
Xi believes in left-wing autocratic governance in which the state is the source of power. He believes in the rule of “wise leaders,” who determine the rights and needs of the people out of an arrogant sense of noblesse oblige. In America, Xi would be a Democrat.
But, there are similarities between Reagan and Xi in other areas.
Reagan believed in a national greatness based on the concept of American Exceptionalism. He saw a nation of noble purpose and destiny. Xi speaks in similar terms about China. Both Reagan and Xi express confidence in their respective nation’s future as the premier world leader.
Although President Trump talks about making America great again, he is not in the same category as Reagan since Trump seems to see the greatness of America based on power. That was always Reagan’s fist in the velvet glove, but Trump lacks the velvet glove. His expressions of American greatness based on power is more like – and I hate to say this – Vladimir Putin’s – another head-of-state without a velvet glove. This does not mean that Trump and his policies are not needed or beneficial to America. It is just a matter of style.
Xi takes on the more congenial style of Reagan, although all three heads-of-state have played the power card on occasion. Like Reagan, Xi has become very popular with the people of China. Even if China had free elections – and they do not – and Xi had a major opponent – and he does not — he would likely be elected by a wide margin. We should not assume that all dictators are unpopular.
Like Reagan, the policies of Xi continue to bring great wealth to China. It is a nation that was once isolated and characterized by massive poverty, starvation and brutal oppression leading to the needless deaths of tens of millions. It has transitioned to a more open society with a strong economy. While Xi inherited most of that, he is the current benefactor.
Just as Reagan talked about America leading the world as a factual reality and an aspirational future vision, Xi speaks of China’s future as eclipsing America as the number one economic, business and military power in the world.
While Reagan and Xi are both willing to remind the world of their military might, neither are empire builders – unlike Putin. They can be responsive, but not aggressive occupiers. Neither seek territorial gain as a primary national policy. In carrot-and-stick diplomacy, they rely almost exclusively on the carrot to gain influence.
Like Reagan, Xi believes in the economic power of free enterprise – at least a lot freer than the old communist regimes. China may not compare favorably with the United States in its dedication to free-market capitalism at the moment, but it has moved in that direction a lot more than most people may realize.
One might debate the relative positions of China and the United States on the free-market/controlled-market continuum, but it is irrefutable that China is moving in the right direction – in both meanings of the word “right” — as America seems to be moving in the wrong direction — as witnessed by the growing socialist influence in the Democratic Party.
Since Xi’s thoughts on socialism have now been made part of the Chinese constitution, it is important to know what those thoughts might be. We can rest assured that they are not the thoughts of Chairman Mao, or even those of most of Mao’s earlier successors.
Xi’s position on communism reminds me of what the communist vice president of Lithuania once told me after the Communist Party won some post-independence elections. He said, “The Communist Party in Lithuania is still healthy, but communism is dead.” That could well apply to China under Xi, at least in terms of an economic philosophy.
At a recent BRICS Summit – an economic alliance composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – Xi preached the gospel of globalization as opposed to bilateralism. He promoted the concept of free trade, highlighting the danger of tariffs – something Reagan would enthusiastically endorse and as would Trump.
Though Xi did not point his finger at the United States, his comments were clearly intended as a rebuke to the Trump tariffs – even if they are only bargaining points to achieve free trade – and the President’s preference for bilateral agreements as opposed to such multilateral trade agreements as the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Though little known, BRICS is significant in that it encompasses big economies in the major continents except for Europe and Australia – even though the west end of Russia is technically in Europe. It is designed to push back against the 100-year reign over the world economy by the so-called “western world” led by the United States.
One would be remiss in not noting that while Xi speaks out in favor of free trade, China has been far from a good example. One-sided tariffs, government subsidies, barriers against access to the Chinese market and the purloining of intellectual property have revealed a significant degree of hypocrisy in the official statements. In that, the comparison to Reagan comes to a screeching halt. And, it is on these issues that Trump has proven to be America’s best advocate of free trade that is also fair and reciprocal.
Like the United States – at least since the 1800s – China is not an empire building nation in terms of land acquisition. Its claim to Taiwan as a separatist province is the official position of the world, including the United States’ official One China Policy. The claim to Tibet, which is largely recognized as part of China, has been uneasy, but it is not a new claim. China’s most significant expansion has been in the South China Sea, where it is literally building new terra firma in the form of occupiable islands. This contrasts with Russia and Iran, where there are aggressive military efforts to acquire new land, and even entire nations, by military acquisition or economic hegemony.
Though China has a formidable military, and building it up more and more, they basically keep them at home. It is rare to find Chinese military installations on foreign soil, and since the west and China battled over influence in Southeast Asia that led to the Korean and Vietnam wars, China has largely avoided involvement in the so-called “client state conflicts” in which Russia and the United States compete regularly.
In his BRICS speech, Xi spoke out against economic hegemony, which he characterizes as American hegemony. His condemnation, however, comes at a time when China is exerting enormous economic hegemony over key regions of the world – especially in resource-rich Africa. China is funding massive projects that many third-world nations cannot afford. Consequently, the eventual control is assumed by China as the figurative mortgage holder.
Like Reagan, Xi understands that it is capitalism – though he will not promote that word – that produces the greatest economic good for a nation and for its people. He has seen how an infusion of capitalism has brought jobs to China. He has seen how even a little capitalism has raised the Chinese standard-of-living for hundreds of millions of people.
The irony is that China is challenging the United States at our own game. It has used the basic concepts of capitalism to rise from pathetic third-world status to the number two economy in the world – and rising – in less than one average lifetime.
Just as Reagan strove to keep America on the pinnacle of global leadership – and succeeded — Xi believes that it is time and destiny for China to assume that role. If there is to be that “golden house” on the international hill, Xi sees the red five-star flag of the Middle Kingdom flying over it.