by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: CC

WITH THE POSSIBILITY of America withdrawing from international trade treaties such as the TPP under a Donald Trump presidency, never mind that the TPP was an American-led trade agreement, America increasingly seems like an unreliable partner for neoliberal governments the world over. The irony, then, is that if America shifts away from globalized neoliberalism and instead moves towards protectionist trade policies under a Trump presidency, this could allow for China to occupy the position of global power formerly occupied by America. While other nations may also step up to occupy the void left by the retreat of America, China and America are the world’s two superpowers, even if China is still a rising superpower. Only China has the possibility of attaining a position in the world similar to that currently held by America.

Like America, China is also neoliberal in nature and depends on globalization to extend its economic and political clout worldwide. With increasing participation by China in globalization after an American withdrawal from free trade agreements, it likely comes to be that China is perceived as an increasingly reliable partner to the “international community” in maintaining the neoliberal world order. On the other hand, with the sudden about-face of America under Trump after promises by Trump to withdraw from the TPP, America comes to be seen as increasingly undependable.

Donald Trump. Photo credit: Michael Vadon

Where China differs from other neoliberal nation-states is with regard to its authoritarian government. In this, it even differs from other empires, such as America. To be sure, neoliberal nation-states alike are all variously authoritarian in some respects, regardless of pretenses to “democracy.” But few are as directly authoritarian as China. It is false to draw equivalence between America and China, for example, even regarding the mass killing of blacks by American law enforcement, as protested by social movements such as Black Lives Matter. At the very least, black citizens are allowed to travel outside of America if they have passports and the American government is not arguably trying to breed blacks out of existence. On the other hand, China subsidizes marriages between Han and restive minority ethnicities, such as Uighurs, presumably with the hopes that intermarriage will allow for ethnic minorities to be increasingly integrated into China’s Han majority. China also recently confiscated the passports of all residents of Xinjiang, restricting them from leaving the country.

Perhaps this is only a difference of scale, but it is a significant difference nonetheless. With China increasingly accepted by the international community, other nation-states having already turned a blind eye to its practices. For the global neoliberal order to maintain itself, there may always be a need for a strong, enforcer state that maintains that order, such as the US served in the past. Perhaps the neoliberal international order will turn to China next to fulfill this role. In doing so, this will undoubtedly legitimize Chinese authoritarianism. With China already claiming that its system of governance represents a socioeconomic model that is unique to it, the “China model”, and that this model should be exported to the rest of the world, perhaps China would be emboldened to export its authoritarian model of governance to the rest of the world as well. That would shake the very foundations of the neoliberal world order, however.

2014 protest against the TPP in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo credit: Neil Ballantyne/CC

Nevertheless, as China expands its international clout, it is also possible that China is running into the limits of its growth as well. China presently has an uncontrolled outflow of capital and is facing wave of flight by elites, which it is currently seeking to tamp down upon, as a result of China’s slowing economy and anxiety by elites that the Chinese state could eventually turn on them. China, too, might at some point enter a protectionist phase. As such, China, too, may not prove a reliable guarantor of the neoliberal world order. While it currently seems unlikely that China would splinter much like the Soviet Union and disintegrate into multiple nation-states, it could be that the days of Chinese empire are already marked from the time of its rise. Efforts to reinforce social order under Xi Jinping may be an early indication of anxiety on the part of the Chinese party-state that any possible future development of China may be uncontrollably underwritten by its internal contradictions, which will eventually accumulate to more than the Chinese government can handle.

As such, China may itself drift towards protectionism down the line. Even as otherwise there are signs that China poised to step into the role of America as a global power, China may itself be caught in the early stages of a conflict between protectionism and neoliberal globalization domestically. That remains to be seen, however. The future is too unclear to tell at present, even if one can maybe see the early shape of coming developments. With America perhaps on the precipice of retreating into isolationism from its role as a global power, parallels between China and America may be in more ways than one.