November 16, 2023 - 10:00am

Xi Jinping should have entered San Francisco’s Apec conference with his tail between his legs, but instead has emerged as something closer to the king of the world. China may be experiencing tepid growth, a bloated real estate market, low industrial production, and an increasingly alienated youth yet, in spite of these factors, he appears to be wearing the crown.

To reach for this kind of power, being a dictator is helpful. One can force an agenda on one’s nation and the world without worrying too much about domestic critics. It certainly works with foreigners: after all, Xi’s mere presence has led San Francisco to clean itself up, something it has not managed for the last decade.

It’s also worth comparing Xi to his counterparts. Besides him, Western leaders are doing little to impress — not least his host, the doddering Joe Biden, whose own party does not even want him to run. There’s not a Churchill, Roosevelt or even a Reagan in the bunch. Biden was even prevented from unveiling a proposed new trade deal in San Francisco with Asia’s other economies due to opposition from his own party. 

Strategically, Xi has the West exactly where he wants it. China agreed to US climate proposals in San Francisco this week. The demands for more wind and solar energy, as well as electric vehicles, assure an industrial supremacy for the country that produces more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world put together. China already boasts a huge lead in solar battery production, and increasingly dominates the production of rare-earth elements, which are critical to wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles. 

As American EV firms struggle with production and supply chain issues, China’s Warren Buffett-backed BYD has emerged as the world’s top electric vehicle manufacturer, with big export ambitions, while Tesla focuses much of its future growth at its Chinese factories. Meanwhile, the Net Zero policies of the West are already unravelling Germany’s industrial economy, which is losing much of its industrial base, notably in chemicals and vehicles. 

Like the former Soviet Union, China has found many “useful idiots” in the American establishment, including on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and, it appears, within the Biden family. China has also found ways to influence politicians in Australia and Canada. And we certainly can’t expect a stiff upper lip from Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, former prime minister David Cameron, who can be counted on to wear out conference carpets with his kowtowing.  

Some in the West insist that China will never conquer the “commanding heights” of the world’s technology-driven economy. But last year America’s net deficit in high-tech trade was $242 billion, with the country relying on factories in China for military goods. 

What’s more, China now has a freer hand militarily. Tied down in Ukraine and the Middle East, the Institute for Strategic and International Studies has warned that the West now lacks “sufficient residual inventories for training and to execute war plans”. Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, added that Xi is following the pattern which Mao referred to as “talk and fight, fight and talk […] That is, to talk while building up forces.”

If Biden still had leverage, or the will to use it, he might insist that China pledge to not aid Russia or Iran. He could also force Xi to pledge not to take over Taiwan, which many American industries count on for key components. Imagine what could happen if China seizes these assets before the West can replicate them. Then, Xi will truly be king of the world.


Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)

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