On March 19th, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese President Xi Jinping, two men in dark suits, white shirts, and red neckties, sat in matching armchairs in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Both of their bellies bulged slightly, and their neckties curved over their well-fed contentment. Their interaction, as described by Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, was equally amiable. Xi called on the United States and China to “expand coöperative areas and achieve win-win results.” Tillerson, who was on his first visit to Asia since taking over at the State Department, and was travelling without the press gaggle that usually chronicles the movements of America’s top diplomat, agreed that “the U.S. side is ready to develop relations with China based on the principle of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win coöperation.”
Who could argue with such inoffensive sentiments? Tillerson’s words, however, echoed a curious antecedent. On numerous occasions, China’s President has used almost the same phraseology. As recently as last November. when he congratulated Donald Trump for winning the election, Xi vowed that he would partner with the new U.S. President “to uphold the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win coöperation.”
It is possible that during the thirty minutes that he spent behind closed doors with Xi, Tillerson took a more forceful tone with his hosts. Certainly, there are those in the Trump camp—including the President himself—who have urged China to rein in an increasingly belligerent North Korea and to ease restrictions on American companies. Nevertheless, by parroting Xi’s anodyne language, Tillerson sent a message that was picked up the next day by the Global Times, an influential newspaper linked to the Chinese Communist Party. “Tillerson has implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations,” the paper said. The story added that Tillerson’s language had given “U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region an impression that China and the U.S. are equal in the region.” Endorsing this model, the article continued, was something that “the previous administration of Barack Obama refused to do,” despite China’s repeated use of the term during bilateral meetings.
Ever since Trump was elected on an America First platform, Beijing has pondered not just equality but supremacy on the international stage. A nation that once counted Albania as one of its few diplomatic allies now serves as the biggest trading partner for dozens of countries. In January, at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, Zhang Jun, a top Chinese diplomat, explained China’s new positioning to reporters. “If anyone were to say China is playing a leadership role in the world, I would say it’s not China rushing to the front but rather the front-runners have stepped back, leaving the place to China,” he said. “If China is required to play that leadership role then China will assume its responsibilities.”
Davos itself provided evidence: Trump stayed away from the annual gathering of global élite, while Xi chose this year to make his first appearance there. Addressing a crowd spooked by the rise of nativist politicians worldwide, Xi presented China as the ultimate responsible global citizen. Since taking office, Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and has pressed America to abandon its climate-change commitments. Into this political vacuum, Beijing has offered up trade agreements of its own design. Xi made sure to point out that China does, in fact, believe in global warming. As Trump works to close America’s borders, the Chinese capital hosts a constant stream of foreign dignitaries. The day before Tillerson arrived in Beijing, Xi welcomed Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. The day before that, the Chinese President met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz, of Saudi Arabia, to sign trade and investment deals worth as much as sixty-five billion dollars.
China now boasts the world’s second-largest economy, but it hardly serves as a global economic role model. As growth in China has tapered off, protectionism has surged. American companies, once loathe to offend Beijing lest they threaten market access, now complain openly about state-supported efforts to cut into their profits or copy their technology. Just as Tillerson arrived in town, news emerged that Pinterest had been added to the long list of banned Western Web sites in China, one which already includes Google and Facebook. Pinterest’s life hacks and craft tips seem an unlikely target, but even the most apolitical of foreign companies can fall victim to politics.
Stepping into the void created by America’s seeming retreat from vigorous foreign policy does not mean that Beijing can—or is even eager to—project moral leadership to the world. If anything, China’s most clearly articulated foreign policy over the decades has been non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs. China’s authoritarian government detains its citizens by the hundreds simply for criticizing the Communist Party. The human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo languishes in a Chinese jail, the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate behind bars. (His wife, meanwhile is under de-facto house arrest, even if she has not been found guilty of any crime.) Under Xi, who came to power in late 2012, a crackdown on lawyers, writers, and activists has dampened hopes for political reform.
That global moral authority has, traditionally, been taken up by the United States—even if it was often undercut by Washington’s support of dictators and invasions of sovereign nations. But the new Administration does not seem eager to assume such leadership. Every year, the State Department releases a human-rights report that records abuses around the world. Yet, earlier this month, for the first time in years, the new Secretary of State declined to personally present the report. Tillerson has also threatened to pull the U.S. out of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “The U.S. is hemorrhaging credibility because it is not standing up strongly for its values of human rights and democracy,” Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director for Amnesty International, told me. “The worst thing is that this is a self-inflicted injury because it is the U.S. that is choosing not to herald the values it has promoted since the end of the Second World War.”
By his own admission, Tillerson is not “a big media-press-access person,” as he told the one journalist from a conservative Web site, whom he allowed to fly with him on his Asia tour. As the former ExxonMobil chief reached Beijing, after stops in Tokyo and Seoul, American journalists found that they, on occasion, had to rely on the organs of China’s Communist Party for intelligence on their Secretary of State’s movements. The U.S. Department of State’s Web site offered scant details. Although Tillerson said that he brought up human rights with his Chinese counterparts, the overall impression of his Beijing trip was that the fundamentals of democracy—free speech, civil society, a vigorous press—were an afterthought to the niceties of “win-win coöperation.” (Although nothing was confirmed during Tillerson’s visit, Xi may meet Trump in early April in Florida.)
On March 20th, I reached Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident who has spent years in jail or under house arrest. Every time that there is a sensitive anniversary, a visit by a foreign dignitary, or a political conclave, Hu is tailed by state-security personnel or local authorities. Often, he is hustled out of Beijing or confined to his home, lest he disturb the Chinese state’s sense of order. During Tillerson’s visit, Hu happened to be participating in a trail-running race near the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. “I do not think that Tillerson has expressed concern about the Chinese Communist Party’s human-rights record,” Hu told me. “We dissidents in China feel a bit disappointed.” That didn’t matter, though, to local police in Hangzhou, who checked to make sure that Hu was racing off-road rather than speaking out in Beijing. “I was,” he assured me, “just running.”