Good morning from Switzerland, where on Tuesday morning I witnessed one of the most extraordinary political speeches I’ve ever heard, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s address to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The conference came to a standstill as heads of state and giant corporations gathered up to an hour ahead of time for the greatly anticipated speech. Xi didn’t disappoint. In a veritable through-the-looking glass moment, the head of the Chinese Communist Party spoke powerfully and passionately in favor of “economic globalization.” He quoted Dickens, drawing “best of times, worst of times” attention to immense wealth and yawning inequality brought on by economic growth. He sprinkled his talk with Chinese proverbs. But perhaps the most shocking moment, one that brought guffaws of surprise from Westerners seated around me, came when Xi evoked Abraham Lincoln. Speaking of “development,” rather than “government,” as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, Xi said economic progress must be “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
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A large Chinese delegation attended Xi’s speech. And yet it was a predominantly Western audience that found itself in the unusual circumstance of being lectured to by the president of China speaking against protectionism and for protecting the earth’s climate.
Xi made no mention whatever of the incoming U.S. president. But it was impossible to miss his not-so-veiled references to Donald Trump and his tweetstorm provocations since his election. “We are not jealous of others’ success,” Xi said, a startling message to discontented U.S. voters and their standard bearer. He declared that “no one will win a trade war,” adding that locking oneself in a dark room assuredly will keep out the rain but also sunshine and fresh air.
Deploying a variety of water metaphors, Xi termed globalization as inevitable as the tides of the ocean. Perhaps that’s true. The only thing that feels inevitable now is that the ship of international relations as we’ve known them for seventy or so years is headed into uncharted territory.