Chinese President Xi Jinping is treading on dangerous ground. In his speech before the World Economic Forum’s annual conclave of political and economic luminaries in Davos, Xi set out to establish himself as the standard-bearer for globalization and China as a beneficiary from globalization in the past and a leader in the future. Many observers have been quick to support China’s claim to a leadership position, not only because China wants the job but also because the United States appears not to. Rhetoric from the incoming U.S. leadership, with its threat of high tariffs and trade wars, has a distinct antiglobalization flavor. Yet whatever path Washington elects moving forward, anointing China as the world’s “champion of globalization” would be a mistake.       

Certainly China has already assumed many of the trappings of global leadership. It is the world’s largest trading power, it boasts the largest standing army, and it behaves like a global leader, proposing new international institutions and arrangements such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the huge connectivity project One Belt, One Road. China’s military has likewise gone global, establishing its first logistics base in Djibouti; and more such bases will likely follow. There is also talk in China’s foreign policy community of the need for the country to build formal alliances, further cementing its position not simply as an emerging or regional leader but as a global power. And, of course, China has embraced opportunities to showcase its leadership potential by hosting prestigious international gatherings such as the G-20 and the Olympics.

Yet real leadership in an era of globalization requires much more. First, there must be both willingness and ability to bring others to the table to meet the world’s most pressing concerns. Although China has partnered with the United States to help address challenges such as climate change, the Ebola virus, and North Korea’s nuclear program, the United States and other nations have had to prod, push, and in some instances even shame China into doing the right thing. China’s initial contribution of health workers to help address the Ebola virus crisis, for example, was less than that of Cuba, and in the end, its financial contribution amounted to only three percent that of the United States. With regard to North Korea, China has gradually deepened its commitment to international sanctions, yet its record of enforcing these sanctions on its own companies remains dismal. Even in terms of climate change, where China’s work with the United States has indeed brought new energy to international negotiations, the story isn’t simple. Although China’s demonstrated commitment to clean energy investment is modelworthy, it nonetheless plans to export its most polluting industries, including coal-fired power plants, throughout the world, through its One Belt, One Road initiative. Global leadership has to go beyond prioritizing only one’s own interests.

Then there are the global issues with which China has yet to engage at all. China’s voice has been largely absent in the face of one of the most devastating crises now confronting the world: the refugees fleeing war-torn areas throughout the Middle East and beyond. Even the United States, which is not adjacent to the conflict, has taken in 10,000 refugees as of September 2016. In Xi’s Davos speech, he referenced “the refugee waves from the Middle East and North Africa” and acknowledged that the situation is “heartbreaking.” However, he failed to raise the prospect of China’s leadership on the issue, much less promise any contribution to addressing it. Perhaps China will open its pocketbook, but there is no evidence that it is prepared to open its doors.

Second, as has become increasingly evident over the past several years, China under Xi is far from an exemplar of globalization. Despite Xi’s call to arms at the November 2016 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Peru, where he stated, “China will not shut the door to the outside world but [will] open [the door] more,” the reality has been the opposite. The government has passed numerous laws and regulations to limit the impact of textbooks, nongovernmental organizations, and media and entertainment from abroad on Chinese society. And when China confronts popular unrest—labor, environmental, or other—Chinese media frequently ascribe it to “hostile foreign forces.” Even foreign trade and investment—the touchstones of globalization—have their limits. “Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries, and people between economies,” Xi noted at Davos, “is simply not possible.” But China, in fact, expends enormous effort doing just that. It sets sharp limits on capital outflows from China and restricts opportunities for foreign technologies to dominate the Chinese market or, alternatively, forces technology transfer from foreign firms to Chinese companies. China also uses trade and investment to punish smaller countries such as the Philippines and Norway for perceived political infractions.

Beijing sets sharp limits on capital outflows from China and restricts opportunities for foreign technologies to dominate the Chinese market.

Notably, nowhere in Xi’s Davos speech did he mention the free flow of information—also an essential element of globalization. Xi might seek to promote the Chinese narrative abroad, but he has little interest in allowing alternative ideas and ideals to influence the Chinese domestic audience. The Chinese Internet, in the words of the Chinese blogger Michael Anti, is in danger of becoming a “Chinanet,” with less and less access for Chinese citizens to foreign content. China has the right to determine its own laws and regulations with regard to information access—real or virtual—but there is no way to square such laws with those that promote globalization.

Finally, when considering China as a global leader, it is worth a quick look at the China model. Yes, it is an extraordinary achievement to have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But what is the China model today? With the range of environmental, public health, and other social challenges China now confronts as a result of its development model, is it a model worth emulating? Can the world afford a global leader that does not speak out on human rights abuses elsewhere and has a long and storied record of failing to acknowledge and address its own?

The temptation to yield to China’s aspirations for global leadership in an era when globalization appears under threat is great. Given the current uncertainty about the United States’ interest in continuing to lead, and in the absence of other interested applicants, the world is desperate for a replacement—even temporarily. Some may actually believe that China merits the job simply because Xi is willing to do it. No doubt many observers also hold out the hope—however misguided—that once China receives the rights of global leadership it will live up to the responsibilities. But the stakes are too high. China may well emerge as the savior of globalization at some point in the future when its deeds better match its words, but global leadership has to be earned on merit, not simply granted in desperation and hope. The world must recognize that globalization with Chinese characteristics is not globalization at all.

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  • ELIZABETH ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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