“Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room” was one of the many memorable quotations from President Xi Jinping’s historic speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, just under a month ago. It was the first time a Chinese President had addressed the elite crowd, and President Xi certainly made the right impression. China is open and helpful to the world, and will become increasingly so.Since then, this view has been confirmed as the new US President Donald Trump has embarked on a three week manifesto-delivery plan, issuing executive orders that essentially aim to close the world’s supposed largest economy off, and in so doing, offer a wide space for China, the world’s second largest economy, to step in.
But is this stepping in really happening or realistic? Let’s take Trump’s travel ban as an example. The travel ban focuses on nationals from seven specific countries, but is shrouded in a much broader distrust and distaste for assistance to people from other – mostly poorer – countries. As far back as 1970, the US took part in a UN General Assembly declaration that committed developed countries to “exert their best efforts” to spend 0.7 percent of their GNI as foreign aid, but has at most spent 0.23 percent. That was in 2005 – in 2015 aid to poorer countries made just 0.17 percent of GNI. Similarly, the US has been a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, but despite its wealth, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it is only 14th on the list of top receiving countries of refugees, hosting just over 273,000 people. The US made commitments to take up to 10,000 Syrian refugees per year – over fiscal year 2016 it took in just 3,566.
Is this a vacuum that China – as an advocate for globalisation and “people-centred development”, as President Xi said in Davos? Indeed, economic models suggest that free movement of people is at least as beneficial to global GDP as free trade, or free movement of goods. From a poverty point of view too, open borders are better than handouts of aid. A 2009 study suggested that for low income countries, restricting people movement by just one percentage point can be equivalent to cutting aid to those countries by almost 24 percent.
And the need is great. To give just one example, between September and December 2016, almost half a million South Sudanese sook refuge in neighbouring countries – that’s an average of over 4,000 people per day.
However, with a domestic population of 1.3bn people already, China does not have a strong record to date on free movement of people internationally. According to China’s 2010 National Census, there were over 600,000 foreigners living or working in China, 74 percent of whom are men. That’s at best 0.05 percent of China’s population. People movement is made even more complex by China’s “hukou” arrangements that restrict domestic citizen’s movement across cities and rural areas. The last time China took in refugees en mass was in the late 1970s, admitting around 300,000 people fleeing Vietnam. Since then, according to UNHCR data, just over 1,000 refugees from elsewhere have been admitted, from countries such as Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, and Liberia. China’s domestic law on refugees and asylum is still under development.
However, the positive signs are there. China has recently become a full member of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), after fifteen years of being an “observer”. Hukou reform is a priority in China’s 13th 5 year plan, as is the “talents agenda” – which includes expanding China’s pilot green card system for bright, innovative individuals from overseas. In 2015, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced a 2 million US dollar donation to UNHCR, who provides financial support to those refugees who do find themselves in China.
Indeed, while absolute population numbers are high, China is actually less densely populated than the UK, a country whose foreign population makes up around 10 percent of the total. There is much room for growth. Chinese citizens themselves are increasingly favourable to people from beyond their shores. A recent Amnesty International survey put China at the top of a “Refugees Welcome Index”.
With the Presidential changes in the US, there is certainly plenty of space for China to become a credible, top champion for globalisation. However, in doing so, China would do well to focus both on globalising people as well as goods, so that much less capable host countries such as Kenya or Yemen no longer need to fill the “people-centred” vacuum that is being left by the world’s current superpower.
( This article was first published by China Global Television Network (CGTN).