In his speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, 2017, three days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as America’s first authoritarian president, Xi Jinping presented himself as a calm, free-trading, globalization-friendly alternative to the chaos actor about to fill the other half of the superpower split-screen.
The democracy degrading one-two punch of Trump as a reality-show nutter in the Oval Office and a Chinese president presenting himself the same week as a kinder, gentler authoritarian portrayed a shift that had not actually happened beyond two speeches. But in an era of psychological warfare that specializes in contrast for propaganda purposes, the message was unmistakable.
“The political motivations behind Xi’s speech are not hard to discern: at a time when global leadership is in worryingly short supply, Xi offered up China, and more specifically himself, to fill the gap,” Thomas E. Kellogg wrote in The Diplomat at the time. “If the United States under President Trump is going to pull back from the world, Xi wanted to reassure his audience that China could step forward.”