Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attends a congress of the far right party 'Fratelli d'Italia' in Rome on September 22, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tiziana Fabi
Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attends a congress of the far right party 'Fratelli d'Italia' in Rome on September 22, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tiziana Fabi

Populist forces, which claim to speak for and represent ordinary people rather than traditional political elites, are gaining ground in Europe, and this presents a challenge for China, experts say.

Indeed, though anti-establishment European parties and movements, particularly those currently in power, seem committed to fostering good relations with Beijing, their anti-globalist and protectionist agenda actually goes against the Chinese push for greater openness of global markets.

Populists and right-wing nationalists, some of which go as far as to advocate the European Union’s demise, are expected to perform well in the European parliamentary elections next May.

Such a scenario cannot but worry China, which does not want its second-largest export market to fall into chaos – the Asian giant exported to EU countries US$381.1 billion worth of goods in 2017 and ran a trade surplus of $19.9 billion with the bloc in the second quarter of 2018.

In the eyes of Chinese leaders, the EU is also a relatively cooperative partner when it comes to the protection of free trade and multilateralism, which are threatened by US President Donald Trump’s aggressive protectionist policies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his premier Li Keqiang have denounced the surge of protectionist and populist governments as a threat to the international order. Curiously, Xi has often been depicted as a populist leader who is trying to create a personality cult around him, as late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong did in the past.

But it is too much of a stretch to compare the Chinese political landscape with Europe’s. As Pang Laikwan, a professor of Cultural Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, put it to Asia Times: “We cannot too quickly consider China’s situation as populist, because its leaders and government are not based on electoral democracy.”

Wang Yong, the director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University, insisted that “China is firmly opposed to trade protectionism, economic nationalism and populism, and sees dangers from Brexit and other recent political developments in Europe and the United States.”

Jiang Shixue, a professor and deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was in sync with his colleague. He said China was pursuing multilateralism, opening up and globalization and was keen that populism, protectionism or other slogans like “my country first” did not adversely affect its interests.

But Jiang pointed out that Beijing also wished to promote relations with any government in the world, regardless of its ideology, pursuant to the principle of non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries. “Populism has different meanings and definitions,” he said. “Those who pursue populist policies also wish to develop relations with China. So why should Chinese leaders refuse having ties with them?”

Bannon still stands in the way

Populist forces in Europe have built their success on the demonization of the EU’s political-bureaucratic establishment, accused of favoring big corporations over common people and blamed for not doing enough to tackle illegal immigration from Africa and the Middle East.

Paradoxically, populist-nationalist governments, such as those in Italy and Hungary, are ready to deepen relations with China despite President Xi having practically become the standard-bearer of the “globalist party of Davos.”

At the same time, however, Italian and Hungarian leaders sympathize with Stephen K Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, and his Brussels-based “The Movement,” a political platform aiming to unite ultra-conservative populist forces in Europe.

Bannon believes anti-establishment and nationalist parties could deconstruct the EU’s bureaucratic apparatus, the European equivalent of the detested “administrative state” in the United States, and threaten the bloc’s very existence.

This is already enough to alarm the Chinese, which support the European grouping’s unity and integrity and cannot ignore Bannon’s role in laying the groundwork for Trump’s current trade war against China.

International cooperation as an antidote

Professor Wang thinks China has the tools to cope with the populist storm in Europe and safeguard its future relationship with the EU. The Chinese scholar emphasized that China did not intend to meddle in the internal affairs of European nations in principle.

On the other hand, he noted that “Beijing is working to improve relations with Europe, especially with countries that are interested in strengthening ties with it on trade and investment and through the Belt and Road Initiative [the Chinese plan for better Eurasian connectivity].”

Wang added that international cooperation was not limited to economic matters in China’s vision, but was also conducive to promoting general understanding and create a positive climate to consolidate the foundations of global governance.

He said that while China was worried that anti-globalization movements in Europe might spread into other fields and parts of the world, such a global cooperation should help people resist the temptation of isolationism, protectionism and populism.

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