The world needs to see China with open eyes, a conversation with Jacques Attali

I’m launching a new format for Perspective and Context:

a short 2 questions interview around a specific theme + op-ed of my own. Comments and feedback are most welcome !


Jacques Attali is a rare voice on the global landscape: special Adviser to French President Mitterrand for 10 years; founder of 4 international institutions: Action contre la faim, EUREKA, BERD and Positive Planet; his more than 80 books are available in 22 languages have sold 9 million copies worldwide. 

His 1990 book Lignes d’Horizon (Millennium in the English version) famously served as an inspiration for Sun Microsystem’s Java programming language

Attali is a columnist for French daily Les Echos and on attali.com. He recently turned his keen eye towards the West’s often self defeating analysis of China, highlighting the fact that its weaknesses, especially during COVID, are too easily brushed off. 

I reached out to Jacques Attali this week to engage in an email conversation that I’m pleased to share with you:

Frederic Guarino:  Jacques Attali, your April 7 editorial "The worst enemy of the West" pointed out China’s weaknesses - what’s your analysis of Jack Ma’s confirmed repudiation ? Is this proof positive of their Potemkin capitalism ?

Jacques Attali:  In my view this sidelining doesn’t relate to an artificial nature of Chinese capitalism but to what’s surfacing all around the world, and in the West, an opposition between governments and Big Tech. The Chinese Communist Party reacted in quicker fashion than the US government to subdue the BATX (Baidu/Alibaba/Tencent/Xiaomi), their flavor of the FAANG (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix Google). Should the US elect before too long not to do the same, they will lose untold levers of sovereignty and control.

Frederic Guarino:  How do you explain China’s ability to hide its demographic weaknesses ?

Jacques Attali: China does indeed have immense weaknesses on the demographic, economic, technological and social levels. Furthermore, long term, it will face the inevitable contradiction between dictatorship and market economy, like other countries in the past. This will create immense turbulence. For now, the party has been able to showcase its urban, flamboyant veneer, as well as its army, extremely efficient in its close environment. That much so that the US armed forces doubt they can protect Taiwan’s independence. 

All told the world has been wilfully blind to the catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic by the Chinese state apparatus, their lack of masks and hospital capacity. China’s outright lies and the inefficiency of their vaccines should compel the West to conclude that the game is far from over. The future will always be made by democracies with solid institutions.  The challenge is for them to remain so.

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My dialogue with Jacques Attali confirms that the West’s painful path out of the COVID19 pandemic should trigger a collective moment of truth on its origin point, China. Chinese propaganda is hard at work to tamp down just how much the country supremely bungled the entire ordeal. The Chinese have repeatedly lied about the origins of the pandemic, the initial extent of the viral spread, allowed millions of their infected citizens to travel the world and are still masking the truth to the current reality of the pandemic within their borders.

The past week was the scene of a confluence of events which prompt the necessary revisiting of 2020 forecasts around Jack Ma’s fate as Xi Jinping continues to show the world the extent of his weakness:

April 12: Chinese forces entered Taiwan’s airspace as a show of force after Biden’s Secretary of State had merely reiterated the day before, America’s long standing policy of support to Taiwan.

April 16: Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publishes an essay as a tribute to his recently deceased mother. In the essay, published in Macau and which Chinese state media has been censoring, Jiabao writes "In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice". "There should always be respect for the will of the people, humanity and the nature of human beings. There should always be youthfulness, freedom and a striving spirit."

April 16: Newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, along with other Hong Kong democracy activists, is jailed for his role in 2019 protests deemed illegal. A confident regime shouldn’t resort to jailing media proprietors.

April 17: Reuters reports that “Ant Group is exploring options for founder Jack Ma to divest his stake in the financial technology giant and give up control, as meetings with Chinese regulators signalled to the company that the move could help draw a line under Beijing's scrutiny of its business”. 

All is not well with Xi Jinping it would seem, as he repeatedly chooses to highlight his thin skin and aversion to any criticism.

From November 2020 - Jack Ma is Xi’s Khodorskovsky and he will be made an example of :

Xi is failing to rein in his rival clan’s, the Shanghai clique’s, power. Xi thought that jailing a top member of the clique, Bo Xilai, would be enough to scare all of them into submission. He needs another example, another victim, and it could very well be Jack Ma.

Wen Jiabao’s political mentor was another former Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, a legendary figure of China’s modernization under the Deng Xiaoping model. Wen is a successor of former President Jiang Zemin. The “Shanghai clique” around Zhu and Jiang’s disciples has been notoriously critical of Xi’s hyper-personalization of the power structure. They all suffered physical and psychological harm during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Wen built his power base in China’s interior and is not a member of the “Shanghai clique” but he criticized the Cultural Revolution in 2017 as a sitting official. He famously recounted how both his grandfather and father “were were victimized by radical Red Guards”. It’s notable that critics of Xi’s personal power grab have direct experience of the excesses brought on by a lone person at the helm.

On August 19, 2011, Premier Wen Jiabao met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden

Wen’s tribute could very well be an innocent letter to his deceased mother, but if so, the state censorship demonstrates just how averse to any and all critique Xi really is. How can China project confidence if it resorts to censoring a former Prime Minister ?

From November 2020 - Jack Ma is Xi’s Khodorskovsky and he will be made an example of :

What’s also true is that China is in a difficult position and Xi needs to project power. Scuttling Ant’s IPO is the 1st step in what he could do to Ma to signal to all the other billionaires that the CCP remains the supreme political and economic steering committee in the world’s largest nation.

Ma’s sidelining in the fall is now moving into the asset seizing phase, which is not a new method for the CCP. The signal sent to the billionaire and millionaire class is that CCP remains firmly at the center of power and that the rule of law is bent to political winds.

In early 2021 I had direct conversations with Canada-based Chinese digital entrepreneurs and asked for their comment on the unfolding Jack Ma situation. Their assessment of the situation was rather bleak: their friends living in China  were all “reading the tea leaves” and preparing to exit the country. How can China be considered an attractive country for investment if their entrepreneurs witness one of their mentors/examples be dispossessed of their business assets? How is this motivating to a generation of rising professionals ?

This week’s global climate summit pits the US and the European Union against China on the fundamental question of how to combat rising levels of CO2. The West is much too reliant on China to produce its solar technology and the added dimension of forced labor and dirty coal being used to produce the building blocks of a greener planet should force a collaborative and massive effort by the Americans and their Canadian/Australian and European allies. 

Jacques Attali’s words resonate with a special meaning here: “The future will always be made by democracies with solid institutions.” It’s past time for a new international institution similar to the EBRD (the European reconstruction bank Attali founded) to invest in core climate proof technologies, a Climate Reconstruction Bank (CRB).