China advances, America retreats.
Evan Osnos is one of the few journalists who has written extensively – and well – on both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump and his latest multi-page dispatch for the New Yorker Magazine is a state-of-the-union of sorts, the kind of long read suitable for dodging family conversation while on the downward slope of a holiday visit.
In his piece, Osnos argues that America’s retreat from global commitments is an opportunity for China:
“China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one. Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment. It planted those ideas in the rebuilding of Germany and Japan, and spread them with alliances around the world…For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century—when it could project its own values abroad. In the age of “America First,” that time has come far sooner than expected.”
It is hard to write about the Sino-US relationship without some element of what therapists call “projection.” It is easy to be disappointed by Donald Trump’s willful destruction of American soft power around the world. The Chinese Communist Party — whose economic policies have benefited, as Osnos wryly notes in his article, from protectionist barriers –- portrays itself as a savior of globalization and global trade. America seems unwilling to defend a global order of its own making. Neoliberalism is dying like an earthworm baking in the sun and not everyone is unhappy about this.
It is also easy to love a winning team. China’s millennial transformation is nothing short of an unprecedented development of human, social, and political capital. It is breathtaking to watch. However horrifying Chinese political values may be to Western liberals, the Chinese success story has a powerful hold on the imaginations of folks in places like Pakistan, Vietnam, Africa, or India. At the same time, China presents a real and present economic – and, in some cases, strategic – threat to many of its neighbors.
In the 20th century, it was the US who engendered these kinds of mixed feelings. P.J. O’Rourke once wrote, “I have been held at gunpoint by a Shi’ite youth in West Beirut who told me in one breath that America was ‘pig Satan devil’ and that he planned to go to dental school in Dearborn as soon as he got his green card.” In the 21st century, it will be China who will find itself the recipient of (not undeserved) envy and spite.
Just this past week, I was speaking with a student here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. When I asked him about China, he expressed great admiration for China’s economic development. For this young man, China represented a rich society compared to his own, whatever the macroeconomic reality. But when the conversation turned to social media, our young friend expressed surprise that China blocked Facebook. “How do you communicate with your friends? It must be so hard,” he said. When told we use WeChat, he thought for a second and said, “I’ve heard of it. Is that the only thing Chinese people can use?”
This is a theme and variation on conversations I’ve had this past year from Pyongyang to Yangon, Sri Lanka to Siem Reap. China’s rise may rankle, but there is great admiration for what China has accomplished.
Trump whines and America winces. Xi Jinping encourages his people to work hard. The Chinese get to work. It’s an easy juxtaposition. But what does it really tell us about either the US or China?
The state of the Party is strong with Xi at the core. Chinese society may be in fact a basket case of anxieties, but few folks identify the primary source of their unease and distress with the Party or the system. What’s the name of the delivery guy who scratched my new BMW? Will my kid get into the right school? Is my boss sleeping with my secretary? Am I sleeping with my secretary? How much will it cost me to get rid of my secretary? Do I have enough money to pay for my child’s education and my parent’s health care? Why does my daughter ignore me now that she’s an executive at something called a “start-up”? Why don’t my parents get why I don’t want to get married/have a kid/date somebody of a different gender?
The big issues – human rights, political freedom, economic stability – matter. That’s why they are the BIG issues, but they are not what dominates the dinner table or the WeChat feed. At least for now.
On the US side, America is a country divided between a solid base of Trump supporters who wouldn’t care if he farted on a toddler while yodeling the Russian national anthem and a larger – but less cohesive – block of Americans who would prefer the bloated corpse of a dead elephant seal in the oval office to its current occupant.
That said, the American system – for all of its foibles – has taken some pretty serious body blows in its time. I’m finishing up Ron Cherow’s new book Grant, which is a reevaluation of the Civil War general and US president. A country divided. The assassination of a president. The attempted assassinations of the United States’ top leadership. Reconstruction. Andrew freaking Johnson. Impeachment. And that was just in one decade. Somehow, improbably, the union survived. With luck, the union will survive Trump, too.
Osnos is correct when he argues that American influence is not going to wither away anytime soon, but neither is the Communist Party’s grip on power inside China. There is still a great deal of optimism – and “Wolf Warrior bravado” – which has been growing steadily for as long as I’ve lived in Beijing.
But the Party’s continued attacks on expression, independent organizations, and non-conformist ideology are not a sign of robust confidence even when those attacks are carried out from a position of strength. If all is rosy in Papa Xi’s house, why is Auntie Liu kept locked in the attic?
There is also a desire to see how the Party will respond to a major shock. China’s economy is still growing, and while inequality is a very real problem, most people feel that they are continuing to make progress in their life goals. Ask any NBA coach and he’ll tell you that it’s always easy to manage a locker room when the team is winning. Go on a three-game skid or a longer losing streak and that’s when your point guard accuses his backup of sleeping with his wife just as the starting power forward starts a brawl on the team plane over a game of cards. These are not good times.
For now, as Osnos argues, American abdication of global responsibility has presented a novel opportunity to Xi Jinping to influence the global order even as he solidifies his own grip on power at home. Sadly, Trump is too stupid to see this and Americans are too caught up in their own political drama to effectively change the situation.
In 1932, the writer Lao She wrote a dystopian satire 貓城記 (māochéngjì “Cat Country”) about a Chinese astronaut who lands on Mars to find it inhabited by a dissolute race of cats. Their society is rife with addiction, willful ignorance, and a disdain for facing the reality of their situation. Inevitably their society collapses when the cats are unable to resist conquest by another group of Martians. Lao She wrote his novel as a bitter metaphor for China in the throes of a bitter 20th century. In the 21st century, it may be the US who is forced to tweet the mantle: “Country of Cats.”
Cover Photo: Reuters