In their effort to transform their discomfort with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests into a superficially sophisticated critique, right-wing “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have latched onto a dubious historical analogy.
When former congressman Newt Gingrich, the National Review’s David Harsanyi, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and other right-wingers look at the protests against police violence, they see the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, turned China upside down. Initially instigated by Mao Zedong to outflank his more liberal opponents, the Cultural Revolution drew millions of young people into a bewildering assortment of Red Guard factions that purged “reactionary” elements from institutions, destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, and even fought pitched battles against each other. As Mao quickly lost control over the movement, the Red Guards threw China into such chaos that even the country’s nuclear weapons complex was at risk.
The Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, resulted in at least a million deaths, and led to the destruction, in Beijing alone, of nearly 5,000 of the city’s 6,800 officially designated sites of historical interest.
Keep that in mind as you read what Joel Pollak, an editor-at-large at Breitbart, has to say:
Black Lives Matter” has become America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution — a radical, youth-led purge of the vestiges of traditional culture and authority within a one-party state.
In this case, the one-party system is the “blue archipelago” of Democrat-run cities, most of which have not had Republican leaders for decades, and likely never will again.
But whereas China’s radicals helped Mao consolidate power, Black Lives Matter may destabilize the entire country.
The most striking similarity between the two movements is the ritual humiliation of individuals seen to represent “the system.” Mobs of demonstrators have marched up to police and demanded that they kneel with them, or to them. Some officers, in a bid to defuse tensions, have obliged.
What a fascinating set of comparisons.
Only a white conservative born in South Africa would equate the traditional culture of ancient temples with statues of white racists. The United States is a one-party state, oops, can’t say that, since the Republicans control the executive and the Senate, so Pollak immediately pivots to something very different, a “blue archipelago” of cities, even though #BlackLivesMatter protests took place in plenty of “red archipelago” towns and cities as well: Wilmington (North Carolina), Odessa (Texas), Grand Island (Nebraska), and dozens of other places that voted for Trump and have sent Republicans to Congress.
The Red Guards didn’t help Mao consolidate power because they in fact destabilized the entire country. But Pollak has to make out that the current U.S. protestors are worse, so the former helped a dictator while the latter “may destabilize the entire country.” But wait, isn’t the United States already destabilized by a pandemic and an economic collapse?
And now for the only concrete comparison, which revolves around ritual humiliation. The Red Guards put dunce caps on their professors and leading cultural figures and forced them to engage in self-criticism sessions. It was quite easy to do that, since the Red Guards had larger numbers and sometimes weapons as well and their opponents were unarmed. Today’s protestors, meanwhile, are the unarmed ones, and they face the armed representatives of the state, who don’t have to defer to the protestors if they don’t want to.
No one has placed dunce caps on their heads. When they kneel, they do so out of actual solidarity, which probably troubles Pollak a good deal more than the imaginary humiliation, or else in a cynical play for the cameras.
Statues and Op-Eds
If it were just one crazy Breitbart writer, it would be easy to dismiss the violence that Pollak has committed against the art of analogy. But various conservatives, libertarians, and even a “libertarian Marxist” have seized on the Cultural Revolution analogy — probably because they believe that any associations with China are by definition bad and no one really understands references to Jacobins and the French Revolution any more.
The Cultural Revolution comparisons usually fall into two categories. In the first, the analogists want to demonstrate that the current protestors aspire to expunge the past. In the second, they want to prove that the protestors aim to prohibit free speech.
In the bizarre UK magazine Spiked!, the editor and former Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill lays out the first kind of comparison:
Britain is in the throes of a Cultural Revolution. Statues are being tumbled, past art erased, people cancelled. Wide-eyed Woke Guards, heirs to Maoist-style intolerance, are compiling lists of monuments to target and individuals to humiliate. They are remorseless. Nothing old that runs counter to their newthink can be tolerated. Tear it all down.
Sounds pretty scary. What’s actually happened is that protestors have dumped one statue — of slave trader Edward Colston — into the drink and spray-painted “racist” on a statue of Winston Churchill. The UK is now having a discussion about history and how to commemorate it. That’s not exactly Cultural Revolution-style anarchy. Rather, it’s a rather commonplace occurrence.
Even the statue-toppling is more common than O’Neill suggests. It’s not like Stalin statues still look down on people throughout Eastern Europe. Statues of ruthless colonial oppressors were pulled down throughout Africa as part of the independence process. Oh, and what about Ozymandias, the once powerful King of Kings that the poet Shelley discovered as just a pair of legs in the sand?
In the second category, the analogists are particularly exercised by The New York Times backtracking on a Tom Cotton op-ed it published on June 3. In “Send in the Troops,” Senator Cotton (R-AR) urged the use of the U.S. military to quell the unrest surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter protests.
“What you are seeing is Maoism, people who are supposed to be in public confess that they’ve been guilty, people who have to toe whatever the party line is,” opined Newt Gingrich on Fox News. “When we see an institution as famous and as powerful as The New York Times collapse totally in front of the mob, it tells you what’s going on in terms of American elites.”
The mob? The New York Times made its decision to retract Cotton’s op-ed because, first, it contained factual inaccuracies and language unbefitting The Gray Lady’s editorial page. Second, it received pushback from its own staff.
The editors concluded, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.”
And unlike Maoist China, the Times published several pieces — by Brett Stephens and Ross Douthat — that supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed.
None of that has stopped the National Review’s David Harsanyi from concluding during the Cotton affair that “we’re in the dawn of a high-tech, bloodless Cultural Revolution; one that relies on intimidation, public shaming, and economic ruin to dictate what words and ideas are permissible in the public square.”
Now, if Harsanyi were talking about the impact of the Koch brothers on public debate in the United States — trying to intimidate and publicly shame money in politics journalist Jane Mayer in an attempt to stop her investigations, spending millions of dollars to dictate acceptable discourse — then maybe he’d be on to something.
Which leads us to a much more apt Cultural Revolution analogy.
Trump Plays Mao
A powerful leader appeals to a group of crazy, gun-toting followers to go after his political opponents. He pits the anarchy of the mob against the level-headed policies of experts and sensible politicians.
But also Donald Trump.
When militia members showed up outside state capitols and the houses of governors to protest stay-at-home measures, the solidly Republican head of the National Association of Manufacturers called them “IDIOTS.” In a video call, Jay Timmons continued, “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes. And they have no concern, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about what they want.”
Donald Trump, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the protests. He called on his followers to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. For Virginians, he had an extra message: “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The Second Amendment pertains to the right to keep and bear arms.
When the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death overwhelmed the anti-quarantine actions, Trump displayed the other side of Mao by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. military to suppress the demonstrations. Tom Cotton’s vocal support for the action notwithstanding, Trump got serious pushback from former generals and active duty military. Thanks to Pentagon chief Mark Esper refusal to support Trump’s move, America was saved from a Tiananmen Square scenario.
Rebuffed, Trump has retreated to his previous position of backing America’s version of the Red Guard. Marjorie Taylor Greene is running for Congress in Georgia on the Republican Party ticket. If she wins — and she has a very good chance — she’ll be the first member of Congress to believe in the QAnon conspiracy (think: “deep state” times crazy). In June, she posted a video of herself wielding a semi-automatic and a message for “Antifa terrorists to stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” Trump endorsed her and then congratulated her for winning the recent primary.
After The Washington Post recently published an unflattering profile of her, Greene tweeted, “The Chinese propagandists at the Washington Post are attacking me the same way they attack Donald Trump, and other conservatives.”
I always knew that the 2020 elections were going to feature some back and forth about China. But I never could have imagined Donald Trump as Mao teaming up with Republican wackos in the garb of the Red Guards to fight the reformers who are trying to save the country from a lacerating Cultural Revolution.
And conservative pundits have the gall to twist the very same analogy into a pretzel to throw against their enemies?
Only in Trump’s through-the-looking-glass America.
Economists like to think of the wreckage caused by stock market downturns, widespread bankruptcies, and corporate downsizing as “creative destruction.” As it destroys the old and the dysfunctional, the capitalist system continually spurs innovation, much as a forest fire prepares the ground for new growth.
Or so the representatives of the dismal science argue.
Donald Trump, who is neither economist nor scientist, has his own version of creative destruction. He is determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act and replace it with his own health insurance alternative. He has torn up the Iran nuclear deal in favor of negotiating something brand new with Tehran. He has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and argues that the United States is reducing carbon emissions in its own superior manner.
The problem, of course, is that Trump is very good at destruction but, despite his previous job as a real estate mogul, exceedingly bad at construction. Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that he never intended to replace what he is destroying with anything at all. Trump has never offered any viable alternative to Obamacare or any new negotiating framework with Iran. And prior to the recent economic downturn, U.S. carbon emissions were increasing after several years of decline.
Perhaps the most dangerous example of Trump’s uncreative destruction is his approach to China.
Previously, Trump said that he simply wanted to level the playing field by placing trade with China on a fairer and more reciprocal basis, strengthening the regime of intellectual property rights, and stopping Beijing from manipulating its currency.
He was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish this goal. The tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese products precipitated a trade war that jeopardized the livelihoods of millions of American farmers and workers. The initial trade deal that the United States and China signed in January, even though many of the U.S. tariffs remain in place, was supposed to be the grand alternative to the old and dysfunctional trade relationship.
But here again, Trump is not telling the truth. He and his team have a very different set of objectives. As with so many other elements of his domestic and foreign policy, Trump wants to tear apart the current system — in this case, the network of economic ties between the United States and China — and replace it with absolutely nothing at all.
Oh sure, Trump believes that U.S. manufacturers can step up to take the place of Chinese suppliers. More recently, as the administration “turbocharges” its efforts to isolate China in response to its purported pandemic mistakes, it has talked of creating an Economic Prosperity Network of trusted allies like South Korea, Australia, India, and Vietnam. But this is all whistling in the dark, because the administration doesn’t really understand the consequences — for the world economy, for the U.S. economy — of tearing apart the global supply chain in this way.
Just how poorly Trump understands all this is reflected in his statement last week that “we could cut off the whole relationship” with China and “save $500 billion.” This from the president who erroneously believes that China is paying the United States “billions and billions of dollars of tariffs a month.” What else do you expect from a man who received a BS in economics from Wharton?
Unlike many of the administration’s other policies, however, its hardline approach to China has some bipartisan support. Engagement with China has virtually disappeared as a policy option in the Democratic Party. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential candidate, has attempted to present himself as the tougher alternative when it comes to China, a misguided effort to fend off charges of his bedding down with Beijing.
Finger to the wind, Biden is crafting policies in response not just to Trump but to public opinion. In 2017, 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, compared to 47 percent who held an unfavorable opinion of the country, according to Pew. In this year’s survey, only 26 percent looked at China positively versus 66 percent who viewed it negatively. The latter category includes 62 percent of Democrats.
Writing for the Atlantic Council, Michael Greenwald sums up the new conventional wisdom of the centrists:
The United States can no longer remain content with the notion of a Chinese economic threat arising in the distant future. The advent of COVID-19 has made it more apparent than any other time including the US-China trade war that now is the moment for the United States, European Union, and other like-minded countries to diversify supply chains away from China.
That’s what makes Trump’s uncreative destruction vis a vis China so dangerous. It may not stop after November, no matter who wins the election.
The Great Disentanglement
China’s economic shutdown at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic disrupted many global supply chains, prompting a number of countries and corporations to accelerate their strategy of reducing their dependency on China for components.
Rising labor costs in China, concerns over human rights abuses there, but especially the trade war between Washington and Beijing had contributed to the U.S. fashion industry and tech firms like Apple rethinking their own supply chains. Japan, heavily dependent on Chinese trade, is using $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to subsidize the move of Japanese firms out of China.
The Trump administration is thus swimming with the current in its effort to isolate China. It has imposed sanctions because of China’s violations of Uyghur human rights. It has levied penalties against China for its cooperation with Iranian firms. And it has threatened to add another set of tariffs on top of the existing ones for China’s handling of the coronavirus.
Its latest initiative has been to tighten the screws on the Chinese technology firm, Huawei. Last week, the administration announced sanctions against any firms using U.S.-made equipment that supply the Chinese tech giant. The chief victim of these new restrictions will be the Taiwanese firm TSMC, which supplies 90 percent of Huawei’s smartphone chips.
In other words, the Trump administration is committed not only to severing U.S. economic connections with China. It wants to put as much pressure on other countries as well to disentangle themselves from Chinese manufacturing. Taiwan, of course, has no particular love for Mainland China. It battles Beijing on a daily basis to get international recognition — from other countries and from global organizations like the World Health Organization.
But the Taiwanese economy is also heavily dependent on its cross-strait neighbor. As Eleanor Albert points out:
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the island’s total trade, and trade between the two reached $150.5 billion in 2018 (up from $35 billion in 1999). China and Taiwan have also agreed to allow banks, insurers, and other financial service providers to work in both markets.
And it probably won’t be Huawei but Taiwan that suffers from the U.S. move. As Michael Reilly notes, “Huawei’s size in the global market means its Taiwanese suppliers cannot easily find an alternative customer of comparable standing to replace it.” China, meanwhile, will either find another source of chips outside the U.S. sphere, or it will do what the United States has been threatening to do: bring production of critical components back closer to home.
Another key player in the containment of China is India. Trump’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, is more than simply an ideological affection. Trump sealed a $3 billion in military sales deal with India in February, with a trade deal still on the horizon.
Modi, in turn, is hoping to be the biggest beneficiary of the falling out between Washington and Beijing. “The government in April reached out to more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and through overseas missions to offer incentives for manufacturers seeking to move out of China,” reports Bloomberg. “India is prioritizing medical equipment suppliers, food processing units, textiles, leather, and auto part makers among more than 550 products covered in the discussions.”
Vietnam is another regional competitor that the United States is supporting in its containment strategy. With only a couple hundred reported coronavirus cases and zero deaths, Vietnam is poised to emerge from the current crisis virtually unscathed. With low labor costs and an authoritarian government that can enforce deals, it is already a favored alternative for corporations looking for alternatives to China. But wildcat strikes have been happening in greater numbers in the country, and the Vietnamese government recently approved the country’s first independent trade union.
Yet with a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure, China will continue to look more attractive to investors than India or Vietnam.
Don’t Count Out China
If your image of the Chinese economy is stuck in the 1980s — cheap toys and mass-produced baubles — then you probably think that severing economic ties with the country is no big deal. America can produce its own plastic junk, right?
But China is no longer hurrying to catch up to the West. In some ways, the West is already in China’s rearview mirror.
Huawei is well-known for the part it’s playing in the rollout of 5G networks worldwide. China is not only ahead of the curve in upgrading to 5G domestically, it is busy manufacturing all the new tech that will run on these high-speed networks, like virtual reality and augmented reality and AI-driven devices.
Perhaps more to the point, China is not simply part of the global supply chain. It is using these new technologies to revolutionize the global supply chain.
For instance, it’s using 3-D modeling to shorten product development. It has long integrated drones into its distribution networks. “Chinese supply chain companies are incorporating groundbreaking technologies like cloud-based systems, data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) and using them to redesign supply chain operations,” writes Adina-Laura Achim.
And don’t discount the role of a well-financed, centralized, authoritarian government. The Trump administration is, frankly, at a huge disadvantage when it tries to pressure companies to relocate their operations. Writes Manisha Mirchandani:
The global technology and consumer electronics sectors are especially reliant on China’s infrastructure and specialized labor pool, neither of which will be easy to replicate. The Chinese government is already mobilizing resources to convince producers of China’s unique merits as a manufacturing location. Zhengzhou, within Henan Province, has appointed officials to support Apple’s partner Foxconn in mitigating the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, while the Ministry of Finance is increasing credit support to the manufacturing sector. Further, the Chinese government is likely to channel stimulus efforts to develop the country’s high-tech manufacturing infrastructure, moving away from its low-value manufacturing base and accelerating its vision for a technology-driven services economy.
The Trump administration is playing the short game, trying to use tariffs and anti-Chinese sentiment to hobble a rising power. China, on the other hand, is playing the long game, translating its trade surpluses into structural advantages in a fast-evolving global economy.
Will the Conflict Turn Hot?
Despite the economic ravages of the pandemic, the Pentagon continues to demand the lion’s share of the U.S. budget. It wants another $705 billion for 2021, after increasing its budget by 20 percent between 2016 and 2020.
This appalling waste of government resources has already caused long-term damage to the economic competitiveness of the United States. But it’s all the money the Pentagon is spending on “deterring China” that might prove more devastating in the short term.
The U.S. Navy announced this month that it was sending its entire forward-deployed sub fleet on “contingency response operations” as a warning to China. Last month, the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Strike Group sailed into the South China Sea to support Malaysia’s oil exploration in an area that China claims. Aside from the reality that oil exploration makes no economic sense at a time of record low oil prices, the United States should be helping the countries bordering the South China Sea come to a fair resolution of their disputes, not throwing more armaments at the problem.
There’s also heightened risk of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and even in outer space. A huge portion of the Pentagon’s budget goes toward preparing for war with China — and, frankly, provoking war as well.
What does this all have to do with the Great Disentanglement?
The close economic ties between the United States and China have always represented a significant constraint on military confrontation. Surely the two countries would not risk grievous economic harm by coming to blows. Economic cooperation also provides multiple channels for resolving conflicts and communicating discontent. The United States and Soviet Union never had that kind of buffer.
If the Great Disentanglement goes forward, however, then the two countries have less to lose economically in a military confrontation. Trading partners, of course, sometimes go to war with one another. But as the data demonstrates, more trade generally translates into less war.
There are lots and lots of problems in the U.S.-China economic relationship. But they pale in comparison to World War III.
Conspiracy theorists never let a crisis go to waste.
When something truly terrible happens, the conspiracy theorist sets to work to determine the dark, hidden forces at work behind the scenes that have produced the crisis. Some people might see God or the Devil as the prime mover behind a catastrophe. Others throw up their hands and mutter, “shit happens.”
Not conspiracy theorists. They need to find a secret human culprit, preferably someone or something that they’ve been warning about for years.
A conspiracy theorist begins with a conclusion — the Bush administration engineered the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Democratic Party is running a child pornography ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC — and then works backward to fashion a faulty timeline that leads to that conclusion. Along the way, the theorist marshals the plausible, the implausible, and the downright ludicrous in an effort to prove a far-fetched contention. In this way, conspiracy theorists shoehorn messy reality into their simplistic worldviews.
The current pandemic presents a grand opportunity for conspiracy theorists. Go on the Internet and you’ll find a bumper crop of lunatic notions:
Billionaire Bill Gates helped create the coronavirus so that he could put microchips into people’s heads, argues the unshameable Trump ally Roger Stone.
The pandemic is just a ploy to push vaccines into people’s veins. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” writes anti-vaxxer Larry Cook. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.”
It’s bad enough to be hit by a pandemic and a massive economic downturn. Now we also have to deal with a calamitous collapse in common sense?
Still, all of these conspiracy theories pale in significance next to the crazy and dangerous propositions about China and the coronavirus coming from Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and much of the Republican Party. The other conspiracy theories circulate the Internet like bad memes, chasing their tails until they’re replaced with newer nonsense.
The Trump administration is playing a different game. Desperate to defect responsibility for its own catastrophic failures, Trump is weaponizing his China conspiracies — with considerably greater economic and geopolitical consequences.
Did the Lab Do It?
The Trump administration has made several accusations against China. It has asserted that the coronavirus was manufactured in a biological laboratory in Wuhan. It has argued that China engaged in a cover-up that allowed the virus to spread around the world. It has said that China underestimated the severity of the epidemic and hoarded medical equipment.
The administration is now preparing to take actions that will make the earlier trade war with China look like a mere disagreement among friends.
Let’s start with the various coronavirus origin theories.
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, was the epicenter of the current pandemic. In that same city, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention study coronaviruses and the bats that carry them.
For conspiracy theorists, proximity is a sufficient smoking gun. They began linking one or the other institute to the outbreak back in January 2020. At the end of January, The Washington Post was already debunking the notion that the virus was manufactured in a lab. In February, 27 prominent public health scientists published a statement in The Lancet that they and their colleagues “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.”
None of that has prevented Trump and Pompeo from asserting otherwise. Pompeo said this weekend that there is “enormous evidence” that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab. He neglected to furnish any of this evidence. When reminded that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the virus was not manmade, Pompeo was forced to walk back his initial statement.
It’s possible, of course, that a sample of the virus collected in the wild accidentally escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A set of State Department cables from 2018 reported on concerns over safety standards at the institute. Lab mishaps indeed happen with disturbing frequency. In the United States, for instance, such breaches have involved anthrax, Ebola, and the plague. So, an accidental breach at a Wuhan lab is within the realm of possibility.
But scientists who have sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus maintain that it is unlike the particular bat coronavirus studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But what if scientists in Wuhan had manipulated the virus they were studying, hoping to create what they call a “gain of function”? Again, given the genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus, there’s no evidence of this kind of manipulation.
As The Washington Postconcluded in its Fact Checker analysis, “The balance of the scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the new coronavirus emerged from nature — be it the Wuhan market or somewhere else. Too many unexpected coincidences would have had to take place for it to have escaped from a lab.”
As usual, Donald Trump is accusing others of sins that he has committed in spades. The president ignored various briefings throughout January 2020 about the dangers of the coronavirus. He now claims that he only learned in late January about the disease and that these briefings stressed that it was “non-threatening.”
Given the overwhelming evidence of the earlier briefings — he ignored direct warnings from Alex Azar on January 18 and an intelligence briefing on January 23 — Trump is doing his damnedest to pretend ignorance.
Now, let’s jump ahead more than a month. If Trump had issued social distancing guidelines two weeks earlier than he did — on March 2 rather than March 16 — the death toll could have been reduced by 90 percent, according to two epidemiologists writing in The New York Times. That’s over 60,000 deaths (and rising) that should rest on the president’s conscience (if he possessed one). Of course, other politicians — like New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio — should have also acted with greater urgency. But there’s no substitute for confident national leadership. And there’s no nightmare like bad national leadership.
And now, in the midst of his own dizzying attempts at covering up his own mistakes, Trump has decided to blame China for its own cover-up. “They made a mistake, they tried to cover it, like a fire,” he said at a Fox News virtual town hall over the weekend. “They couldn’t put out the fire.”
Unlike the United States, China had no advance warning that a new disease was about to strike and spread. Still, when doctors started to report a new disease in Wuhan in late December, the Chinese government reacted with its usual authoritarian approach. It tried to clamp down on the bad news. So, yes, that was a mistake. And it wouldn’t be the only one, as I noted in a column in mid-March.
But it was only three weeks between the identification of the new disease and the lockdown of Wuhan. The disease emerged at the end of December and by the third week of January, when deaths were in the low double digits and infections still in the triple digits, virtually all of Hubei province was under quarantine. In between identification and lockdown, China briefed the World Health Organization on the situation and released the genome sequence of the new disease.
And China practiced early detection and isolation, a technique that South Korea would implement even more effectively. As David Cyranoski wrote in Nature back in March:
Before the interventions, scientists estimated that each infected person passed on the coronavirus to more than two others, giving it the potential to spread rapidly. Early models of the disease’s spread, which did not factor in containment efforts, suggested that the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, would infect 40% of China’s population — some 500 million people. But between 16 and 30 January, a period that included the first 7 days of the lockdown, the number of people each infected individual gave the virus to dropped to 1.05, estimates Adam Kucharski, who models infectious-disease spread at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “That was amazing,” he says.
So, China was putting out the fire with greater dispatch than most other countries. It’s one of the reasons why it has been the first country to emerge from the other side of the crisis. The rapid containment of China’s outbreak is one of the major reasons that other countries even had a chance at containing their own.
What about Homeland Security’s contention that China misrepresented the severity of the crisis in order to stock up on medical supplies? This seems unlikely. The Chinese government didn’t seem to understand the severity of the crisis in those early days. In fact, it was only later, between January 24 and February 27, that China imported “2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks, gloves and ventilators,” according to Chinese statistics.
But this was well after China was telling the world that the epidemic was serious, and it coincided with its efforts to deal with its own crisis. Was it hoarding, or was it preparing for a potential catastrophe of 500 million infected people?
Could China have done better? Absolutely. Earlier action would have even more significantly reduced the infection rate. Even the Chinese government has admitted that. “In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies,” the Politburo admitted in a report in early February, “we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks.” Trump, in contrast, has made no such admission of deficiencies.
Let’s be clear: China screwed up during one critical week at the beginning of January when it misunderstood or downplayed the risk of the new disease. But compare that with the two months of Trump dismissing the severity of COVID-19. During that period, by the way, Trump had nothing but praise for China’s handling of the crisis.
It’s not just the Trump administration that is dumping on China. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin published a tendentious piece last week that mixed the factual with the fictional. He correctly notes that China silenced critics. But then adds that China “manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity.” Follow that link and you’ll discover that China updated its statistics to account for uncounted deaths, for instance those that died at home.
Perhaps Rogin hasn’t been paying attention to the reporting in his own paper about excess U.S. deaths during the first months of the coronavirus crisis, at least some of which will ultimately be attributed to the pandemic. “The problem of undercounting coronavirus deaths is not unique to this pandemic or to the United States,” the April 27 article concluded.
China could indeed be a great deal more transparent about its statistics, the origins of the virus, and its response to the pandemic. But The Economist is off base when it asserts that “China’s opacity has allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.” The relationship between opacity and conspiracy theories is by no means so direct. Obama went to great lengths to prove his citizenship, and it did little to quiet the “birther” movement.
Many conspiracy theories are politically motivated. The Trump administration feels an urgent need to shift the blame. China could submit to a full proctological exam, and Trump would still accuse Beijing of covering its ass.
Trump on the Offensive
The United States and China have been entangled economically for decades. Trump is determined to end all that. His earlier trade sanctions have done much to untie the two economies, as suppliers and importers in both countries have looked for other partners. The battle over the world’s digital infrastructure has also sharpened competition between two IT giants.
The pandemic is providing a pretext for Trump to double down.
“We’ve been working on [reducing the reliance of our supply chains in China] over the last few years but we are now turbo-charging that initiative,” a State Department undersecretary told Reuters. Trump is also targeting scientific cooperation between the two countries. He is considering an executive order banning government pension funds from investing in Chinese companies. He signed into law the Taiwan Act in March committing Washington to push other countries to recognize Taiwan diplomatically.
The president’s more radical advisors are even pushing Trump to default on the U.S. debt to China, claiming that withholding repayment would constitute a form of reparations for the damage that China has “caused” with the coronavirus. (Ah, so calling it the “China virus” was not merely racist, it was part of building a legal case for compensation.) Since the “Spanish flu” originated in the United States, Trump may open up the United States to more court challenges than it bargained for.
“The United States would be better advised to focus on those genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game,” observes Max Boot in The Washington Post, “lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.” The Chinese ambassador to the United States brings the arguments closer to the present day. “To ask a victim for compensation is simply ridiculous,” Cui Tiankai argues. “If that made sense, then who was to compensate for the fatalities of the H1N1 flu and HIV/AIDS? Who was to pay for the huge losses caused by the 2008 financial crisis?”
Floating the nuclear option of debt default is probably just another example of Trump’s tactic of calculated overreach. He’s likely gearing up for another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which will then seem sensible in comparison (instead of just plain insane given the circumstances). But who knows: Trump likes dramatic, unprecedented, and stupid actions.
I was never a big fan of the “adults in the room.” But realists like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis are no longer counseling caution in the administration. Instead, squawking in Trump’s ear is a flock of hawks — Pompeo, Peter Navarro, and the National Security Council’s China hand, Matt Pottinger. Trump is susceptible to man-crushing on autocrat Xi Jinping. The hawks are determined to nip that relationship in the bud.
Of course, you don’t have to be a realist to understand that an economic and diplomatic war with China at this point is a bad idea. You just have to register a modicum of brain activity. The U.S. economy is crashing. The pandemic here is far from over (despite what some governors and gun owners think). What a great time to make it even more difficult for U.S. farmers and manufacturers to survive the downturn.
It’s not as if China is weak at the moment and eager to capitulate. It has recovered from the pandemic. It has reopened its economy in a more-or-less responsible fashion. It has the financial resources to help countries that have been hobbled by the crisis. It has achieved even greater international credit in the wake of Trump’s disastrous foreign policy, for instance by upping its contribution to the WHO as Trump suspends U.S. payments.
Trump, however, knows that only a conspiracy theory (or better yet, several) can get him reelected. Compared to his previous efforts in the genre — the “birther movement,” Obama’s alleged wiretapping of his phone — this mythmaking about China has the full force of the U.S. government behind it, along with much of the pundit class, and a bunch of disgruntled allies as well.
The Republican Party, desperate to deflect attention not only from the pandemic and the economic depression but from Trump’s patent irresponsibility as well, has seized on China as an electoral “Hail Mary” pass. Republican congressional candidates are now running ads that blame China for “the Wuhan epidemic,” promise to “make China pay” for “the lies they told and the jobs they stole,” and warn, “To stop China, you have to stop Joe Biden.”
With November in their sights, Trump and the Republicans are digging themselves into a hole — all the way to China.
A crisis, according to self-help and leadership books, reveals much about a person’s character. The same can be said of a nation’s character.
Since the latest pandemic began to spread out of China in 2020, countries responded in very different ways to the challenge. There was ingenuity, inflexibility, incomprehension, and sheer incompetence.
Diversity can be a beautiful thing. But not when it comes to battling a pandemic.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was supposed to have been greater uniformity in response.
After the 2003 SARS epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with new guidelines for responding to such outbreaks. These regulations are legally binding, and 196 countries signed the framework agreement. Unfortunately, as Selam Gebrekidan reports in The New York Times:
[D]ozens of countries are flouting the international regulations and snubbing their obligations. Some have failed to report outbreaks to the organization, as required. Others have instituted international travel restrictions, against the advice of the WHO, and without notifying global health officials.
Let’s take a look at a few countries — China, South Korea, Italy, and the United States — to see how the diversity of responses to the current coronavirus crisis showcases the best and the worst that these political systems have to offer.
The Pandemic Begins
China has treated the coronavirus as if it were an outbreak of political dissidence.
It has deployed the power of the state to stamp out the infection. It has censored dissenting voices. And, as is often the case with blunt-force approaches, it has achieved some success. While the virus is multiplying rapidly around the world, it seems to have been contained in China.
But there have been some disturbing side effects.
After some initial confusion, to put it charitably, the government moved quickly to shut down the epicenter of infection in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. The first case was reported on December 31 of last year, the new disease was identified as a coronavirus on January 7, the first death occurred in China on January 9, and Wuhan was under quarantine by January 23.
That two-week period between the first death and the announcement of the quarantine might seem like a long time. But on January 24, the government was still reporting only 830 infections. And, in some quarters, China was criticized for overreacting by shutting everything down, from schools to factories. One week later, however, the number of infections had climbed to nearly 10,000.
The quarantine methods wouldn’t show much effect until mid-February, when new infections began to level off. On February 18, Beijing reported around 72,000 infections. A month later, it had only reached around 81,000.
The government had the centralized authority to enforce the quarantine. It shut down internal transportation, canceled Lunar New Year celebrations, and shuttered Shanghai Disneyland. It deployed drones to warn groups of people gathering in public to disperse and go home. It placed millions of uninfected people in what amounts to house arrest, allowing only one member of a family household to go out every two days.
The government also attempted to censor the first reports of the new disease. Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, posted on social media on December 30 the first warnings about the coronavirus. The police brought him in for questioning and forced him to sign a statement that he had made “false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” He later died of the disease.
The quarantine methods produced their own casualties. As Human Rights Watch notes:
A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis. And at least 10 people died after a hotel being used as a quarantine facility collapsed.
Citizens and journalists who have been trying to tell the full story of China’s war on the coronavirus still face censorship and harassment.
The Chinese government’s actions were not arbitrarily autocratic. “China’s leaders did fumble at the very start, yet in short order they acted far more decisively than many democratically elected leaders have to date,” Ian Johnson writes in The New York Times. “Authoritarian or not, they also want the public’s approval. Chinese leaders may not face voters, but they, too, care about legitimacy, and that hinges on performance for them as well.” And it’s not as if the democratic countries that eventually followed China’s example put their decisions to a vote.
Meanwhile, the success of China’s approach owes as much to the public’s sense of responsibility as it does to the government’s autocratic methods. Writes Tony Perman, who was quarantined in Shanghai, “Certainly the reality of authoritarian control, the subservience of the individual to the state or the collective, and the pressure to conform made widespread habit change both more feasible and acceptable, even if due to fear of retribution. But there was a palpable ‘all for one and one for all’ ethos.”
The South Korean Way
Even before South Korea experienced its first coronavirus case, the Korean firm Kogene Biotech was getting its test kits ready for production. Soon thereafter, the South Korean government gave regulatory approval for their use in the country.
The first cases in South Korea originated from China, which reawakened significant anti-Chinese sentiment that had been dormant since the resolution of the last trade dispute in November 2017. By the middle of February, however, a much more significant outbreak of the disease could be traced to one of the many cult-like religious sects in the country, and infections quickly rose into the thousands.
Soon enough, the South Korean government switched to testing overdrive. On February 26, the country began drive-through testing. By March 9, nearly 200,000 people had been tested for the disease. The government is also, more controversially, using a phone app that relies on GPS to track those in quarantine and make sure that they maintain their self-separation. A rigorous triage has sent all but the most serious 10 percent of the infected to recover at home, lessening the strain on the medical system.
As with China, there were some initial missteps, such as when the Moon Jae-in administration prematurely declared the virus contained in mid-February. But the hyper-connected country has been able to practice social distancing with relative ease as people went online to work remotely, order groceries, and maintain contact with friends.
The South Korean approach also seems to have worked. The rate of infection has leveled off, and the death rate remains very low at less than 1 percent. Instead of the draconian quarantining that China implemented, South Korea has relied on technology, a rapid response aided by ppali-ppali (fast-fast) culture, lots of testing and follow-up, and a general spirit of compliance.
European countries have responded in quite different ways to the virus.
Several countries, including a number that had earlier been so hostile to immigrants, quickly moved to close their borders. Germany has been characteristically blunt about the situation, with Chancellor Angela Merkel warning that 60-70 percent of the population will likely be infected before the outbreak is over. The Finns started preparing for the worst back in January, even taking steps to allow people to get communicable disease insurance in the event of quarantine.
The hardest hit country, however, has been Italy. As soon as two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive at the end of January, Italy declared a state of emergency and stopped flights from China. When the virus appeared again, just outside the northern city of Milan, the patient was originally thought to have been infected by a colleague returning from China. But the colleague tested negative. The virus, in this case, more likely came from Germany.
The real problem was neither China nor Germany. It was the Italian hospital that grossly mishandled that initial case. The sufferer, according to The Washington Post, “sought medical attention multiple times, starting on February 14, but he wasn’t diagnosed until February 21 (after he infected his wife, hospital staff, several patients and others).”
Two other factors have aggravated the crisis in Italy. There’s the scofflaw tradition whereby many Italians flouted the initial lockdown declared in the northern region to crowd the rail stations and flee town by any means. One woman even paid over $1,300 to take a taxi from Milan to Rome.
Also, Italy has the second highest proportion of seniors in the world: 23 percent of the population is over 65. Only Japan has an older population. That helps to explain the high mortality rate of the disease in the Mediterranean country. In China, the mortality rate is 3.8 percent. In Italy, it’s nearly double at 7.3 percent.
In a head-to-head comparison between South Korea’s widespread test-and-track approach versus Italy’s attempted lockdown approach, the former appears to be far more effective.
Donald Trump has been an exceptional leader when it comes to addressing the coronavirus: exceptionally incompetent. He has exemplified the proud tradition of American exceptionalism, by which Americans believe that they are an exception to the rules that apply to the rest of humanity.
There have been five stages of American exceptionalism when it comes to the coronavirus.
Stage One: It won’t happen here.
Stage Two: It’s happening here, but it’s the fault of foreigners.
Stage Three: It’s happening here, but it won’t be as bad as elsewhere so we don’t need to take the necessary precautions.
Stage Four: It’s happening here, and it might turn out to be a problem, but it’s best to address the developing crisis haphazardly rather than at a coordinated federal level.
Stage Five: Uh-oh.
Trump has been the leader of the pack at all five stages. On January 22, just as the Chinese government was preparing to quarantine Wuhan, Trump said about the prospects of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, “we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
After initially praising Xi Jinping’s hardline response to the crisis, Trump and his allies reversed course and started to blame China when the infections began to mount domestically.
Instead of following the South Korean example and making sure that testing kits were available, the Trump administration squandered the window of opportunity, By the time test kits were sent out, it was late in the game and those first kits were, in any case, faulty.
Writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times, “The Trump administration could have begun to use a functioning test from the World Health Organization, but didn’t. It could have removed regulations that prevented private hospitals and labs from quickly developing their own tests, but didn’t. The inaction meant that the United States fell behind South Korea, Singapore and China in fighting the virus.”
Trump has finally awoke to the severity of the problem, no doubt as a result of having close brushes with infected people at the Conservative Political Action Conference and with a delegation from Brazil that visited him at Mar-a-Lago. But he has acted erratically and dangerously. His European travel ban was done without consultation with allies and put Americans hastily returning from Europe at the mercy of unprepared airport security.
But perhaps the most unsettling failure has been the lack of federal coordination, with different messages coming from different parts of government and states left to manage things as best they can. Governors have clashed with the president; mayors have clashed with governors.
In his most recent punt, Trump told governors not to wait for federal assistance when it comes to acquiring necessary ventilators, but “try getting it yourselves.”
Get it yourselves. That kind of message is grimly appropriate in a country without national health care. With a message like that coming from the top, it’s no wonder that Americans are stocking up on rice and toilet paper, like people around the world — but more pointedly, guns and body armor as well. If it’s “all for one and one for all” in other countries, in Trump’s America, it’s “all against all.”
This is what happens when you run on a platform devoted to the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it so colorfully. First you get deconstruction when Trump takes office. Then you get destruction, when Trump’s minions go to work.
Finally, when all the competent people have been escorted out of government, you get uh-oh. In this sense, the coronavirus is nothing new. Americans have been living in the uh-oh stage ever since November 8, 2016.
Trump’s public appeal to China last week to help with uncovering dirt on the Biden family was both a brazen flouting of the law and (it pains me to say) an astute political tactic.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump announced to reporters only moments after saying, about trade talks with Beijing, that “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”
Trump’s move coincides with two other critical revelations in the impeachment scandal.
The first is the release of texts that provide the proverbial smoking gun: the Trump administration was indeed promising a quid pro quo of a White House visit and/or the unfreezing of military aid for Ukraine’s assistance in digging up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Then came the announcement of a second whistleblower with direct knowledge of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Taken together — the appeal to China, the damning text messages, the second whistleblower — these developments add up to what I’d previously written was missing: a slam dunk in the impeachment of the president. He broke the law. He has tried to cover up the breaking of the law. He continues to break the law — and is defying the constitution by refusing to cooperate with Congress on its investigations.
But Trump, the Republican Party, and their captive media occupy a different reality, where the president is up against a vast conspiracy of corrupt officials, do-nothing Democrats, and biased mainstream journalists. This part of their story is obvious: it’s reiterated over and over in Trump’s tweets, Republican talking points, and Rush Limbaugh rants.
What’s not so obvious is that this conspiracy extends to the rule of law. According to this skewed version of reality, corruption has penetrated the bedrock institutions of American society: the political sphere, the intelligence agencies, the mainstream media. Corruption has transformed the very fabric of politics, culture, and law.
To root out corruption, then, it’s necessary to step outside the rule of law. Donald Trump hasn’t declared a state of emergency. But he is acting as if he has (which, in case you’re wondering, is illegal). His decision not to cooperate with congressional inquiries, including the most recent impeachment inquiry, is also part of this unstated state of emergency.
The phone call with Zelensky was “perfect” not because it conformed with the conventional understanding of presidential conduct, but because it corresponded to Trump’s unstated state of emergency. His appeal to China was equally an attempt to normalize his acts according to this deep state of emergency.
Trump has tipped over the political chessboard because he believes that it’s warped. He is continuing to play nonetheless, but on his own board, with his own pieces, and according to his own rules.
What makes Trump’s move so fiendishly clever is that his paranoid style of governance has a grain of truth to it. The chessboard is warped.
A rule of law that permits a vice president’s son to benefit so blatantly from his father’s position, maintains a revolving door that transforms “corruption” into business as usual, and creates a state patronage system (the military-industrial complex) of astonishing size and influence is something of a contradiction in terms.
The rules are determined by law — except when they’re determined by power. American politicians have long traded on their government connections with foreign leaders for private gain. That they did so only after leaving office, in accordance with the dictates of the rule of law, only gives the corruption a veneer of respectability.
Trump, of course, doesn’t even respect this veneer. His violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution indicate that he is so impatient to use his office for personal gain that he isn’t waiting to leave the White House to start his influence-peddling. Trump’s chessboard, in other words, is even more warped than the conventional one.
The astute reader might ask how Trump can simultaneously challenge and benefit from the corruptions of the status quo. You could have asked the same question of Nicolae Ceausescu, the leader of Romania, who purported to lead an egalitarian workers’ state but lived in unbelievable opulence. Leaders who operate according to unstated states of emergency can get away with such contradictions through outright repression or extraordinary lies. Trump, so far, has relied on the latter.
Such a state doesn’t last forever. On December 21, 1989, Ceausescu was giving what he believed to be a routine speech in Bucharest. This time, however, behind the first row of supporters, the crowd began to boo. The look on the leader’s face when he understood what was happening was priceless. It was his last public appearance. The next day, he and his wife fled the city by helicopter. They didn’t get far. They were tried and executed on Christmas Day.
At what point will Trump have his Ceausescu moment, when he realizes that the base he’d always counted on has turned its back on him?
Donald Trump has alleged that Hunter Biden made $1.5 billion in payoffs from Chinese businesses. As with pretty much everything that comes out Trump’s mouth, this allegation is false. Biden’s son served in an unpaid capacity on the board of a U.S.-China joint venture, BHR Partners. In October 2017, Hunter Biden invested somewhere around $420,000 to acquire a 10 percent stake in the company and reportedly hasn’t received any compensation from his involvement in BHR.
There was no kickback. There was no collusion (Joe Biden wasn’t in government in October 2017). So, it’s a non-story.
But again, it’s a non-story according to the finer points of the law. Let’s face it: Biden’s son was following in the time-honored tradition of trading on his political influence. Indeed, it’s what Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer all have done with China as well – receiving most-favored-person status from the country after paterfamilias Donald Trump had already taken office.
In other words, the public is primed to believe that if you lie down with the Chinese, you wake up with pay-offs. To quote only the most salient example, Henry Kissinger, who helped negotiate détente with Beijing in the 1970s, went on to make tens of millions of dollars in consulting fees from parlaying his contacts once he left government.
Even if Hunter Biden wasn’t making out like a bandit in China, there’s the huge monthly salary he was pulling down as a board member of the Ukrainian energy company. As David von Drehle points out in The Washington Post, “sober working people making $50,000 a year may be skeptical of a system in which a vice president’s addicted son reportedly collected that sum every month.” It’s not corruption by the conventional definition, but it’s unseemly.
Corruption: that’s the word that Trump is trumpeting, over and over. It’s a tricky strategy. Trump knows corruption when he sees it because, well, he’s soaking in it. But as long as his base continues to view him as an anti-corruption fighter, a drainer of the swamp instead of a denizen of it, the president will continue to hold his party captive and fend off impeachment charges.
Perhaps, however, Trump has overreached this time. The latest polling suggests that nearly 20 percent of registered Republicans now want the House to vote to remove the president from office.
Meanwhile, Trump is upsetting his party in other ways.
He congratulates Vladimir Putin on his election victory even though his advisors pleaded with him beforehand not to. He promises to help Saudi Arabia join the Group of Seven. He praises Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug policy. In his quest for a Nobel Peace Prize, he tries to enlist the help of Japan’s Shinzo Abe. He drones on about chocolate cake with China’s Xi Jinping.
But his most recent phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has generated some bipartisan criticism — and all because Trump is defying the Pentagon and trying to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted.
The problem is that Trump is also giving Turkey a green light to strike against the Kurds in northern Syria. Trump’s critics, including those in the Republican Party, are worried that the Islamic State will re-emerge and the abandonment of a steadfast Kurdish ally will make others around the world think twice about siding with a fickle United States. Trump’s close pal in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called the president’s move “a disaster in the making.”
It’s not clear if Trump will actually go ahead with this plan any more than he followed through on his earlier declaration of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. But all it takes is one phony phone call for Republicans to realize that the commander-in-chief does whatever he wants without any consideration of the party’s stated goals.
The Republican Party is not going to get bent out of shape about Trump breaking the law. Or Trump’s involvement in corruption. Or even his obstruction of justice. He has been engaged in these activities since day one. Republicans will continue to blather on about how his peccadillos don’t rise to the level of the “high crimes” required for impeachment.
But the president, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” may yet piss off his party on some other foreign policy issue. He might, for instance, make a deal with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or some other disreputable rival autocrat that the Republicans just can’t stomach. Perhaps he’ll impulsively pull the United States out of NATO. Or maybe he’ll start savaging a critical mass of Republican lawmakers out of sheer pique.
Then Republicans will be forced to acknowledge that Trump’s unstated state of emergency is an authentic emergency that requires — for the sake of the Constitution, democracy, and rule of law — the removal of the perpetrator. They won’t do so out of principle. They will do so only out of expediency: to save their party and their own skins in the next elections and maybe the courtroom as well.
That’s when Trump will appear in front of the crowds to give a speech — perhaps during the impeachment process, perhaps at the height of the 2020 election campaign — and hear nothing but crickets from Graham, Fox News, and his previously rock-solid base. Maybe there will be even some boos. That’s when Trump will have his Ceausescu moment. And that will be the last moment of his inglorious political career.
Trump Force One — and a growing majority of the country — awaits this moment.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 9, 2019
Led by young people, climate strikers blocked traffic on two mornings at the end of last month in Washington, DC. On the first day, protestors chained themselves to a boat three blocks from the White House, and 32 activists were arrested. On the second day, activists targeted the EPA and Trump International Hotel. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion to commuters stuck in their cars on those mornings to think more favorably about public transportation or telecommuting. It was also a potent reminder, as Congress remains polarized on so many issues, that some paralysis is healthy in the nation’s capital.
The DC protests were part of a global climate strike that involved an estimated 6.6 million people. In New Zealand, 3.5 percent of the population participated. Melbourne, Berlin, and London each had rallies of 100,000 people. In Seattle, over a thousand workers walked out of Amazon headquarters, demanding that the company reduce its carbon emissions to zero.
The global climate strike is just the latest mass protest this year. Demonstrations have roiled Hong Kong since the beginning of the summer. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in Moscow through the fall to protest restrictions on local elections. Thousands of Brazilians thronged major cities to condemn their president’s handling of the Amazon fires, and the same outrage prompted people to gather with placards in front of Brazilian embassies all over the world. Protests against Venezuela’s leadership that broke out on January 1 have recently dwindled even as demonstrations to remove Haiti’s president have heated up and security forces have cracked down on Iraqis protesting the corruption and inefficiency of their government.
Anti-government rallies in Serbia became some of the longest running protests in Europe this summer. Elsewhere in Europe, the yellow vests continued to target the government of Emmanuel Macron into 2019. In the UK, thousands gathered to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament in September.
Protestors marched last month in South Africa to decry rising violence against women. At the beginning of the year, the Women’s March 2019 again focused anger at Donald Trump and his administration’s record on women’s issues, while gun control supporters held “recess rallies” around the United States in August to push for stricter limits on firearms. After massive protests helped oust the previous prime minister in 2016, candlelight protests again returned to South Korea this last weekend as 800,000 people gathered to support an embattled justice minister and his reform agenda.
Analysts almost daily bemoan the erosion in democratic values that has accompanied the rise of autocratic politicians. And indeed, recourse to the streets can be a sign that people no longer believe that the ordinary mechanisms of democracy are working.
Viewed another way, however, the sheer number of protests and their geographic spread prove that 2019 was a banner year for engagement, for participation, for democracy. As protestors like to chant, this is what democracy looks like.
Ahead to the Past?
Fifty years ago, young people also declared that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In Warsaw in 1968, Polish students demonstrated in defense of free speech and against police brutality. It was part of a larger rebellion in the Soviet bloc, led by Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” reforms in Czechoslovakia. Students in Germany contacted their rebellious counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain as part of their own campus actions. In Paris, meanwhile, French students took over the streets with slogans like “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
It was a worldwide phenomenon. Students mobilized in Mexico, Pakistan, and Japan. The first protests against the military dictatorship began in Brazil. And, of course, huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations convulsed the United States.
Then as now, young people were upset with government repression, grievous policies of war and environmental destruction, and systemic sclerosis. They were critical of an imposed political consensus – by military juntas, communist governments, and the joint efforts of liberal and conservative politicians in the democratic world.
But there was also hope. Young people believed in 1968 that they could create new societies – at the micro-level in communes, in newly radicalized city councils, and even at a national level like Dubcek’s experiment in Czechoslovakia. “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” French students wrote on the walls of Paris that year.
Alas, many of the protests of 1968 ended in tragedy. The Polish government threw the students in jail. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended Dubcek’s experiment. The Mexican government killed untold number of students. Richard Nixon was reelected in the United States, and the Vietnam War dragged on for another seven years.
Today, young people are operating under a sky full of ominous clouds. They aren’t filling the streets to create a new world so much as to save the old, imperfect one. If 1968 was a year of utopian protest, 2019 has been one long effort to prevent a dystopian future.
The protests of 2019, so far at least, have not produced much change. In some countries, the pushback has been terrifying.
During a summer of escalating protests, Russian authorities detained 2,000 people, most of them young. The vast majority of the detainees were subsequently released. But several were convicted of various offenses, including inciting a riot, and sentenced to several years in prison. “I can say with certainty that Russia is striving inevitably towards freedom,” 21-year-old protestor Egor Zhukov said at his trial. “I don’t know whether I will be freed, but Russia certainly will be.” He is currently under house arrest and has been put on a government blacklist of terrorists. This week, 25,000 people returned to the streets in Moscow to demand the release of all those arrested over the summer.
As China celebrated its seventieth year of Communist rule, protestors in Hong Kong tried to upstage the proceedings. For the first time, police fired live ammunition at the crowds. One high school student was hit in the shoulder. Of the 51 people who went to the hospital, two are in critical condition. The protests, which have been going on for over 100 days, have not been entirely nonviolent. Protestors have thrown gasoline bombs and beaten police with metal pipes. The policy, too, have been increasingly aggressive. An air of desperation is settling over the scene.
In the United States, a few scattered protests have taken place in support of the impeachment of Donald Trump. The president’s wrath, meanwhile, has been focused closer to home. Trump has lashed out at the person who blew the whistle on his conduct with foreign leaders, which precipitated the Democratic Party’s decision to press ahead with an impeachment inquiry. Trump called the CIA whistleblower “close to a spy” – well, duh, the person does work for the CIA – and a “traitor.” Trump publicly lamented that the United States no longer treats traitors the way it once did (presumably by imposing the death penalty). Given his willingness to put his own interests – and occasionally the interests of other countries – above the national interest, Trump may one day soon be relieved that the United States has changed its policy toward traitors.
Even worse, Trump has retweeted pastor Robert Jeffress’ contention that the United States could descend into a “civil war” if the president is impeached. This is the closest that a president has come to a call to arms within the country since the 1850s. It’s one thing for an autocrat like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to use the apparatus of the state to suppress protests. It’s quite another for a democratically elected leader to threaten to call on his well-armed supporters to rise up against the state itself.
As in 1968, the protestors can’t expect immediate results. It took twenty more years before the student protestors in Poland and Czechoslovakia would oust the governments that suppressed them. Mexico is no longer a one-party state, and Pakistan is more or less a democracy. Despite Jair Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Brazil has not returned to the days of military dictatorship.
Patience, however, is not the best strategy when it comes to climate change. The ice continues to melt. The temperatures continue to rise. Extreme weather events continue to happen. As the old advertising jingle used to go, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The #FridaysforFuture movement isn’t really a bunch of rebellious students. If they had one unified message last month, it was: please, for the sake of the planet, listen to your Mother!
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 2, 2019
This past weekend, protestors were rallying outside the American embassy in Hong Kong. They were waving American flags. They were singing The Star-Spangled Banner. One 24-year-old protester wore a red Make America Great Again hat. Some signs at the protest read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong.”
“The Chinese government is breaking their promises to give freedom and human rights to Hong Kong,” the MAGA cap-wearer said. “We want to use the U.S. to push China to do what they promised over 20 years ago.”
First of all, the Trump administration cares not a whit about human rights. It’s not about to “liberate” Hong Kong any more than it was going to “liberate” the Rohingyas, the Venezuelans, the Iranians, or the Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province for that matter. With John Bolton now banished from the White House, the prospect of any kind of U.S. intervention has become even more remote.
Trump has called the protests “riots,” echoing Beijing’s rhetoric. He’s worried publicly that they are distracting from trade negotiations. MAGA hat aside, the U.S. president probably sees in the demonstrations a reflection of anti-Trump protests throughout the United States (and the world). Also, despite the trade war with Beijing, Trump has a fondness for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He has even praised Xi’s handling of the crisis (though he has also suggested the Xi meet the protestors to resolve the crisis).
The protesters have a better chance of appealing to the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are currently considering the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would allow Washington to impose sanctions on Mainland and Hong Kong officials who violate human rights and undermine the territory’s sovereignty. Even if it survives a Trump veto, however, the bill would not prevent Beijing from doing what it considers necessary.
Which brings us to the other half of the protester’s claim: that China promised freedom and human rights to Hong Kong in 1997 when it took control of the entrepot from the British. Actually, Beijing promised “one country, two systems.” It promised “a high degree of autonomy.” As for freedom and human rights, that was up to the residents of Hong Kong to secure for themselves.
Which, of course, is what the protesters have been doing.
Two versions of the future have been on display in Hong Kong over the summer. In one version, the people of Hong Kong not only preserve their autonomy but expand their limited democracy into true, one-person-one-vote representation — and this political system inexorably spreads to the rest of China. In the other version, the Mainland and its Hong Kong representatives suppress the protests as China consolidates territorial control: over Xinjiang and Tibet, over Hong Kong, and eventually over Taiwan and the waters of the South China Sea.
The United States, under Donald Trump or his successor, will have less and less to say or do about which of these versions become a reality. And it has nothing at all to offer in terms of a more viable third option that might emerge from the current crisis.
Origins of the Protest
The latest round of protests in Hong Kong began in March, when thousands took to the streets to protest amendments to an extradition law. Hong Kong residents have been concerned that, accused of some arbitrary crime, they might find themselves whisked away to the Mainland and its misrule of law.
This is not an abstract concern. Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold texts critical of leaders in Beijing, was abducted in 2015, charged with “operating a bookstore illegally,” and detained for almost eight months in Mainland China. He was released back to Hong Kong with the understanding that he return to face trial.
Instead, Lam recently decamped to Taiwan, fearful of Hong Kong’s new extradition provisions. Canadian-Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was abducted from Hong Kong in 2017 and is reportedly still awaiting trial. A wealthy Hong Kong media titan has spoken of successfully resisting a Beijing-orchestrated kidnap attempt earlier this year.
Protests over the extradition law grew larger and larger at the outset of summer until 1 million people thronged the streets on June 9, followed by 2 million a week later. Protesters took over the legislative building. They shut down the Hong Kong airport. They disrupted traffic on roadways. Fearful of surveillance, they have donned masks and even torn down “smart lampposts” designed to monitor traffic (but perhaps other things as well).
More confrontational protesters have set fires, vandalized metro stations and government buildings, and thrown petrol bombs at police. For their part, the police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Masked thugs have attacked protesters. More than 1,000 people have been arrested, including pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.
Although Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the amended law, the protests have continued. Protesters have four principal demands: an investigation into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested during the protest, a retraction of the designation of the June 12 protest as a “riot,” and Lam’s resignation followed by a free and fair election for her replacement. The last item is a revival of the platform of the Umbrella Movement of 2014, a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to achieve universal suffrage in the territory.
Lam is in a tough position, as she herself acknowledged in a leaked audio recording of a closed-door meeting of business leaders. Caught between Beijing and the protestors, she confessed that her maneuvering room is “very, very, very limited.”
Response from the Mainland
So far, Beijing has expected the Hong Kong authorities to deal with the challenge, though it has made various ominous statements about acts of terrorism, the involvement of the United States, and the unacceptability of the protesters’ demands.
Beijing has several options at this point. Chinese leader Xi Jinping could negotiate with the protesters, though this is unlikely. Xi wouldn’t want to show any weakness, particularly with the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding coming up on October 1. He could send in the army, a la Tiananmen Square 1989, and impose martial law in their territory. But that, too, is unlikely as long as the protestors don’t manage to seize the government and declare independence.
The leadership in Beijing may well be annoyed at what’s happening in Hong Kong. But this isn’t a Tiananmen Square situation. Protests are not popping up throughout the country in support of the actions in Hong Kong. Solidarity events have taken place in the United States, Germany, Britain, France, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. But on the Mainland, all is quiet, except for a few brave souls who have attempted to elude the censors to post information about what’s going on in Hong Kong.
It’s not possible to know how nearly 1.4 billion people think about anything, including a highly controversial topic like pro-democracy protests. However, given a steady diet of state-run media, the vast majority of Chinese likely view the protests in Hong Kong as simply disruptive. The events there have the flavor not of Tiananmen 1989 but rather the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s, when young people took to the streets and turned the world upside down, resulting in enormous pain and suffering.
As former New York Times reporter Karoline Kan has written:
To many mainlanders who believe the China model has benefited their economic development and their private lives, Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and freedom is not so attractive any more. They believe the mainland government is not perfect, but a messed-up government is worse. They fear political turbulence, poverty, foreign invasion — but not an authoritarian government. What’s worse, many believe the existing freedom Hong Kong enjoys is a “special treatment” that spoils the city. They believe the mainland has helped Hong Kong, but the city is ungrateful and constantly making trouble for China.
Since 1989, public opinion on the Mainland has moved inexorably in the direction of nationalism. The Chinese public tends to be rather hawkish in its orientation, with the younger generation more hardline than their parents. Few dissidents have stuck their necks out for protestors in Xinjiang or Tibet. Hong Kong, with its privileged status and myriad links to the West, has gotten even less sympathy.
The Polish Example
Carrie Lam faces much the same dilemma that bedeviled Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland in the 1980s. Jaruzelski was also an unelected leader caught between popular unrest at home and a much larger sponsor breathing down his neck. The Polish leader’s “solution” was to use the threat of a Soviet invasion to declare martial law in 1981 to suppress the rebellious Solidarity trade union.
Out of that experience, Polish protesters came up with a different strategy. Rather than push Jaruzelski up against the wall again, they developed (or, in fact, revived) the notion of a “self-limiting revolution.” Solidarity would continue to organize, quietly and persistently, but it wouldn’t make a direct bid for power. Later, when the opportunity arose, it would negotiate with the Communist government and come up with a compromise solution for the country’s first semi-free elections.
The date of those elections? June 4, 1989.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Chinese government, having failed to reach a similar modus operandi with the Tiananmen Square protesters, violently suppressed the pro-democracy movement.
The Hong Kong protesters could take a few important lessons from the Polish experience. They should acknowledge the possibility, however remote, of a military intervention by Beijing. They should realize that no one in such a scenario — not the people on the Mainland or the U.S. government — is going to come to their aid (except rhetorically). And they should look for opportunities to compromise with the Hong Kong authorities, securing incremental victories that shore up the territory’s autonomy and its semi-democratic structures.
In this way, the Hong Kong protesters must be willing to play the long game. Solidarity came up against the wall of Soviet intransigence in 1980. By 1989, however, Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge in Moscow and the compromise strategy became spectacularly successful.
Xi Jinping is no Mikhail Gorbachev. And he has declared himself leader for life. So, the movement in Hong Kong has to be even more patient, even more strategic, and even more determined than their Polish counterparts. Their time will come. When it does, they need to be ready not only to democratize Hong Kong but also contribute to reshaping the model on the Mainland as well.
At its best, the Earth was once likened to a spaceship that sails through the heavens with a crew working together for the common good. Thanks to climate change, this metaphor no longer works. Our planet is now more like a lifeboat that’s sprung a major leak. People onboard are beginning to panic and the clock is ticking.
It is, however, the perfect environment to test out the best way to deal with life-and-death situations.
For such a test, imagine not one but two lifeboats of survivors bobbing in an endless, empty sea. Both contain the same number of people and a limited amount of food. Based on some educated guesses by one knowledgeable crewmember, the boats are at least five days from land, if everyone rows together and they don’t veer off course.
In the first boat, the survivors debate the problem: Should they stay in place and conserve their energy or strike off in search of land? They divide into three committees to address the different aspects of the problem and present their findings, making sure everyone has input. They debate for hours, growing weaker and weaker until they no longer have the energy to do anything and the issue decides itself.
In the second boat, one person takes control, believing he alone has the skill and knowledge to steer the lifeboat toward land. Not everyone agrees, but dissenters are silenced. The others agree that there’s no time for more discussion. The new leader imposes rules on who rows and who eats. When someone falls deathly ill, he orders the incapacitated man thrown overboard.
The second lifeboat is moving at a good pace — but is it going in the right direction?
On Lifeboat Earth, time and resources are similarly limited. According to most climate scientists, the window of opportunity to prevent irrevocable climate change is about a dozen years. Opinion is divided, however, on how to address this problem with the urgency it requires.
The international community has tried, in a roughly democratic fashion, to avoid the apocalypse. In 2015, the countries of the world came together in Paris and negotiated a non-binding climate accord that was a victory for compromise but a failure for shrinking the planet’s actual carbon footprint. In a number of countries around the world, democratic elections subsequently brought climate-change deniers like Donald Trump to power, further compromising that accord.
In this way, the planet risks following the first lifeboat scenario: talking ourselves to death.
The second lifeboat option — think of it as eco-authoritarianism — seems to better fit the temper of the times. The current climate emergency coincides with a profound disillusionment with the liberal world order. Authoritarianism has become significantly more popular these days, even in otherwise democratic societies like India, Brazil, and the United States.
Droves of voters have abandoned mainstream parties across the planet, disillusioned by the way they’ve supported a version of economic globalization that has wildly enriched the already rich, challenged the middle class, and left the poor at the bottom of thebarrel. Those voters have increasingly turned to right-wing populists who disparage “globalists” and promise swift action on a range of issues from immigration to crime.
Such authoritarians couldn’t, of course, be less “eco.” Most of them deny that climate change is even a problem and some, like Donald Trump, are working with the giant energy companies to heat the planet faster. They’ve commandeered the lifeboats, only to steer them ever further from possible rescue.
Feckless democrats or reckless authoritarians: Lifeboat Earth doesn’t stand much of a chance with such options.
It’s no wonder that China has emerged as a last hope for those frustrated by the torpor of the international community and the delusions of the axis of denial. Hasn’t that country, after all, redirected enormous streams of funding into sustainable energy? Wasn’t that state’s coercive one-child policy a critical way to address overpopulation and, by extension, the consumption of resources? Hasn’t China stepped ever more firmly into the international leadership void created by Trump’s nationalist retreat? As in the second lifeboat scenario, however, China may not be heading in the right direction.
So there we are: 12 years, leaky lifeboats, and no safe haven in sight.
The Ongoing Tragedy of the Commons
In the early 1970s, after the world’s first Earth Day, the lifeboat problem seemed to be on everyone’s mind. When an oil crisis hit in 1973, energy suddenly no longer seemed like an inexhaustible resource. Overpopulation was threatening to outstrip food production. Pollution darkened the skies over major cities and industrial effluents befouled the waters. Environmentalists were having a field day exposing the ruthless exploitation of resources at the heart of both the capitalist and the communist systems.
Almost half a century ago, some visionary thinkers were already worrying about climate change. In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect in 1973, political scientist Robert Heilbroner delineated the various environmental challenges facing the world, including “global thermal pollution,” before concluding that only a combination of military discipline and religious faith could transform the social order.
Fellow political scientist William Ophuls, writing in 1973, posed the problem even more starkly as “Leviathan or oblivion.” Either humanity would opt for a “government with major coercive powers” to preserve the environment or it might as well give up. Several years later, he applied his argument to international relations as well, writing, “The already strong rationale for a world government with enough coercive power over fractious nation states to achieve what reasonable men would regard as the planetary common interest has become overwhelming.”
No such world government, of course, ensued. The international authorities that did exist at the time proved to have neither the coercive power nor the will necessary for the task. In 1979, however, scientists from 50 nations did gather in Geneva for the first World Climate Conference to issue a call for action on global warming. Later that year, the leaders of the seven richest countries on the planet actually agreed on the need to reduce carbon emissions (something long forgotten in the twenty-first century). Those 1979 meetings began what Nathaniel Rich describes in his article (and now book) Losing Earth as the decade of missed opportunities in the fight against climate change. In 1989, diplomats from 60 countries finally gathered to pass a binding treaty on the subject. “Among scientists and world leaders, the sentiment was unanimous,” Rich writes. “Action had to be taken and the United States would need to lead. It didn’t.”
Here was a vivid early display of that first lifeboat scenario: much talk, no action.
Those early efforts to grapple with climate change were all a response, in different ways, to what ecologist Garrett Hardin had called the “tragedy of the commons.” In a famous 1968 essay, he described an age-old problem: herders let their few cattle graze in a common pasture without thinking much about the future; there comes a time, however, when the livestock multiply or more farmers are attracted to the pasture by the rumor of free fodder and, sooner or later, all the grass is eaten, the topsoil blows away, and the field falls into ruin.
To prevent such a scenario, an intervention is obviously necessary. According to enthusiasts for laissez-faire capitalism, the invisible hand of the market should solve the problem, with the field being sold to the highest bidder. Fans of Soviet-style communism argued that nationalizing the property would ultimately protect it. As it turned out, neither capitalism nor communism had much of a track record when it came to protecting that commons. The invisible hand proved not to have a green thumb and neither did the all-too-visible hand of state planning.
Still, in the 1970s, it was commonplace to assume that the two systems would sooner or later converge at some social democratic point on the far horizon. On the environment, in other words, two wrongs would somehow make a right. In their 1974 book Ark II, Dennis Pirages and Paul Ehrlich proposed adding a “planning branch” to the U.S. government that could address systemic problems like the environmental crisis by developing not only five-year plans, as in the Soviet Union, but 10-year or even 50-year plans as well.
Instead, Americans — and the rest of the world — ran screaming in the opposite direction. The debate in the 1970s about the possible use of state power to deal with pressing environmental concerns gave way in the 1980s and 1990s to the mania of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for an unfettered capitalism in which state planning would be a no-no (outside the Pentagon). Meanwhile, increased yields from industrial agriculture, modest environmental reforms by the major powers, and the technological advances that made globalization possible all seemed to diminish the urgency of the environmental crisis (except among environmentalists). Long lines at gas stations were a thing of the past and the air above most cities became clearer, while the world community dodged the bullet of ozone depletion through a rare instance of global cooperation. Spaceship Earth seemed to be motoring along quite well enough, thank you very much.
But there was one niggling detail that even eco-optimists could no longer ignore. Global temperatures were continuing to rise in a dramatic fashion, a problem impermeable to modest policy adjustments, free-market solutions, or even, it seemed, global agreements. Talking about climate change didn’t make climate change go away.
And so Leviathan has returned.
“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being,” scientist James Lovelock said in 2010. “I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war.” A slew of books in recent years have addressed the question of whether democracy can handle climate change. In Climate Leviathan, political theorists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright suspected that William Ophuls was prophetic, that a powerful hegemon would “seize command, declare an emergency, and bring order to Earth, all in the name of saving life.” In The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith identified the possible solution as a Singaporean one: rule by an enlightened class of technocratic mandarins.
Not everyone, however, was so quick to give up on democracy. Libertarians, liberals, and radicals all rejected the eco-authoritarian option. Libertarians worried about limitations on individual rights. Liberals pointed out that only democracies can hold their leaders accountable for the direction they take, while “real existing authoritarianism” generally can’t. Radicals like environmentalist Naomi Klein urged not less but more democracy as climate activists, through pipeline blockades and fracking protests, challenged the nexus of transnational corporations and corrupt governments.
Meanwhile, the United States, particularly under Donald Trump, is utterly uninterested in leading the way on reducing carbon emissions. So, there’s really only one viable candidate for a Climate Leviathan today.
China and Climate Change
Two weeks after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989, 30 top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party gathered to endorse the government’s violent response to protestors. Previously, there had been profound disagreements in the Party over how to deal with the protest movement — and with the reform process more generally. After the tragedy of June 4th, a new consensus emerged among that country’s powerbrokers: China needed one strong leader, a “great helmsman” in the tradition of Mao Zedong who could eliminate factionalism.
Prescribing a solution to China’s leadership problems was one thing, filling that prescription something else entirely. The country’s post-Tiananmen leaders — Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — were not exactly helmsman material. Within years, China was adrift, without a grand strategy or strong coordination from above.
Then, in 2012, along came Xi Jinping. In the years that followed, on the domestic side, he would promote a “Chinese dream” of economic prosperity and national dignity restored, a kind of Make China Great Again program. In foreign policy, he would unveil a Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure by land and sea to grow the economies of China’s neighbors, while making Beijing ever more central to markets ever farther afield.
Here was a Leviathan in the making: a strong, centralized state no longer hobbled by intra-party disputes, no longer paralyzed by contending public interests or movements in the streets demanding their rights. As the country’s president, Xi showed no hesitation about seizing control of the helm of state. After consolidating his power through anticorruption purges, he declared himself leader for life in 2018.
Meanwhile, he continued to redirect vast sums into renewable energy. By 2017, the government was planning to devote $360 billion to it through 2020, creating 13 million new jobs in that sector. China has in these years installed more solar panels and wind power generators than any other country on Earth, approximately three times those of second-place America. It leads in the production and export of most of the key components of a clean-energy future, from wind turbines to electric vehicles. Even more telling is how many renewable energy patents China has registered: 150,000. Number two again is the United States with around 100,000.
So, China has emerged as a seemingly capable Leviathan, combining state planning with a fervent embrace of market forces to fulfill the dreams of the convergence theorists of the 1970s, while creating a strong set of domestic incentives in favor of renewable energy.
Unfortunately, however, the Chinese solution looks like anything but a successful eco-authoritarian way to go, in part because Beijing is using its Belt and Road Initiative to maintain an unsustainable environmental status quo on an increasingly planetary scale. It matters little that Xi Jinping has labeled the massive project green and sustainable. The record so far suggests quite another story. For instance, China is now building or planning to build 300 coal-fired plants abroad as part of its global infrastructure push, even as it cuts down modestly on state contracts for similar plants at home. Beijing, it turns out, also has to deal with its equivalent of the West Virginia coal industry and is rewarding it with international contracts galore.
But coal plants are only the most obvious part of the problem. All the roads that China is building will be filled with motorists and truckers. All its new and refurbished ports will host huge gas-guzzling ships. Some of its projects threaten carbon-absorbing forests and other delicate ecosystems. And then there’s China’s not-so-hidden desire to use all of this future infrastructure to gain access to raw materials. In Africa alone, China is now investing more than $100 billion a year to get critical minerals. “The effort to secure these resources has spawned its own infrastructure boom that typically involves building large-scale roads, railways, and other infrastructure to transport commodities from interior areas to coastal ports for export,” writes journalist Basten Gokkon.
It’s not too late, of course, to green that Belt and Road project. Outfits like the Global Green Growth Initiative are working to shrink China’s overseas carbon footprint. A couple of years ago, China even issued its own $2.15 billion Green Climate Bond to finance renewables and energy efficiency.
But here’s the irony. When it comes to that Belt and Road Initiative, China is actually not Leviathan enough. Although the Party centralized authority in Xi Jinping’s hands, those infrastructure projects come from a variety of sourcesin China, including different government agencies, provinces competing with each other, and the business sector. It’s hard enough for the Chinese state, even with a new and more powerful Ministry of Ecology and Environment and a cadre of environmental police officers, to impose stringent standards within the country. More to the point, China has shown little interest or capacity when it comes to imposing them outside its borders.
China is not actually auditioning for the job of eco-authoritarian Climate Leviathan — not yet, at least — while the rest of the authoritarians coming to the fore, like Donald Trump or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, all seem fiercely focused on boosting carbon emissions, not limiting them. Meanwhile, it doesn’t look like patient negotiations at U.N. conferences are likely to come up with the necessary solutions, much less implement them, before the window of opportunity closes. No wonder Nathaniel Rich and others lament that humanity must now contemplate not just mitigation and adaptation in the face of the global warming crisis but outright failure.
On the horizon, however, is one potentially quite different kind of Climate Leviathan: the Green New Deal, or GND. As of now, it remains more a slogan than a worked-out plan, but it’s gaining currency within a Democratic Party competing for power in 2020 and interest in it is growing internationally as well. It might only be a couple of elections — in a few key countries — away from political viability.
To achieve the GND’s global goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the United States would have to lead the way with its own eco-version of a Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure development project that would involve high-speed rail, the energy retrofitting of buildings, and huge investments in renewable energy (as well as the creation of staggering numbers of jobs). And it would have to do all this without compensating polluting industries with export contracts, as China has done.
Think of it as a potential future Apollo 11-style green moonshot: a focused mobilization of investment, construction, and administrative resolve to achieve what has hitherto been considered impossible.
That last element — administrative resolve — could prove the most challenging. The present crew of global right-wing populists are not just climate-change skeptics. Most are also committed to what Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile guru, has called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In other words, they want to reduce the power of government in favor of the power of corporations (and the rich). They want to remove the government’s capacity to administer large-scale projects domestically and negotiate international accords that impinge on the sovereignty of the nation-state.
Ultimately, they want to eliminate what Garrett Hardin identified as the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons: “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” To push through a Green New Deal in the United States, for instance, a distinctly non-Republican Congress would have to coerce a range of powerful interests (coal companies, oil and gas corporations, auto manufacturers, the Pentagon, and so on) to fall into line. And for any global pact that implements something similar, an international authority like the U.N. would have to coerce recalcitrant or non-compliant countries to do the same.
Something as transformative as the Green New Deal — a democratically achieved Climate Leviathan — will not come about because the Democratic Party or Xi Jinping or the U.N. secretary general suddenly realizes that radical change is necessary, nor simply through ordinary parliamentary and congressional procedure. Major change of this sort could only come from a far more basic form of democracy: people in the streets engaged in actions like school strikes and coal mine blockades. This is the kind of pressure that progressive legislators could then use to push through a mutually agreed-upon Green New Deal capable of building a powerful administrative force that might convince or coerce everyone into preserving the global commons.
Coercion: it’s not exactly a sexy campaign slogan. But if democracies don’t embrace moonshots like the Green New Deal — along with the administrative apparatus to force powerful interests to comply — then the increasing political and economic chaos of climate change will usher in yet more authoritarian regimes that offer an entirely different coercive agenda.
The Green New Deal isn’t just an important policy initiative. It may be the last democratic method of guiding Lifeboat Earth to a safe harbor.
If you ignore the headlines, you’d think the United States and China were the best of partners. Americans continue to rely on Chinese-made products in their homes, at their offices, and in their pockets. If you live near a university, you can still bump into one of the 340,000 Chinese studying in the US. You can still take a Beijing-sponsored Chinese-language class at any of the 104 Confucius Institutes in 46 states.
Even if you’re not among the 114,000 Americans who work in the 2,400 Chinese-owned companies in this country, your livelihood still depends on China. As America’s largest trading partner and the largest foreign holder of US debt, China keeps the American economy afloat. Economically, the two nations are joined at the hip.
But in virtually every other way, China and the United States are drifting apart, and this growing rift could have catastrophic consequences.
“We are at war with China on at least two fronts: technology and trade,” says Michael Klare, a military analyst and defense correspondent for The Nation. “This is not peacetime in the way we once understood it. So the questions are when, and how, and if this war will enter new realms.”
Washington and Beijing are currently battling over who will build the world’s next generation of digital infrastructure, with the United States trying to freeze out Chinese telecom giants like Huawei. The United States is afraid that if allies use Chinese technology, it could pose a security risk. Meanwhile, a trade war of escalating tariffs between the world’s two largest economies threatens to send global markets into a tailspin.
And in a significant departure from its predecessor’s version, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy portrays China as a “revisionist” power that wants to “shape a world antithetical to US values and interests.” This document “suggests that wherever China is active, the United States should push back,” explains Melanie Hart, a China expert at the Center for American Progress. “Wherever China is developing cooperation with other nations, that adds up to a threat to the United States. The National Security Strategy paints that in dire terms.”
Similarly, the foreign-policy elite in the United States has shifted away from compromise. Whereas a lively debate among China watchers once pitted those who favor engagement against those who champion containment—the “panda huggers” versus the “dragon slayers”—the consensus has now moved in a more combative direction.
This change in elite consensus, which extends to Congress as well, has been extraordinary in its pace and impact. Although it precedes the divisive efforts of the current administration, the more uncompromising stance on China of the expert class has ensured that Trump’s China initiatives have not generated the kind of pushback associated with the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal or his cozier relationship with Saudi Arabia.
As in the early stages of a divorce discussion, the two sides are trading accusations across every facet of the relationship: trade, security, human rights, technology. Both sides also recognize how costly this conflict could be. So, for the time being, they have settled into a tense cohabitation punctuated by raised voices and intemperate threats.
Divorce is not inevitable. But with China expected to overtake the United States in total economic output in the next decade—and with bilateral competition sharpening over markets, resources, and geopolitical advantage—Beijing and Washington may yet succumb to irreconcilable differences.
Even if the conflict doesn’t devolve into a shooting war, a sharp downturn in US-China relations could mean a global economic crisis, the unraveling of the multilateral order, the failure of the last best effort to stop climate change—or a perfect storm of all three. The two largest economies in the world, with by far the two largest carbon footprints, have different views on how the world should be structured. If they can’t reach agreement on trade, the environment, and the global rules of the road, the divorce will tear apart what remains of the international community.
The Trump Effect
The initial warming in US-China relations had a very public starting point: the visit by a team of American ping-pong players to China in April 1971, followed by President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip the following February. For the next several decades, the United States applied two principles to its relations with Beijing. The US government, the business community, and the NGO sector made various pacific overtures to China. At the same time, the Pentagon consistently attempted to contain China’s reach and influence.
The decline of this “congagement” approach is more difficult to pinpoint. The Obama administration certainly attempted to tweak the model with its “Pacific pivot,” an effort to refocus the Pentagon away from the Middle East to East Asia. However, the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS largely prevented this military reorientation. The economic component of the pivot gained greater traction: Obama brokered a free-trade agreement for the region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that pointedly excluded China.
After Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 election, he adopted a far more aggressive approach toward China, beginning with his staff. Former top adviser Steve Bannon urged preparations for a coming war between the United States and an “expansionist” China in the South China Sea. “The kinds of people that have taken senior positions on trade and national security are China hawks more eager to confront China,” says Dennis Wilder, who served as the National Security Council’s director for China from 2004 to 2005.
On trade, Trump complained about an undervalued yuan, barriers to entry into Chinese markets, and the theft of intellectual-property rights. But on the third day of his presidency, Trump withdrew from the TPP. Whatever the pluses and minuses of this agreement, US withdrawal provided China an opportunity to further deepen its economic ties in the region.
More often than not, Trump’s obsession with destroying agreements brokered by the Obama administration has brought Washington into conflict with Beijing—over the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, or on climate change. Nonetheless, Trump’s actions on China have elicited a surprising amount of praise from people who don’t ordinarily have anything nice to say about the president. As Thea Lee, the president of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, acknowledges, “The one thing that the tariff actions have shown: Leverage works. They’ve gotten the attention of the Chinese government.” (Though it should be acknowledged that Lee’s recommendations for how to use that leverage—to advocate for stronger labor rights in China to build a middle class—are not exactly the Trump administration’s priorities.)
“Trump is a madman, but I want to give him and his administration their due,” admits Orville Schell, a journalist who has covered China for decades and now directs the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. “We can’t keep playing on an unlevel playing field and take promises that are never delivered on. It’s really China’s turn to respond, and it’s long overdue.”
Trump is presiding over Washington’s most assertive challenge to China in decades, and it’s a bipartisan confrontation. But what the United States says and does is only part of the story.
The Xi Effect
Until relatively recently, China was outwardly content with being a junior partner—or, occasionally, a junior adversary—of the United States. In the 2000s, Chinese officials spoke of the country’s “peaceful rise,” as if it were interested only in getting along by going along.
That has changed with Xi Jinping. The first Chinese president born after the 1949 revolution, Xi has steered the country in a different direction since he took over in 2012. After using an anti-corruption campaign to eliminate his rivals, Xi embarked on a set of reforms that consolidated his power, modernized the military, and reemphasized state control of the economy. In so doing, he has remade the very concept of leadership—his own in China, and his country’s in the world.
“In terms of the direction that Xi has taken the Chinese government, it is a change—and a pretty dramatic one—from the Deng Xiaoping reform and opening-up policies,” Wilder observes. “And not just reform and opening up, but also keeping the low profile of Deng’s two successors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Xi is a different kind of leader: He is more autocratic, and he believes in the reassertion of the [Communist] Party into all aspects of Chinese society and life.”
The most striking departure from that previous “low-profile approach” has been China’s greater assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing has declared ownership over just about everything that lies beyond the territorial waters of the surrounding countries. This is no minor waterway: One-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea.
Under Xi, China has begun to build artificial islands there, essentially creating 3,000 new acres of Chinese territory to cement its claims. Other countries have pushed back, particularly the Philippines, which brought suit against China in an international maritime court. In 2016, the UN-created court ruled against China, a decision that Beijing roundly criticized as “destined to come to naught.”
“More than anything, what shifted, at least in terms of expert opinion, was China’s build-out of artificial islands in the South China Sea and the flouting of the permanent court of arbitration about that,” observes Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
Then too, at the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017, Xi “took a highly nationalist approach, essentially defining Western influences as the enemy,” says J. Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China. Xi instructed the party “to look into and provide guidance on everything—politics, economics, math, philosophy, think tanks. All of these and more have to have Chinese characteristics.”
Actually, Xi may be even more ambitious: If successful, his efforts would ensure that the whole of the Asia Pacific region has Chinese characteristics. His Belt and Road Initiative is a grand infrastructure program that aspires to reconnect China with the Middle East and Europe via a new Silk Road, along with a maritime program that builds up the capacities of Beijing’s littoral neighbors. The project involves some 70 countries and as much as $1 trillion in funding (though it may not reach that figure for another few years). Xi has also created economic structures, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to finance regional growth. These structures could one day serve as the center of an alternative global economy. After all, Chinese development loans already rival those of the World Bank.
At the same time, China’s economic miracle, which has pulled an unprecedented number of people out of poverty, is slowing. The country’s economic growth has dropped to a low of between 6 and 6.6 percent this year—and it could fall even further. “There’s a huge private and public debt of around $34 trillion,” points out sociologist Walden Bello, a human-rights activist and former member of the Philippine Congress. Among other things, the Belt and Road Initiative is a huge gamble aimed at priming the region’s economic pump and reinflating Chinese growth.
Xi’s greater assertiveness—his “China dream” of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—has generated a reciprocal response from a number of other countries, but particularly the United States, with Trump’s own dream of a national resurgence. In what is perhaps the best-case scenario, two increasingly nationalistic superpowers with immense militaries and overextended economies might be content to maintain their own spheres of influence. But China wants to expand its sphere, and the United States is reluctant to give up either its Pacific presence or its global ambitions.
There is another source of conflict. The United States doesn’t just want to box in China; it also wants to change China from within.
During the “congagement” years, a basic assumption lurked behind many US analyses of Chinese behavior: By introducing market capitalism and gradually liberalizing its politics and culture, China would become more Western. During the debate over China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, then-President Bill Clinton argued that the agreement “will move China in the right direction. It will advance the goals America has worked for in China for the past three decades…. By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom.”
As Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Ely Ratner, a former State Department official, put it in an influential essay in Foreign Affairs last year: “The assumption that deepening commercial, diplomatic, and cultural ties would transform China’s internal development and external behavior has been a bedrock of U.S. strategy. Even those in U.S. policy circles who were skeptical of China’s intentions still shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States’ liking.” When China proved to be not quite so pliable, American observers started to question the virtues of engagement.
CHINA’S SOUTH CHINA SEA CLAIMS
The Chinese, too, held certain basic assumptions about the stability and coherence of US policy, and Trump’s erratic conduct has thrown them for a loop. But even before Trump or Xi, the global financial crisis of 2008 was a wake-up call. “They were true believers that we were the masters of the financial universe,” Roy says. “They were disillusioned by the international financial crisis.”
As Jian Yong, director of the Center for Economic Security Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, wrote at the time: “The worsening US subprime crisis puts China’s enormous US dollar assets and its opening financial market at tremendous risk. It also makes more Chinese people think about ways to prevent financial crises from spreading across the world amid globalization.”
For the Chinese economy to continue growing, in other words, Beijing could no longer safely assume a well-functioning global system. It could no longer sit comfortably in the passenger seat and expect a smooth ride. With its Belt and Road Initiative, its alternative financing structures, its environmental initiatives, and its efforts to become a global leader in technology, China has seized the wheel. More to the point, Beijing is using its newfound power to change the rules of the road.
This emerging Chinese economic alternative, with its emphasis on the role of the state, “is positive as a sort of counterweight to the neoliberal institutions, with all their conditionalities about how countries should develop along Western market lines,” Bello says. “However, these institutions and Chinese lending have also had drawbacks of their own.”
One of those drawbacks are the high rates on some of China’s loans, as Sri Lanka recently discovered. At the end of 2017, unable to repay its various debts, the Sri Lankan government gave Beijing a 99-year lease to the Hambantota port, which was built with Chinese financing. It’s a commercial port, but it could be used for military purposes with Sri Lanka’s consent.
China: Meaner and Greener?
In the security realm, China increased its military spending by double digits for many years, though it has fallen to 7.5 percent for 2019. “Clearly, the Chinese leadership intends for China to be a great power, to command respect, to bury the century of humiliation that they’re still quite sensitive to,” says historian Andrew Bacevich. “But does it follow that they want to take over the world and create a global empire?”
Lyle Goldstein, who teaches at the US Naval War College, challenges the notion of “Chinese aggression.” He says that China might push around smaller countries, but it has generally showed considerable restraint. “If there’s one thing that China has done that’s so horrible over the last 10 years, that has shocked people in the national-security realm, it would be its behavior in the South China Sea,” Goldstein says. “I don’t think it’s so threatening to the United States. I don’t think it’s that threatening to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. What does it show? Chinese engineering prowess. A concern about their sea lanes. They haven’t killed anyone, resorting for the most part to deploying coast-guard cutters with water cannons. That’s a decent record of moderation for a great power.”
The one area where China has unquestionably become a leader is on the environment, especially given the steps backward that the Trump administration has taken. “China is becoming much more of a truly global player,” Turner says. “Ten or 15 years ago, at a lot of these environmental conferences, they just said no. At the fisheries conference, they said, ‘No, we need to fish.’ What China wants to do these days is set the norms.”
US vs. China GDP
Barbara Finamore, Asia senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledges that China still has a ways to go to wean itself off dirty energy and “green” its overseas development projects. But China has largely kept to the clean-energy path, she argues, “because it’s in its own self-interest to do so. The reason for its transformation from a climate foot-dragger to an advocate of global climate governance is because it sees action on clean energy and the environment as fundamental to succeeding economically and putting its economy on a sustainable path moving forward.”
Unwilling to wait for the “invisible hand” of the market to allocate resources to clean energy, the Chinese government has, for instance, invested huge sums in solar- and wind-power production. As a result, Chinese companies have cornered the global market on solar-cell production, and China has more wind-power capacity than anywhere else in the world.
In other realms of global governance, China’s impatience with the rules of the liberal world order has less salutary implications. “If you look deeply at Xi’s calls for China to lead reform of the global system, what they are saying is terrifying,” argues Hart of the Center for American Progress. “They want to make the world system more authoritarian so that China can integrate without facing political concerns.”
Hart points to China’s preference for states to define Internet freedom within their own borders. Similarly, Beijing wants to define what human rights mean inside China and rewrite rather than accede to global laws and regulations. Beijing is largely deaf to the global outcry over the situation in Xinjiang, where authorities have placed as many as 1.5 million Muslim Uighurs in “reeducation camps” and expanded an intrusive household-surveillance system. “Tibet has served as a brutal testing ground for social control for decades,” says Marin Ping, co-founder of Re:Public, a progressive foreign-policy collective, “and the concentration camps in Xinjiang may constitute the single greatest crime against humanity currently being orchestrated and executed by state actors.”
China is not alone in its insistence on a rather 19th-century understanding of sovereignty, especially in terms of human rights. Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Vladimir Putin in Russia are all dismissive of the international community’s “interference.” “China is beginning to feel and act in a way that reflects a sense that things are blowing its way when it comes to this area of human rights,” Bello concludes.
How Should Washington Respond?
The United States is no longer the world’s sole superpower. The anxiety that accompanies Americans’ realization of the relative decline of US global influence has produced a number of symptoms: the election of Trump, a preoccupation with borders and immigration, bipartisan support in Congress for greater military spending—and a fixation on China’s growing power.
“As liberal-minded Americans despair at what is happening to their own country and its political system, China’s rise under Xi’s authoritarian grip induces a fear and anxiety that is as much about the United States as it is about China,” John Delury, a historian of modern China at Yonsei University, points out by e-mail.
Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, warns against inflating these fears and imposing self-defeating restrictions on Chinese people and businesses coming to the United States. “It could lead to an anti-Chinese version of the Red Scare,” she notes.
Meanwhile, the United States has launched a potentially budget-busting effort to maintain military supremacy over China (and everyone else on the planet). The Trump administration wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget to $750 billion a year, with much of that focused on China: the nearly 5 percent increase in the Navy’s budget, the modernization of the US nuclear force, the resurrection of fighter-jet production. As acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan reminded Pentagon staffers on his first day on the job: “China, China, China.”
That way lies insolvency, Klare argues: “Overmatching ISIS will never bankrupt us. Overmatching Russia and China will.”
Given this new reality, there are two kinds of options for a progressive rethinking of US-China relations. The minimum approach, which acknowledges that the US government and the foreign-policy community have become leery of large-scale engagement, offers only case-by-case cooperation. “Our policy should be cooperative partnership that engages China on every level as we seek to work with China to solve problems,” argues the US Naval War College’s Goldstein. “They are a status-quo power that we can work with on various fronts: North Korea, Myanmar, pandemics, Belt and Road, climate change.”
That engagement can even extend to difficult issues like human rights. “You do stand on your principles on questions of human rights, but you realize your limitations, since it’s not possible for outside states to engineer the situation inside China,” says Rajan Menon, who teaches at the City University of New York. “It’s a delicate balance between standing up for what progressives believe in, but also guarding against those issues being used for confrontation against China.”
This minimum approach falls somewhere between the “congagement” strategy of the past and the creation of distinct spheres of influence. It’s neither a divorce nor a renewal of the wedding vows; it’s more like the Chinese adage of “same bed, different dreams.” There’s room for cooperation, but also for considerable conflict.
The maximum approach, meanwhile, would be a heavier lift. It requires the United States and China to discuss the underlying tension in their relationship over two different views of global governance. A similar debate took place in 1945 between the capitalist and communist worlds, and it produced the compromises of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, the discussion would cover the balance of state and market in economic development, the tension between national sovereignty and universal human rights, and the restructuring of international institutions to better reflect the new balance of global power. The People’s Republic of China, which didn’t exist in 1945 but has now graduated to superpower status, expects to play the same role in reshaping the international system that the United States did after World War II.
Instead of engaging China in a conversation about such a transformation—or even just cooperating with it on an ad-hoc basis, as the Obama administration did—the Trump administration is simultaneously challenging Beijing and shrugging off the burdens of global leadership. Such a mixed message is straining the marriage of convenience between Washington and Beijing that has dominated the world order since the end of the Cold War.
Since it touches on the global economy, the environment, military conflict, and the latest technologies, the US-China relationship should be at the front and center of public debate. Yet no one in Washington or among the 2020 presidential candidates is discussing new ways to engage with China. The stakes, however, couldn’t be higher: If this marriage dissolves, we can say goodbye to a world order that has come to depend on a measure of US-Chinese amity.
By slapping tariffs on Chinese imports, Donald Trump has once again proven to be the Disrupter-in-Chief.
This week alone, he’s brought John Bolton in as national security advisor over the objections of every sane person in the universe, threatened to go after Bashar al-Assad over the Syrian leader’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and revived disgusting characterizations of Mexicans as rapists.
Who can even remember Russiagate or Stormy Daniels with these non-stop disruptions? As Bob Odenkirk jokes in The New Yorker, you’d easily miss the birth of your own grandchild so transfixed are you by the news of the daily car wreck known as the Trump presidency.
The tariffs, however, might prove to be the most significant disruption of all. Trump hasn’t just pissed off more than a billion Chinese. He’s enraged economists, foreign policy professionals, and soybean farmers in this country as well. He sent the stock market into a dive. Indeed, a trade war with China threatens to overturn the entire global economy.
At first glance, Trump’s move seems to make little political sense. He’s going against a good chunk of his own party, which has uncritically embraced free trade for years. The president’s moves may complicate Republican chances in the mid-term elections, since Republican candidates must now either run against the president on a pocketbook issue or unconvincingly change their stripes at the last moment. But Trump’s move may preserve (or even expand) his own base of support in key swing states — and thus his chances for reelection in 2020.
Don’t underestimate Trump’s willingness to destroy his party, his country, and the global economy in his quest to make himself “great” for a second term. On the tariff question, the surprising thing is not Trump’s decision. After all, he’s been touting tariffs ever since he began talking politics back in the 1980s.
What’s truly bizarre are some of the people who are praising his recklessness and thus reviving his political fortunes.
Trade used to be a relatively easy political litmus test. Democrats, responding to their political base of unions, inveighed against free trade in favor of “fair trade.” As the party of the plutocrats, Republicans generally supported anything on the agenda of Wall Street and transnational corporations, which generally want the removal of all barriers to the free flow of money and goods.
The Democrats, however, began to shift in favor of free trade back in the 1990s with Bill Clinton’s embrace of NAFTA. Trump, meanwhile, represents a popular pushback by Republican rank and file. According to Pew polling, 67 percent of Democratic voters now support free trade agreements, but only 35 percent of Republicans feel the same way.
Not all Democrats feel that way, of course. As a traditional Democrat from the strong union state of Ohio — one of the few places where union membership actually went up in 2016 — Sherrod Brown has staked out a claim as one of the more progressive politicians in Congress. But Ohio is also a state that Donald Trump won by a convincing 8 percent of the vote in 2016. Since the election, Brown has cannily supported the president on certain issues, including the much-vaunted infrastructure plan, which Brown sees as a potential job creator for his state.
Brown has also long opposed trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). No surprise, then, that he immediately embraced Trump’s tariffs. “This welcome action is long overdue for shuttered steel plants across Ohio and steelworkers who live in fear that their jobs will be the next victims of Chinese cheating,” he said. “If we fail to stand up for steel jobs today, China will come after other jobs up and down the supply chain tomorrow.”
Brown’s support of the new tariffs makes political sense, even if his willingness to partner with an autocratic president is morally dubious.
The political positions of Fareed Zakaria, the prominent CNN and Washington Post pundit, are usually antithetical to Sherrod Brown’s. Zakaria is generally an enthusiast for free trade and globalization. He was a fan of the TPP. He routinely bashes what he calls socialist or quasi-socialist government policies that remind him of what didn’t work in the India of his childhood in the 1970s.
Back in June 2016, Zakaria wrote that “it is stunning that serious conservative Republicans who are devoted to free-market ideas are backing Trump, looking the other way and crossing their fingers. The cost of doing so is now clear: Trump will transform the GOP into a protectionist, nationalist party.”
Zakaria is clearly no fan of Trump. And yet, he’s come out in favor of the very tariffs that are central to the Republican Party’s transformation that Zakaria so fears. The reason for Zakaria’s turnabout is his conclusion that “China is a trade cheat.” He argues that China’s trade policies have cost America tens of thousands of jobs and that China has engaged in routine corporate espionage and copyright infringement.
But there’s something else that irritates Zakaria about China’s behavior (as well as that of India and Brazil). “Today the greatest threat to the open world economy comes from these large countries that have chosen to maintain mixed economies, refuse to liberalize much more, and have enough power to hold firm,” he writes in his latest Post op-ed.
Trump, Brown, and Zakaria have very different economic visions. Zakaria is a globalist, Brown is an old-fashioned progressive, and Trump is a nationalist. All three, however, view China opportunistically as a useful enemy to wave in front of the electorate.
China is certainly a convenient target. But is it really cheating? And are tariffs the best way to address the situation?
Are China’s Pants on Fire?
China once was the world economy.
It manufactured porcelain, produced silk, grew tea, and printed books. It exported throughout Asia and, via the Silk Road, to the West as well. By the 20th century, however, China had fallen far behind the West. Beginning with agricultural reforms in the late 1970s, China began to close the gap. To do so required both traditional techniques, such as using the comparative advantage of cheap labor, and somewhat more unorthodox approaches, like government subsidies of promising industries.
If China had stuck with what it was good at producing in the 1970s, it would today be a poor agricultural country making a modest income from selling cheap rice and trinkets to the world. To get to its current position as a global economic superpower, China had to break the rules — just as Japan and South Korea had previously done to catch up to the West.
What irritates U.S. critics is that China, in their eyes, continues to break the rules even though it’s become the second largest economy in the world. Those transgressions have included currency manipulation, targeted government subsidies, and more systemic “distortions” of the Chinese economy.
For the longest time, China’s greatest sin in the eyes of the United States was its currency manipulation: devaluing the yuan in order to make its exports cheaper (and imports more expensive). With the exception of a brief devaluation in early 2016, however, China has been strengthening the yuan against the dollar for more than a decade. From 2005, the yuan has appreciated 33 percent against the dollar. Moreover, since Trump took office, the yuan has risen 9 percent against the dollar.
Indeed, it’s only now that a trade war is on the horizon that China is once again considering adjusting the value of its currency as a weapon against the United States. Nice job, Donny!
The Chinese government also stands accused of using various policies to promote its industries. For instance, a huge sustainable energy program — including a push to spend $360 billion on renewable energy by the end of this decade — has helped China become a leading producer of wind power generators, solar panels, and the like. This is not some crazy Communist conspiracy. Most countries implement some form of industrial policy (by which governments subsidize or otherwise support potential economic winners). In the United States such a policy is called, simply, the Pentagon. (And you thought perhaps that the Defense Department’s invention of the Internet was just a lucky shot in the dark?)
A third U.S. complaint centers around the level of tariffs — for instance the 25 percent rate China slaps on auto imports. That number is accurate, but China still imports six U.S. cars for every one car it exports to the United States. In other words, the tariff doesn’t serve as much of a barrier to U.S. sales (except perhaps on high-end vehicles). Meanwhile, it’s also true that the U.S. tariff on Chinese cars is only 2.5 percent — but critics usually fail to mention the 25 percent tariff that Washington imposes on Chinese trucks. Chinese tariffs are also much lower on auto parts.
Over all, according to 2017 data, the average tariff imposed by the Chinese government is 9.9 percent. True, that contrasts with only 3.5 percent for the United States. But China also clocks in considerably lower than South Korea (14. 9 percent), Brazil (13.5 percent), and India (13.4 percent).
Then there’s the issue that Trump has brought up of the requirement China imposes on foreign corporate partners to enter into a 50-50 joint venture with Chinese companies that presumably want to siphon off the intellectual property of the outsider investor. As economist Lawrence Summers points out, however, the U.S. companies in question are largely interested in outsourcing their production. “It is more than a little ironic that an administration that condemns outsourcing should make standing up for those who move production to China so central a priority,” he writes.
In fact, as Summers points out, China has been quite responsive over the years to negotiations on trade issues: “China’s global surpluses are now far below the U.S. negotiating targets of a few years ago, China has spent about $1 trillion propping up its currency, and intellectual-property protections are far better enforced.”
Underlying much of the critique of China is something else entirely: envy and anger that an economic system different from the U.S. has succeeded so remarkably. Zakaria, for instance, censures China for its refusal to “liberalize much more.” But liberalization is not just about reducing tariffs, which China has been doing as a member of the WTO. Proponents of liberalization want to see the Chinese government privatize lucrative state-owned industries and make it easier for foreigners to own those industries. Given its history — and the reasons for that long interregnum between economic dominance in the 18th century and today — China is particularly sensitive about being carved up by foreigners.
Whatever position you might take on China’s economic policies, tariffs are not going to do anything to reverse the trade imbalance with the United States or magically produce more jobs for Americans in the steel or auto sectors. The bottom line is that the United States should consider copying China, not criticizing it. The U.S. government should be investing in the modernization of key industries, pouring money into the retraining of American workers, and implementing a large-scale infrastructure development program that relies heavily on domestic sourcing.
That’s where at least half of the Pentagon’s budget should be going, not preparing for some future non-trade war with China.
Looking to 2020
Trump has generally gotten along with Xi Jinping. He’s repeatedly praised the Chinese leader, continuing to do so even as the trade war heats up. It’s possible that the two countries will negotiate away their differences behind the scenes, which they could have done without all the tit-for-tat drama of the recent tariff-slinging. In fact, China has already shown some flexibility.
But China represents something else for Trump. It’s the fulcrum of the economic nationalism that Steve Bannon brought to the White House, a way for Trump to keep enflaming his base of support in pivotal states in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Trump is following the Bannon playbook — to remake the Republican Party. The trade issue is the tip of the spear of this strategy.
The Democrats are likely to win back the House in 2018, and they have a shot at getting the Senate as well. That might pose a problem for Trump on a number of fronts, including immigration and the environment. But on economic issues, Trump could very well partner with Democrats and cut out all the Republicans who remain wedded to the “globalist” model.
That’s a nightmare scenario for Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the Koch crowd. But start preparing yourself for the prospect of Donald Trump running again in 2020 on a trans-partisan platform of economic nationalism that touts his “achievements” on trade and infrastructure. Such a pitch will appeal to precisely the swing states that supported him in 2016.
And that’s a nightmare scenario for more than just a handful of rich Republicans.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 11, 2018