TOM PLATE WRITES – It is a commonplace that China’s system disdains consequential elections. But in a sense this is only strictly true in national practice. Whether leaders and peoples accept it or hate it, this is the age of continuous globalization. It is not a matter of choice – and has many implications. One is that China will be impacted by the results of the kind of election that it has not ever conducted. The election is not within its borders, but within those of another country, rather far away. No one in China – not even the most august member of the Chinese Communist Party – can vote a sour note. It is as if the Chinese are reduced to something like absentee voters who won’t ever be tabulated. This week’s endless string of local and state elections of course is not about the American Presidency (that psychodrama is two years away), but in political reality they are all about Donald Trump. This also means they are, if indirectly, about the troubled China-U.S. relationship.
America waves a very happy flag over its one-person/one-vote elections, almost as a totem of spiritual superiority, but the world understands that sometimes our system yields extremely eerie, erratic results. Incredibly, in two recent U.S. Presidential elections (2000, 2016), the ‘winning’ candidate with the most votes was denied the top prize. So just go ask former Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton about our wonderful American elections and watch the sharp curb of their enthusiasm.
The insistent American argument for the inherent superiority of its two-party system has never inspired me; it seems imprisoned in the solitary confinement of political dogmatism. The health of any multi-party system depends on the vitality and relative integrity of each of the parties involved in the polity, as well as the seriousness and educational level of the citizens. In America today, neither party should be bragging about anything.
At the same time, some serious respect must be paid to China. We in the West must get that into our heads and internalize it considerably more than we have. We cannot hope to have an intelligent relationship with Asia if our approach to China itself seems foreign to common sense, Asian or otherwise. But as Singapore sage Kishore Mahbubani has been reminding us, America in particular looks psychologically unprepared for the brave new world of the seemingly brave new China.
If they wish, the Chinese can plausibly brag about the economic-policy wisdom (to date) of their one (basically) party system, given that it has helped guide China into a socialism with such plainly evident Chinese characteristics. Even so, a party that is too closed-minded, uptight and/or potentially tyrannical can become – oh – like a lead political party in a titular multi-party democracy that acts like it can play the role of king of the world.
When the latter happens in the U.S., it is the tendency of the American voter at large to vote against incumbent un-worthies even though it accepts that the victorious incoming un-worthies may eventually prove duds or world-be dictators, too. Interestingly enough, the ides of democracy, per one citizen/one vote, is under critical review in America, sometimes led by the very same influence-radiating public intellectuals that always complain about the Chinese non-vote.
Some in America may be beginning to wonder (very quietly) how they got so lucky! Yes, these days, America is melancholy, but this election may have stirred it to thinking. As with the endless human-rights nagging, Americans are beginning to feel as if the U.S. should fret more about its own shortcoming and less about others’. Maybe the vote-route is not the only route to the good or better life? Gosh forbid.
And maybe modesty is the best policy for the Chinese, as well? ‘Everything under the Heavens’: This is the notion with which China over the centuries has framed its global edifice, as if all is tucked under one huge Sinic (non-yellow) umbrella. This historic (and arguably provincial) self-depiction is one the Chinese have to live with, however sardonically. The glum reality is that Mr Donald Trump is the lead actor in their most important ‘hinterland province’. And this week, the people of that province – the Americans – will register, indirectly, a thumbs up or down for this table-upending foreign tribune.
It’s a bilateral superpower moment. The U.S. and the P.R.C. are nuclear powers and have enormous military-industrial complexes. Right now, absurdly, a portion of America’s ground forces are positioned on the border with Mexico to deter some imagined migrant invasion; and a large slice of the PLA-Navy is deployed to deter (at least in part, presumably) some imagined U.S. naval invasion of the South China Sea. Neither will ever happen. Doesn’t it seems chancy to rely on the perceptual proportionality of either Being or Washington to keep order in our world?
The right to blow up the globe – or even just a region of it – must rest with an authority higher than either the Trump or Xi administrations, alone or together. A modesty should infuse their foreign policy, not to mention their collective egos, with a humbler presentation of national interests. Mr Trump should taper down the tariffs (he has made his point, he meets with President Xi Jinping in several weeks), and Mr Xi should forswear further pushes in the South China Sea (he has made his point). All other major issues should be negotiated as if both parties were adults: Harmony of all under the Heavens is far superior to Hell on earth. So let us all hope America’s elections in sum – pluses and minuses, added together – do produce happy returns.
Tom Plate is clinical professor of Asia and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author of ‘In the Middle of China’s Future’ and ‘Yo-You Diplomacy.’ The original version of this column appeared 6 November 2018 in the international newspaper South China Morning Post, where Plate is a columnist.