PROF TOM PLATE WRITES – It’s not easy being a superpower, and whoever would imagine such might be the case? Sometimes one almost feels an odd twang of sympathy for the leaders of China and the U.S. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of the superpower.
Could any of us do the job better than the current super-eminences? I have no idea, but with regard to the moral responsibility of steadying the vital relationship, the current bilateral is leaning toward the bizarre. Lately it is as if both are determined not so much to run their countries as to run down their predecessors – and in the process risk careering into each other while undoing past good. It’s like Xi is running against the legacy of historic icon Deng Xiaoping, and Trump is running against the legacy of contemporary icon Barack Obama.
Increasingly, I’m convinced, no one understands China well enough to possess an honest sense of what may lie in its future. Not, certainly, in Washington, which tends to imagine China as rooted at one extreme or the other (these days, more feral Han Godzilla than peaceful Pearl of the Orient). Imagine a middle ground for the Middle Kingdom – inconceivable!
How are the Chinese doing with their self-assessments? This month’s shock was the revelation that historic icon Deng Xiaoping, heretofore revered for edging China away from dogmatic Marxist economics, though not from party-government political control, is being taken down an esteem-notch or two by the government.
Take note that the gap between rich and poor is growing, viewed as due in part to uncontrolled entrepreneurism, a steady, if partial, trek back-to-the-future of central state-owned enterprises looms. Beijing may hope the injection of some retro will foster more central control over future embarrassments of riches, such as the current trade surplus that produces as much political downside vis-à-vis the U.S. as economic uptick. Now that China happily is no longer good-earth dirt-poor, its leaders perhaps feel they can afford to taper the wealth-accumulation trajectory a tad if it pays off in political stability, not to mention in their ability to winnow down the whines of rich capitalist America.
More power to Beijing: But to press further the implacable role of the Party and the state (e.g., it takes a Zhongnanhai village to raise a nation) is not a new idea. Even Master Deng would not hold that just because Chinese citizens can afford to choose among fancy cars, they must be provided with a menu of competing political parties. At the same time, too much centralism can ruin any party.
As it is, the latest growth projection for China – a flat six percent – would rate a standing ovation almost anywhere else; in China this is seen to compel political tightening. The U.S. growth rate rolls up to only about half that — not China’s fault, of course, though Mr Trump’s tirades might make you think that if China somehow just went way (poof!) so would a dimension of U.S. economic mediocrity. This crazy nonsense has to stop. Maybe the beginning of enlightenment will come at month’s end in Buenos Aires, over dessert, at an overdue face-to-face dinner-plus between Xi and Trump.
Battered by U.S. legislative elections that chopped Congress into one branch/two twigs, former real-estate mogul Trump may be sensing the reputation of his presidency as now in a kind of ethical escrow. He needs some ‘wins’ to boast his credit rating. The tariff tension tango has done all it can: He and Xi should settle on good terms and not prolong the martial-art tariff knifing. Possible good news out of Washington that Prof Peter Navarro and his ‘nationalistic-economic’ views have been quietly quarantined raised my spirits – and perhaps Xi’s. There are, as far as anyone can tell, many right nationalists, but few bright nationalists; but while Prof Navarro is bright enough, his post-modern grumpiness is not right for the 21st century. We need to bridge gaps, not create them.
It is not America’s core job to help China realize its “Chinese Dream.” But it would be immoral to stand in the way simply because, whatever it is, it is not an American Dream. “To realize the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history,” Xi Jinping declared in 2012, at the National Museum of China. What exactly does that mean? Scholars – such as University of Chicago Professor Edward L. Shaughnessy – in combing through the poetic texts of early Chinese thought have been struck not by the simplicity of that phrase in antiquity but by its opacity. Renewal of the Chinese nation may not be contingent on a permanentized Marxism – but then again, it may be. But if it lacks true Chinese characteristics, it will be no more than a temporary transplant. Unlike mullahs making the claim that only they know the right way, Zhongnanhai might accept that the virtue best suited to keep the dream vibrant is to display humility in trying to do the best in the service of the people.
The other day, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice-President Mike Pence traded unpleasantries at a summit in Asia. They blamed each other for the trade war and the geopolitical re-tensioning. China’s president made the most sense: “History has shown that confrontation, whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war or a trade war, will produce no winners.” But note that a former top Chinese government trade negotiator has publicly knocked Beijing’s retaliatory decision to impose tariffs on U.S. soybeans. Maybe everyone is feeling it’s time to dance? In Argentina, Trump should cut one of his artistic “deals.” He has made his point – and so has Xi. More of this, is utterly pointless – and seriously dangerous. Alas, humility does not come so easily to superpowers.
SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST Columnist Tom Plate is a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the founder of Asia Media International. The original version of this column was published in the Comment section of the SCMP 20 Oct. 2018.