Two guys walk into a drinking saloon. Only three in the afternoon and they’re glowering at each other. They settle at the bar, the bartender asks, “What’ll you have?” The Chinese guy says a Maotai, make it a double. The American says an Americano, light on the vermouth. “So early in the day?” quips the barkeep. The men respond that they’re furious. “With what?”, he asks. The men point and jab at each other. “If you’re that angry,” he says, “why are you two drinking together?” Shrugging, they say, as one: “Because no one else really wants to drink with us!”

We recycle this well-known comic trope – ‘Two guys walk into a bar…’ to dramatize a China-U.S. relationship that needs more than a few rounds to improve.  Observers are worried. Collateral damage is an ever-present risk. Small animals in the jungle rightly fear the sudden movement of elephants:  whether celebrating or clashing, the big monsters have impact.

Such is more than ever worrisome when our political pachyderms are going through a neurotic development.  As Free University of Berlin Professor Klaus Muhlhahn puts it in  ‘Making China Modern’, a superb book: “All its attainment of wealth and power notwithstanding, China faces an increasingly uncertain future – and a future that all humanity will confront together.”  No country, whether in Latin America or in East Asia, will be immune to collateral damage if China keels over from debt-overweight or, alternatively, skips happily into the future without a care in the world for anyone else.

It’s easy to imagine China and the U.S. tripping over each other. Among all the uncertainties is the question of the role of ideology. To flexible, responsive governance, rigid ideological government is a killer – poisonous cement for societal immobility. Alluring as a superficial antidote to uncertainty, ideologies lead to political catatonia. Obviously hyper-patriotic leaders, from India’s Nehru to China’s Mao, succumbed to its lure and retarded their countries’ development, while lowering history’s valuation of their reign.

China will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if it forgets how it got to where it is. Its recovery from economic nowhere came about precisely because of Deng Xiaoping’s gut skepticism about dogma. Today, while no one quite understands what “socialism with Chinese characteristics” actually means, perhaps that is its great genius: The approving moniker can be pinned on nearly any innovation that produces results, as long as the one-party political system stays belted into the driver’s seat.

Respect might be paid to this slick touchstone phrase that gives public space to pragmatism. Yet now, from China, renewed calls for ideological discipline as well as caterwauling about the evils of Western capitalism abound. Not so alarming, perhaps? After all, the winds of reform have always had to fight off feckless fronts of ideological hot air from China’s grumpy conservatives, for whom reformism seemed akin to evil Westernization. President Xi himself canonizes Karl Marx as “the greatest thinker in the history of mankind” (sorry, in many Western minds that spot is held down by one Adam Smith). On display is a misguided attempt at either turning the clock back to some imagined past purity or preparing today’s body politic for some impending economic mudslide by tightening up.

This is misconceived. If it had not internalized selected aspects of capitalism, China would not find itself on the precipice of its next historic uptick. It needs to keep going in the direction of considered innovation, as does the U.S., where, oddly enough, ideological ‘shibboleths’ of the opposite kind are now resurfacing, as either craven recalls of spirits past or as fantastical fears about the future. In his State of the Union presentation, President Donald Trump actually said this: “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country” – as if, say, Sweden were the worst country in the history of the world.  But Trump denounced socialism as solemnly as some in China are denouncing capitalism. In a sense, I would argue, both ploys are different sorts of Red scares, of an obvious kind.

From an economic perspective, in reality, the two economies are bobbing more less in tandem, competitively but also with overlaps that are unavoidable in a global technological culture and world economy of mutual dependencies. A more noteworthy current difference between China and the United States is not economic but political. One government seems perhaps over-efficient, at least as an intervenor in the economy and people’s lives; the other seems unsteady and unreliable, not the least when near-shuttered up, as was the U.S.’ from December 22 until January 25 – the longest of our shutdowns. That it is near-impossible to imagine something like this happening in Xi’s China when it just happened in Trump’s America (and could again) should remind Americans that a two-party system is not inherently more viable than a one-party. Before pointing fingers at China’s imperfections, we should accept that sometimes our otherwise stirring stars and stripes also display tears and holes.

Precisely because the power equation between the two presidents is uneven – Xi’s up, Trump’s down – the time may be apt for bilateral deal-making. U.S. domestic fragmentation is downsizing America’s global hubris; China’s economy is chugging uphill against debt. Let’s start by agreeing that the trade war needs to be closed down; that Washington needs to accept that the South China Sea is not the Caribbean; and that Beijing needs to abandon ideological religion and acknowledge that plain secular economics can deliver goods and provide jobs. Forget spurious resurrections of ideological ghosts and focus on coping with new realities. Have another round of drinks, if you need them, even stay for hours and close the bar if you want­. But when you wake up in the morning, hangover notwithstanding, start to clear your heads and get real.

The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, where LMU Prof. Tom Plate is a regular columnist.

Professor and Columnist Tom Plate, the author of  ‘In the Middle of the Future,’ has been writing about Asia since 1996.  

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