TOM PLATE WRITES — There are a few, though not yet many, Republicans openly furious with beleaguered President Donald Trump for seemingly asking Beijing to join his reelection campaign, in effect, by actively degrading a leading Democratic opponent. The target – former Vice President Joe Biden son’s alleged business activities in China — follows the American president’s call for buy-in from Ukrainian authorities for help in nailing Hunter Biden for allegedly suspect dealings there.
This latter move appears to have been the tipping point for leading Democrats assessing the plausibility of an impeachment effort. But forget Ukraine for a moment: it was the naked appeal to China last week that blew some Republican minds, to the extent they have much mental energy left for this White House. U.S. Senator (and former Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney led the Republican criticism: “When the only American citizen President Trump singles out is his [prominent] opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.”
Romney, though beaten by President Barack Obama in 2012, remains a significant figure. A respected Mormon, his late father was George Romney, whose own campaign for the Republican nomination against Richard Nixon imploded in 1967 when, upon returning from a ‘fact-finding’ trip to Vietnam, he disowned his prior war support with the oddly phrased admission that he’d been “brainwashed” by U.S. propaganda. More than just a footnote to history, the brainwash assertion wound up destroying a good man (who I believe would have made a good president) and to this day the sad memory cautions his son against excessive public candor. Even so, this time, this Romney let it fly: “brazen and unprecedented,” he said of the president’s pathetic plea for foreign assistance.
In response, Beijing was in the position to trot out its tried-and-sometimes-true trope of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other states’ as its ducking point. Whether always practiced or not, whether sincere or not, it’s a good place to hide. Rather than lose footing on the slope of another Trump ethical slip, the government can ran to nominally high and dry ground, where it can stay as long as long as it wishes. Trying to influence the coming Taiwan election is one thing (Beijing doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent state; neither does the UN); but mucking around with the coming U.S. presidential election runs a huge risk with Americans, who might otherwise have a more open-mind about ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ than their East Coast political establishment.
In Washington, itself hardly a paragon of inspirational governance these days, China is being outfitted for the Evil Empire retro-wardrobe – a Soviet Union with Chinese characteristics. Almost any effort at a balanced judgment of “the enemy” – the Xi Boys – risks suspicion for un-American mental activities. And as so muchpolitical bull is loose in the China shop, far more Americans think they know China than can spell Ukraine, much less find it on a map. Launching the idiotic trade war has put Beijing in the spotlight; and at the same time some of the Xi government’s policies are starting to scare people half to death. Then there is Hong Kong, almost every day shooting out hot international headlines with each new street fury, wiping out the management cred Beijing rightfully earned during the relatively tranquil years immediately after1997 – but then mysteriously gluing itself to this latest local administration that’s as politically tone-deaf in the territory as it’s been loyally pitch-perfect to Beijing. Understandably, the Xi government blames outside, Western interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. But who picked Carrie Lam to run the show?
Who knows how down-the-road history will sort all this fast-happening contemporary history out? And time doesn’t always tell, and almost never in good enough time. But let me conjecture that the epidemic of imagined and actual foreign interference, nowadays and over past decades, will be interpreted less as pure evil than evidence of a massive malfunctioning of the creaky nation-state system that, after all, hails back to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia. How well has this silo-style system worked to maintain a high-quality peace and security, when one or at most two silos shadow all? Given that the world is more bunched up and more susceptible to immediate mass extinction (nuclear war and winter) or slow-burning extinction (global warming) than ever, perhaps the desire to intervene in an American presidential election, whatever the immediate overt motive and circumstance, may be more a deep psychological symptom of a kind of outcry rejection of current unrepresentative reality than pedestrian political criminality. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, along with his brilliant father, was by no means the first to articulate it but has perhaps proven the most properly persistent on this point: Whoever Americans elect as their president, the rest of the watching world has to live with, like him or her or not.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with obvious pride, declaims often about “Chinese civilization” and the “Chinese Dream.” Not everyone loves this. Remember the famous 1997 televised back-and-forth, when President Bill Clinton declaimed that China’s authoritarianism was “on the wrong side of history,” and China’s Jiang Zemin politely begged to differ. But perhaps China and America are both wrong-sided, bent toward narrow nationalisms, each in their own way: political creatures stuck in the past – in the original mindset of 1648, as it were. Surely that epoch is long past; surely time is running out for the world community. And so surely it is past time for the kind of global system change that almost everyone says can never happen, but which many of us now have come to understand simply must. Somehow.
Clinical Professor Tom Plate, author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ books, is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice president. He is the author of 13 books, including the ‘Giants of Asia’ quartet, which led with ‘Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew” (Marshall Cavendish, 2011). An earlier version of this column appeared Tuesday in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.