TOM PLATE WRITES — The stars and stripes of the American flag, as if sliced by partisanship into bipolar bands of red and blue, never seemed more at cross-purpose. Only true haters might find pleasure in the proceedings.
In the House, as if plowing through a field of empty dreams and lame Tweets, Democratic crusaders for the impeachment of President Donald Trump proceed with little to stop them unless the American people become too spiritually exhausted to care anymore, or cannot bear to watch, or are waiting for the national election next November before getting emotionally involved. Republican Party loyalists, a sad phalanx of partisans, hide behind platitudinal patriotism and picky process.
But If you step back from the unseemly sight unfolding in Washington — or if you were viewing, say, from Asia — the American psychodrama does offer at least one feature that’s hard to top: that so much is played out in the public light.
You might have thought that by now, even the otherwise insatiable might be sated, but no: Like the anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations and street battles in Hong Kong, the show goes on, heading for some historic big bang — or energy-depleted denouement. For those who choose to take in the spectacle with hungry eyes, there is a feast to consume. Some news shows have never felt such lifts in ratings (a gladiator circus always brings people out). From dawn to dusk — and sometimes even through the night — new events seem to pop up on the American screen even while old ones are still being marketed as news.
Messy as all this is, Americans who still want to believe in their political system as preferable to others, whatever its fault lines, could point toward China’s mainland and taunt: Is that what you want instead? Major decisions made in total secret? Very little input from the citizen? The head of your country practically a mystery man, not only to most of the world, but to the Chinese people themselves?
Truth to power be told: As Mr. Trump is surely over-exposed, Mr. Xi is anything but. This veteran Communist Party warrior heads a colossus of 1.4 billion people, military muscle hardening by the month, the economy rated no lower than second on the face of the earth – though one reported to be slumping to “only” six percent growth. Some slump: The U.S. rate is about a third of that. Nonetheless, Chairman Xi does not have a great image. In fact, viewed from the American distance, Mr. Xi does not appear to be close to what the West, for its part, might want in China’s leader. But then, what would we want on our Christmas list? A Mikhail Gorbachev in a Dior dress? In the absence of Communist Party collapse, is Chairman Xi about the best the West can hope for or the worst it could possibly have? There is no way of knowing, when dealing with both a hypothetical and the presently unknowable. But much commentary on the Xi phenomenon suggests an ominous rise of Mao II.
To me this seems unnervingly glib. There is no question that the Communist Party chairman has sought to narrow the rules of permissible colloquy, including exhorting its netizens to the “cultivation of civilized and self-disciplined online behavior” (good luck with that) and, among other civic virtues, toward a “full development of etiquette and courtesy” (sounds more like Singapore than North Korea or George Orwell). But whatever Mr. Xi is, a true intellectual (like Jiang Zemin) he is not. U.S. academics, many now anti-Xi, claim to have it all figured out. They imagine these “new” societal directives as an outgrowth of a relatively “new’ cultural nativism and political narrowing that will be comprehensive in application. No lawyer, educator or even university student will escape the feel of the Xi chill.
If that becomes the social cement into which the people’s feet become restrained, it will be one extraordinary achievement in a nation of no less than 1.4 billion and fifty-plus ethnicities. You might even admire the audacity even as you express alarm over its proposed totality. But still, this can’t get me to view Xi as the second coming of Mao. I incline to the judgment of University of London Prof Julia Lovell, whose comprehensive new book ‘Maoism: A Global History’ (Knopf), is anything but comfortable with the spread of Maoist catechism, which she views as a perpetually reappearing obnoxious global rash; still, she insists: “…Xi has little personally in common with Mao. An engineer and apparatchik by training, he lacks Mao’s self-taught, folksy literary range and philosophical pretensions; he keeps regular hours and has only been married twice.”
Surely, he harbors a terror in his heart and soul, as would any psychologically balanced living Marxist, of a replay of those hellish ten years known as the Cultural Revolution. One has to wonder how uncomfortable those many young people protesting in HK’s streets make him: While his sagacity fell short in keeping this serious SAR scrum from marinating into a colossal mess, it hasn’t, yet anyway, triggered the feared Tiananmen tantrum. There is at least that to credit, for the time being anyway.
Trump may be impeached or upended in next year’s election; at most he gets two terms. China abolished its two-term limit so that Xi can remain indefinitely, theoretically for life. Yet, insists noted Sinologist Geremie Barme from Australia, it is Trump who is more Mao-ish than Xi. Continually disruptive. Earthy. Paranoid. Non-consultative. Trump as the new Mao? That would turn history on its head; but surely, it’s the unarticulated fear of this vague sort that’s turning America’s Congress upside down. Yes, Trump is the closer, more immediate danger.
This column first appeared on the INSIGHT page of the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, where he is a regular contributor. Prof Tom Plate is the distinguished scholar of Asian and American Studies at Loyola Marymount University and vice president of the Pacific Century Institute. He is the founder of Asia Media at Loyola Marymount University.