TOM PLATE WRITES — It’s embarrassing. Like some televangelist preacher caught with his pants down at an out-of-town house-of-pleasure, America has been caught with its democracy down.
Point one: a scary but also confused and confusing coup d’etat – another to come? Point two: A Republican president who should never have been president – a reality-show coup-leader-in-chief. Point three: A First Lady (traditional American family symbol) whose main contribution was to the bottom lines of the money-mongers of haute couture. And Point four (most embarrassing of all): many in the American Republican Party seemed to be mostly enjoying the crazy ride.
The Chinese government in Beijing, as much as it could manage, tried to appear not to dance on the grave of what might be dubbed the strange death of American liberal democracy. It didn’t need to party so hard anyway: The mess in Washington spoke volumes by itself. Besides, the timing was a bit awkward: after all, the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong government was proceeding with its rollup of perceived enemies of the SAR half-state. Those swooped up by police are widely viewed — everyone knows — as valiant pro-democracy angels by the U.S. government and public. And so the standard rhetorical scolding and threatening by members of the U.S. Congress, not to mention the media, may well have seemed odd, given that American police were seen making arrests for violations of law and order in the runup to and through the penetrated capitol building of the Congress of the United States.
At this writing, Donald J. Trump, who has set a perilous standard of governance that will be easy for his successor Joseph Biden to avoid replicating, is still technically president; but one way or the other, that won’t be the case for long. He not only lost the election for a second term, however narrowly, but he lost plausibility, overwhelmingly, save for those who either are easily fooled or are hellbent on insurrection. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution bars the nation’s leader from morphing into a president for life – maybe not such a bad idea for any system.
It would not be an error to overestimate the current civic demoralization, or its duration. With the giant fog of Covid-pandemic beclouding everything, who knows when the sun will shine on America again? Yes, nihilism is the enemy of hope: But in the current circumstances, hope itself may be the enemy of reality. The penetrating pandemic injects all confident predictions with uncertainty. Perhaps our great medical scientists do have enough rope to strangle the viral octopus, but the civic virus of disarray has caught our political scientists off-balance, historians grasping for analogies that truly enlighten, and quality news media struggling to articulate without cliché.
This is a huge opportunity for Beijing. Yes, on the downside it appeals greatly to those who hanker after the usual dreary global geopolitics — that miserable clawing world, nasty and brutish; yes, a chance to get an edge up on the U.S. But is there some way to inch away from the old and aim for something new? To give peace a chance?
The opportunity would require the Xi government to summon whatever hidden reserves of largesse that percolate through the corridors of power within the People’s Republic of China and its Communist Party; and invest that largesse in a relationship more productive, level-headed and indeed calm. It should continue to make it known that a fresh start with the incoming Biden Presidency is the top priority of Chinese foreign policy. It should shelve every instinct to bugger Washington or allies and friends, including Taiwan, while proposing – by example, not just via global press releases – new ways of relating.
It might also tone down the unnecessary ferocity of the rhetoric of whoever is the rough PRC equivalent of U.S. political blowhards such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz. It is time to get serious about peace. One obvious move –beyond the symbolism- would be for China to take the lead at the United Nations to reform the sputtering Security Council. It may not be too late. As fractured and flawed as it is, the UN is the one place where 193 states meet for the purpose of consciously avoiding war. A brilliant reform campaign led by Beijing would be striking in its spirit of global citizenship. Obviously, this would require expanding the number of the council’s permanent members – perhaps even doubling the number.
At the moment, the pandemic-cursed U.S. is in negative momentum. Politically, the incoming Biden government will soon find itself running as fast as it can simply to stay in place. Like China, America has scars and not enough cans of spray-paint with which to gloss them over. If Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden were to switch jobs (a challenge for the imagination indeed), who would have gotten the better deal? A superpower ride is never easy-going: Obstacles and enemies arise from within as well as without.
The ideological dissonance between China and the U.S. (the apples to oranges thing) needs to be understood more for domestic effect than international intent. A ‘world view’ can work to motivate people to believe and to act as if one, even though it’s based on a kind of magical thinking, whether from political stage left or stage right. The governance trick is to lower the volume on doctrinal conformity, because rigidity in political ideology will lead to decline rather than renewal. Political ideology taken too seriously by even the well-motivated can turn out to eat away at all that has been achieved. If you need to glue yourself to something that’s impossible to achieve in order to remain plausible, at what point are you kidding yourself and others?
Loyola University Clinical Professor Tom Plate is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute and the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series, including ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-Moon” and the “Tom Plate on Asia” book series. The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, Plate’s home newspaper.