TOM PLATE WRITES — Given the relentless Western media verdict about “China’s increasing assertiveness,” it might seem surprising that across Asia doubts about America’s own continental conduct proceed apace. Yet this goes little reported back in the U.S. Nonetheless, within some government and policy circles in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore – to mention just a few of which I am specifically aware – the Cambridge-New York-Washington crowd is seen to have lost its cool. The brain trust of the West is trending neurotic. The psychic disturbance is China. By pushing the expansion of China’s capabilities and aims into the stereotype of Cold War II, the U.S. pumps up a mere mountain into a monster mountain range. It can’t see China straight anymore. Many U.S. think tanks are lost in China revisited thought, spurred into conceptual over-drive, treading on the dark edge of the woods, confusing the trees for the forest.

Yet, viewed calmly, the new world order is not so terribly complicated. Simply put, China is back, so just deal with it. Unless it implodes upon itself – serious structural tension between economic innovation and political calcification – it’s not going away. Lacking an adequate sense of history, the West cannot seem to develop sensible coping mechanisms. Jumpy, it reaches for its gun – the old hand-jerk cowboy response: Shoot the bad guy.

In his continually insightful new book ‘Australian Bush to Tiananmen Square’, the veteran China watcher Ross Terrill, an associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, quotes Mao Zedong as once explaining to a Thai prime minister how to deal with Communists: “First, don’t make propaganda war against them; they’re thick-skinned and they won’t feel anything. Second, don’t kill some off — because they think to be killed in action is heroic. Third, don’t send troops against them in the jungle, because they’ll run away and you can’t keep your troops in the jungle forever…. Fourth, see that your own people are fed, clothed and happy; then the Communists can’t do anything.”  This was said in 1975, according to Terrill. Chairman Mao (then quite ill) may have been over-simplifying, but the founder of the PRC was not joking.

An especially able former Singapore ambassador to the U.S. — Chan Heng Chee — often challenged glum pessimism about America, pointing out that it has so often been a force for good in Asia. But that asset in the current relentless demonization of China is being downsized. Many in the intelligentsia in Southeast Asia view Washington’s propaganda strategy as a losing game. Is “genocide” really the correct categorization of the policy and practice of the Xi Jinping government in Xinjiang? Without one’s patriotism being challenged, is it possible for an American to suggest genocide is not the best description even as it is far from the most humanitarian governing policy? Is practically every China claim in the South China Sea wholly invalid? Is it invariably the case that China is always in the wrong?  This morbid American mentality about China, an historic country and civilization which in all fairness deserves at least as much respect as watchfulness, has the potential to become a colossal strategic blunder.

Beijing can do almost nothing right, especially in Hong Kong. If you don’t believe me, just ask the British. After a century and a half of making decisions from afar (colonial-empire practice), London, as the 1997 handover to Beijing approached, contracted a suspicious case of democracy fever and absolutely insisted the mainland government – politically Communist without the slightest apology — get with the democracy program. Such cynicism: and now American politicians, from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, cannot say enough bad things about PRC management from the mainland: Precisely because on the American mainland so much unfinished business of government remains, you would think serious American leaders would go about focusing undivided attention to mending it.

The death of almost any newspaper pierces the heart. Over my own long career, I worked happily as a journo for four American dailies of which two are no longer with us. I remain wholly unconvinced that we’re better off without them.  But capitalism can be a cruel taskmaster, and under this soulless system – without government or foundation support – a newspaper that cannot successfully compete in the market will not prove long for this world. In the U.S. between 2008 and 2019, half the country’s newspaper jobs were lost either to market ‘discipline,’ as we capitalists call it, or to automation and the Internet. Since 2004 U.S. newspaper closures number about 1,800. Now add one more corpse to the death toll – this time from Hong Kong. The primary cause of anti-Beijing Apple’s death was not the cruel law of the market, but the territory’s new law governing national security. Alleged violations led to the arrests of a few executives and journalists. Evidence will now have to be produced in court of seditious actions. From the West the howls have been utterly deafening. Somehow, I cannot recall comparable wails of loss accompanying American newspaper deaths. And in England, by the way, The Sun, a conservative Rupert Murdoch newspaper once with an enormous circulation, is said to be heading for a wall. Will U.S. liberals care?

There is nothing in the universe quite like a newspaper, and in an ideal world it would be against any law – of the market or of national security – to see them go to the grave. In truth, American politicians, now decrying the Hong Kong drama, often hate a crusading newspaper as much as any foreign official, though they won’t admit it publicly. So the tears from Washington and New York are those of robotic crocodiles, ready to pounce on anything that they believe makes Beijing look bad.  It is possible that the America establishment with such smug ideology and calculating heart could ‘lose’ Asia well as China.

Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate has worked at Time and New York magazines, as well as Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention the late Los Angeles Herald and New York Newsday.

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