It is impossible to visit China these days and not compare and contrast the drama playing out in Beijing politics with the drama playing out in Washington politics. While the differences are many, I am sorry to report that some of the parallels are getting too close for comfort.
Let’s start with the fact that the anti-corruption crackdown by President Xi Jinping has created a climate of fear in China these days – whether about interacting with foreigners or saying the wrong thing or behaving too extravagantly so as to attract the state “anti-corruption” detectives.
But because “corruption” has not been clearly defined – and can be used to get rid of anyone for any reason – people don’t know where the line is, so they’re extra cautious. That’s why during a week in Beijing the most frequent expression I heard was, “You’re not quoting me on this, right?”
But if the Chinese are afraid to talk to one another, in America we’ve forgotten how to talk to one another.
In Washington these days it is not uncommon for people to be invited to a dinner or a public gathering and think to themselves: “I hope none of them will be there.” And the them people are talking about is not someone of a different faith or race – which would be awful enough – but it’s someone just from a different political party.
In other words, in both Beijing and Washington, self-censorship, and biting one’s tongue, is more rife than ever – but for different reasons. In Beijing it’s so you won’t get arrested. In Washington it’s so you won’t get into a fight. In both cases, though, the net results are fewer people talking truth across ideological lines.
At the same time, in China today, if you’re a Communist Party official or senior bureaucrat, you have to toe the ruling party’s line or you could be quickly purged or imprisoned. In America today, if you’re a Republican Party congressman or senator, you, too, have to toe the ruling party’s line or you could be quickly purged or primaried – or get a tweet in the back from the president.
But there is one difference: In China’s ruling Communist Party, it’s never safe to criticize the president. In America’s ruling Republican Party, you can criticize the president, or vote your conscience, if you’re dying, retiring or whispering.
Or, as a dying Sen. John McCain observed in his new book: “This is my last term. … I’m freer than colleagues who will face the voters again. I can speak my mind without fearing the consequences much. And I can vote my conscience without worry.”
The Chinese government will not hesitate to put out propaganda to support the government or defend China’s interests, whether the facts are true or not. Ditto Donald Trump and his White House. Last week The Washington Post reported: “In the 466 days since he took the oath of office, President Trump has made 3,001 false or misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. That’s an average of nearly 6.5 claims a day.”
I suspect President Xi has a far higher truth batting average in his public statements than Trump.
The fawning and lack of skepticism with which China Central Television covers Xi, though, is indistinguishable from the fawning and lack of skepticism by “Fox & Friends” and Sean Hannity when discussing Trump.
That probably partially explains why more and more Chinese do not think that we are as “exceptional” a nation as we think we are – and they are now ready to say so: loudly. I was struck by how many officials and experts at a Tsinghua University seminar I attended were so willing to baldly state that their top-down, one-party system of governance and state-directed capitalism was superior to our multiparty, democratic, free-market system.
And the two big pieces of evidence they always cited was that they never went through the kind of 2008 economic meltdown that we did, and their system never put up a leader as undisciplined, dishonest and unstable as Donald Trump (at least not since Mao).
On this I often pushed back on my Chinese interlocutors to be humbler and warier of what the future may hold. Their one-party, one-man decision-making system can make big decisions fast. But it can also make big wrong decisions fast. For instance, Bloomberg News reported in February: “In 2008, China’s total debt was about 141 percent of its gross domestic product. By mid-2017 that number had risen to 256 percent. Countries that take on such a large amount of debt in such a short period typically face a hard landing.”
But Xi and the Chinese Communist Party at least stimulated their economy in order to avoid a real economic crisis – for themselves and the world. Trump and his Republican Party just added $1.5 trillion to America’s debt to pay for tax cuts for businesses and individuals at a time when our economy was already on the rise. Trump did so knowing that he would be here to take credit for any boom – and be long gone when we have to do the belt-tightening necessary so that interest on the debt doesn’t devour all nondefense spending and lead to a bust.
One contrast, Chinese are ready to sacrifice to make China great again. Trump wants to make America great again without asking us to do anything hard – just cut taxes and regulations for rich people and corporations and keep pumping fossil fuels, and not invest in public goods like education and infrastructure, which have been the real engines of China’s resurgence.
Chinese foreign policy has always been transactional, saying to neighbors, “Give us access to your markets and we will build you infrastructure that we can both use – then we will be allies.” U.S. foreign policy, while it has always had its cynical, transactional side, particularly in the Cold War, has tended more toward, “Share our values and then we can be allies.”
But Trump clearly wants us to act more like China: “Don’t show me your values. Show me your money and your arms purchases. Don’t think of me as your ally. Think of me as your landlord. Pay for our protection and we can be friends.”
Fortunately, for now, one big difference remains: While Xi has cowed his news media, Trump, despite all his efforts to discredit our free press, has actually ended up invigorating it. Fox aside, it’s feistier than ever. And while institutions and the rule of law in China have always been a weak restraint on its leaders, institutions built over 250 years in America have continued to restrain Trump – for now.
But they will have to hold for at least another 2 1 / 2years, and that will not be easy with a president like Trump, who was surely not 100 percent joking when he said in March of President Xi: “President for life. … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”