Making China Great Again

The last times major economic powers with imperial ambitions chose to make themselves great the outcomes were not pretty. The Trump U.S. will learn that more than one can define greatness in their own image.
Here's the November, 2017 report from our correspondent in Shanghai  
It is probably a shame to begin a blog about the People's Republic of China – and its booming economic and cultural megalopolis Shanghai – with a piece on Trump. The objective of this series will primarily be to explore the practical meaning of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Is it a meaningful name for a particular kind of political economy? How is life evolving in the urban centres of the earth's most populous country? What are the priorities of Chinese municipalities? What exactly is the State up to, economically speaking? What are China's green initiatives? How about the sharing economy? And how loud are workers' voices in a land where, theoretically at least, the ruling party still governs in their name and interest? Or, what matters most, soccer or basketball? And then there's education...

            Yet Trump was just here. He's so hard to avoid.

            And it is instructive to consider the manner in which the Chinese leadership greeted him in these days of unremitting, blistering attacks upon the real estate mogul/reality showman/president. For Trump's reception in Beijing, plus all the official and semi-official writing that attended it, tells us something about how the cupola of the Communist Party sees China's place in the world.

            A review of the press (and I mean the English-language versions; my Mandarin is in the beginner stages and may, in a reading sense, never develop much further) would suggest that China is entirely unaware that the U.S. chief is a laughing stock, derided and despised by so many at home and abroad.  Chinese media can be quite sharp in their criticism of American postures on this or that matter, including new missile systems in South Korea, Pyongyang's behaviour and Washington's line on, say, Iran. But there are no barbs at Trump the fool, the narcissistic personality, the buffoon. A recent piece I read on heightened tensions between the USA and North Korea clearly blamed Washington for this state of affairs. But he who crafted – or at least uttered – the war-mongering words Beijing finds so unhelpful to a resolution of difficulties on the Korean peninsula wasn't even mentioned. Donald the mouth gets a pass in China.

            Of course, politically aware and not-so-politically minded Chinese know a fair bit about the real  human being/politician. Admittedly I have not conducted or read a poll. But I teach at a public secondary school in Shanghai; some of my Chinese colleagues roll their eyes at his mention. My older students laugh at Trump tales. But who doesn't? The regime, Washington's 'superpower' rival, is utterly straight-faced about him and if General Secretary Xi smiles, it is in welcome. People's Daily referred to the State visit as “unprecedented with great significance.” What, beyond a reminder of the ordinary customs of diplomatic politesse, does this tell us?

            Part of that answer can be drawn from another essay that recently appeared in the press, in this case Global Times. It was a not-too-long commemorative analysis of the 1917 Russian Revolution and encapsulated, in my view, the Chinese Party leadership's most optimistic sense of its own role in history. Xi and associates regard themselves as the true inheritors of Bolshevik power.  As distinct from the Soviet leadership, whose mandate crumbled with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Chinese leadership not only knows where it comes from but where it is going, in the words of the article's author. It has a plan for the system founded in 1917. The Russians went doddery and stumbled off the path.

            That path, or plan, is being laid out in a world considerably different, however, from the world of Kennedy, Khrushchev, Reagan, Brezhnev and other Cold Warriors. Our globe is an interdependent one, with massive economic investment running both ways, shared ecological challenges and crises, and of course a common interest in the avoidance of nuclear war. In this sense, I think, the Chinese are squarely in the tradition of Gorbachev. Although contemptuous of his abandonment of political power, which consigned the Soviet Communists to near irrelevance, they have taken much of MG's teaching on peace and shared values seriously. 'Contradictions' and disputes between the two systems were given too much weight during the Cold War, CCP theorists say. We need each other. We hold your debt. We need your investment to help China develop further. It isn't primarily a matter of one side against another; we agree it is best if North Korea does not have nuclear weapons and will collaborate, in a reasonable fashion, toward that end. In sum, China and the world are better off if the relationship between Beijing and Washington is reasonably harmonious.

            So why mock Trump? Why annoy him? Don't take the bait and snarl when the Hairman blames China for American economic problems or says Xi could solve the Korean nuclear issue over a weekend,  if only he wanted to. Whatever else he is, Donald sits in the Oval Office. That's all that concerns the Chinese. We must work with him and even excuse tweets and rude speeches. After all, that illness of not measuring one's words before they are uttered is not a disease we suffer from. We have a plan.

            That plan includes recognizing real rivalries, but not accentuating them. China's armed forces will continue to be modernized. Xi will tell his officers to ensure soldiers are prepared for combat. Beijing will be tough on themes like Taiwanese and Tibetan independence. China will stay tough on regional security issues. When Western capitals tell China to adopt liberal democracy with a multiparty system, Xi will politely tell them to go to hell... and might do worse to Chinese who make that case in a persistent fashion. But generally, interdependence determines foreign policy. So China will work with Mr. Trump.

            But... The party leadership believes it has an alternative to advance, one that grows from the soil of 1917. Against the American model it presents one in which the State unreservedly and without apology drives the economy through massive investment and public enterprise. A model which rejects budgetary austerity as a policy panacea, as it does “nationalist,” protectionist strategies. One which, its designers maintain, promises political stability and gradually deepening “socialist democracy” without the perceived chaos of the Western party system. It includes a promise of extensive investment in, and infrastructural links to, other developing countries on a “win-win” basis (See One Belt One Road). To poverty-choked Africa, for example, China says, We won't preach. We'll just build railways and plants. And both sides will come out ahead. And you can copy our system if you want. Here it has lifted over half a billion souls out of destitution.

            A kind of global struggle persists. But today the Chinese prefer one played mainly with 'soft power'. So Donald, and whomever enters the White House after the Trumps stumble out, is welcome in Beijing. The systems and their respective populations need each other. And one day, think some, all will figure out that “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which isn't really an expression of nationalism after all, is best for the species as a whole.

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