That’s goodby in Chinese: zàijiàn.
My introductory two weeks to Nanjing and Beijing, the country’s southern and northern capitals (with a side trip to Haikou on the South China Sea), ended yesterday. I barely scratched the surface, but maybe a few initial impressions are in order.
I was expecting a still Third World country. China hands tell me I would still find that in the countryside, where incomes are far lower. But the city centers are definitely on a par with major urban centers in Europe and Asia, even without a visit to Shanghai. The physical infrastructure is particularly impressive: roads, railways, subways, and airports exceed American standards while handling extraordinary numbers of travelers.
Facilities are often crowded, but people are orderly. Traffic is intense but well behaved by my Roman standards. Most people queue calmly. Jostling happens in close quarters, but it is gentle compared to New York City or Tokyo. Crime is rare. English language capability on the streets is too. Public toilets are not only widely available but remarkably well maintained, even if not always so modern. The streets in city centers are cleaned day and night, including on weekends. I literally stumbled on one street cleaner sprawled on the sidewalk to polish the bracket that held a litter basket.
That however betrays one of China’s vulnerabilities: it makes low-paying work for large numbers of relatively unproductive people. It is not a paladin of productivity. Stores are jammed with unoccupied salespeople. The internet is slow and unreliable. I encountered two French entrepreneurs (after all, it is a French word) making a living, with difficulty due to bureaucratic obstacles, speeding up cyber communications.
Construction has played a key role in China’s economy in recent years. Tens of thousands of new, middle class, apartments populate every Beijing neighborhood I saw while crisscrossing the city many times to get to meetings. But in Haikou (a provincial capital in the south) I saw just a lot of mostly completed high rises empty. Someone is not getting paid for those. Bad debts are not a good foundation for future prosperity.
The big looming problems lie in slowing growth and the prospect of demographic implosion. The experts I’m reading think it will be difficult for China to escape the Japan syndrome, which has made Japan stagnate for two decades.
That would have serious implications for stability in China, where competitive politics have been limited to the local level and to the interior of the Communist party. Most people, including those working inside China’s government-sponsored, well-endowed, and well-informed think-tanks, seem to think that is fine. Even in Beijing’s wonderful 798 art district, politics were notable for their absence.
That was not however true at the National Museum, which I visited Sunday after a quick stroll past Mao, who is lit up like a Halloween pumpkin in his Tienanmen square “Maosoleum.” The museum has interesting and well-labeled sections on coins, jade, Song dynasty bas reliefs and other things, but two main permanent expositions: one on Ancient China and one on “Rejuvenation.”
The politics of Ancient China are clear and explicit but do nothing to detract from the magnificent objects on display, some of which date to 5000 BC. The message is cultural pride, economic progress, and social multiethnicity. China’s frequent wars are mentioned only as they are overcome. The dynasties are treated as essential divisions of the time line, with little reference to their particularities except to note their multiethnic dimensions. A peasant revolt around 200 BC is one of the few other political glosses, included to presage the Communist rebellion.
Rejuvenation couldn’t be more different. Here the theme is recovery from the century of humiliation, which began with the Opium War and imperialist invasion in 1840. Nothing subtle follows. It is all courageous Chinese standing up to foreigners, complete with patriotic songs and dioramas. The Nationalist/Communist civil war goes by fast, blamed on Chiang Kai-shek’s attachment to dictatorship. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, arguably the darkest periods of Chinese Communism, go unmentioned, as I am told they do also in Chinese schools. The political message thunders: you owe pride and progress to the Communist party, nothing else.
I walked out of this loyalist but obscurantist display into a street replete with the greatest concentration of Western brand names I’ve ever seen: Max Mara, Prada, Burberry, Ferrari, Rolex, Zegna… If contradictions are what drive history, China is in for a lot more history. But the Rejuvenation exhibit was far less populated than the one on Ancient China. Maybe the people are voting with their feet.
The Trump Administration has had a busy few days committing what look to me like “own” goals, that is goals scored against the interests of the United States and its citizens. Let me list them:
- Renunciation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP): this will please no country more than China, which correctly saw TPP as an effort to ensure American influence in Asia and limit Beijing’s sway with its neighbors. If you believe that Beijing aims at regional political and economic as well as military hegemony, the path is far more open today than it was last week.
- An executive order instructing government agencies to act to the maximum extent permitted by law to undo the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare: before issuing this order, the Republicans had some chance of convincing people that Obamacare was collapsing under its own weight, but now the administration has taken on responsibility for destabilizing the system Obama established. A replacement is nowhere in sight, so 20 million people will likely have Trump to blame for getting nervous about losing their health insurance (and maybe eventually losing it).
- The pledge to prevent China from “taking over” international territories in the South China Sea: It is difficult to imagine how this would be implemented in practice if not by war, but just as important is that several other countries friendly to the US have also built islands in the South China Sea, well before China embarked on that enterprise. Even to pretend to be consistent, we would need to block take overs by at least Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, which wouldn’t get us far in enlisting their help against the Chinese.
- A rambling and partly incoherent speech at the CIA that disrespected the intelligence community with which he was trying to repair relations: If I hadn’t been told he was a teetotaler, I’d have thought him tipsy. He brought a claque to applaud and managed to say little (some would say nothing) to suggest that he appreciated or understood the sacrifices our intelligence operatives and analysts have to make.
- Continued insistence on obvious lies: These include gross overstatements of the crowds at Friday’s inauguration as well as the number of people who voted illegally. The media is now getting used to calling out these falsehoods bluntly. Republican members of Congress, who are the only hope for upending this administration, should be chagrined. Trumpkins will continue to believe the lies, but there is no evidence that the majority of Americans are Trumpkins.
The nationwide demonstrations Saturday suggested the opposite: the reservoir of people concerned with protecting Obama’s achievements is large and activated. Trump wisely avoided denouncing the demonstrations, which suggests someone in the new administration understands the risks involved in alienating women, the men who support their rights, and perhaps even minorities, who turned out in force. Few previous administrations have excited such opposition so early, none on the scale of last weekend.
More own goals await. With Israel expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is likely to arouse a strong Arab reaction, one that could damage warming Sunni relations with Israel and handicap the administration’s intended hostility towards Iran. Ditto any move to ban Muslims from entering the US. The hostility to Iran, if realized, could hurt prospects for cooperation with Russia, which is allied with Iran in supporting Bashar al Assad in Syria. Trump has promised to “eradicate” violent Islamic extremism. That would require a far greater presence abroad of American troops and civilians than the administration has indicated it wants. Trump’s reference to a possible future opportunity to “take Iraq’s oil,” which is an obvious war crime, will have generated resentment in the Arab world and should generate concern in America about the possibility of massive new intervention abroad.
The Trump administration is rife with contradictions. The more it attempts to realize its radical changes in American foreign and domestic policy, the more apparent those contradictions will become. Admittedly, I don’t wish Trump well. But if the last few days are any indication, the administration will fail on its own way before its opponents have gotten organized to make it do so.
PS: For those in need of comic relief:
PPS: And this, from the Dutch:
- Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia | Tuesday, January 24 | 3:00pm – 4:30pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register Join the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and Asia Program as Georgetown University professor and CSIS Korea Chair Dr. Victor Cha discusses his newest book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Dr. Cha investigates the origin of American alliances in Asia, how the system has changed over time, and what must be done to navigate a complex new era of international security. Looking from the time of Truman and Eisenhower, through the Cold War, and into today, he offers a compelling perspective on U.S.-China relations that pays heed to historical and contemporary contexts alike, and argues that the U.S. must maximize stability and economic progress amid Asia’s increasingly complex political landscape. Joining the conversation are Ambassador Stapleton Roy, Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, and Dr. Andrew Yeo, Associate Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America.
- Understanding ISIS and its Followers | Tuesday, January 24 | 5:30pm – 6:30pm | AEI |
Click HERE to Register In March 2015, The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story titled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The author was Graeme Wood, journalist, correspondent for The Atlantic, and lecturer at Yale University. His reporting and research on ISIS has now become a book, “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State” (Random House, 2016), which examines the origins, plans, and followers of ISIS. In this Bradley Lecture, Mr. Wood will discuss his firsthand encounters with ISIS’s true believers, which will help clear away common misunderstandings about this distinctive variety of Islam. Please join us for Mr. Wood’s first public lecture on the book in Washington, DC. A reception and book signing will follow.
- Libya Beyond ISIS: Prospects for Unity and Stability | Wednesday, January 25 | 10:00am – 11:00am | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Click HERE to Register Despite a successful campaign this summer against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Sirte, a war-weary Libya is still wracked by mounting internal divisions, and its United Nations-backed unity government remains fragile. Jonathan Winer, who has served as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Libya, will reflect on his tenure in a tumultuous period, Libya’s prospects for the future, and what the next U.S. administration and the international community can do to help.
- The Iran Deal Under Trump | Wednesday, January 25 | 11:45am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Click HERE to Register During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised significant changes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, centered around a repeal of the Iran Deal. Will he deliver? How would a repeal impact such a highly unstable region? What would it mean for future nuclear nonproliferation efforts? The Hudson Institute will host a panel of experts to analyze the fate of the Iran Deal and examine potential changes to U.S. policy in the Middle East under the incoming administration. Moderated by Suzanne Kianpour of BBC News, the panel will feature Michael Pregent, Hudson Institute adjunct fellow and former U.S. intelligence officer, Trita Parsi, an award-winning author and president of the National Iranian American Council, and Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.
- Iranian Attitudes About US-Iranian Relations in the Trump Era | Wednesday, January 25 | 3:30pm – 5:00pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register The Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland invite you to a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion toward the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The event will present new public opinion data gathered since the election on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward the recent nuclear agreement, potential changes in US policy toward Iran, the upcoming Iranian president elections, and Iranian economic policy. The conversation includes Ms. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the International Civil Society Action Network, Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
- Islamists movements in the MENA: Adaptation and divergence | Thursday, January 26 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | The Elliott School of International Affairs | Click HERE to RegisterIn the post-Arab uprisings political landscape, Islamist movements across the Middle East and North Africa are adapting in unique ways to face challenges from the evolution of Salafi-jihadist movements to local insurgencies and repression. Some – like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood under President Sissi – have faced severe domestic and regional repression disrupting their organization, ideology and strategy. Others have found new opportunities, whether in formal politics or as members of military coalitions. These structural changes have produced an intriguingly diverse array of responses at the ideological, strategic and organization level.This panel, including Khalil al-Anani, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Monica Marks, University of Oxford, Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College CUNY, and Eva Wegner, University College Dublin, will seek to address timely questions such as: what explains the variation in the ways in which Islamists have adapted to these new challenges and opportunities? To what extent have Islamist parties, movements, members or intellectuals engaged in significant strategic adaptation, ideological rethinking, or internal reorganization? What are the appropriate historical or cross-national comparisons to make sense of the current political moment?
Donald Trump’s first 36 hours as president:
1. He gave a dark inauguration address repeating the dystopian tone of his campaign, despite well-established facts on the economy and crime disproving his allegations.
2. He and his spokesman lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, with the latter threatening to hold the press accountable for what he claimed was their false (but thoroughly verified) reporting.
3, Trump appeared at the CIA with a claque to ensure applause while he falsely claimed not to have criticized the intelligence community, seemed not to understand the distinction between it and the military, and rambled on about the size of the inauguration crowd and taking Iraqi’s oil, whatever that means. If he weren’t a teetotaler, I’d have thought him drunk.
4. Well over a million people attended peaceful rallies countrywide against him, in particular his attitude towards women. Trump’s surrogates were busy claiming the demonstrations were disorderly. No one was arrested at the big one in DC.
Can the country take another 1460* days of this?
I doubt it. Something has to give. It will either be American democracy, which depends on established rules of the game that Trump violates often. Or it will be his presidency, which is built on shaky foundations: he lost the popular vote by a substantial margin, he benefited from Russia’s cyber intervention, and he enjoyed a boost–intended or not–from an FBI director who breached his own organization’s rules to publicize an investigation (that then came to nothing).
American democracy is also looking shaky. Trump is lambasting the press and pledging to keep it in line. Fantastic quantities of money are pouring into elections at every level. Trump is defying ethics laws, regulations, contractual provisions, and expectations. He refuses to make an even modest effort to avoid conflicts of interest. At least two of his cabinet nominees are already tarred with scandal for nonpayment of taxes and failure to declare assets.
My Republican friends: this mess can only be sorted if you use your majorities in the House and Senate to channel the new administration into propriety and moderation. There is no sign of either yet. Trump is still trash talking the NATO Alliance, encouraging the breakup of the European Union, trying to befriend Putin, and threatening China with trade war and war in the South China Sea. Is that what you want? Have you done everything you can to stop him?
Propriety will be even tougher. I’m willing to predict now that this will be the most scandal-ridden administration in a century. Without more transparency on Trump’s taxes and businesses, suspicion will be rife, journalists will be digging deep, and prosecutors will be having a field day.
These 36 hours should be giving Republicans pause. But the campaign didn’t, so why should they wake up now?
*I originally gave an incorrect number here.
As I’m in China, a few words about how Trump is viewed from here are in order. I don’t speak Chinese, so this appraisal draws on pre-inauguration elite conversations and articles in the English-language government rag
China Daily, hardly a representative sample but possibly a significant one.
While Trump thunders about protection, the Chinese are following their own leader in supporting globalization but at same time avoiding confrontation. They hear Trump loud and clear. I suspect some admire the bluntness and bravado. This they, think, is the way we’ll be able to behave when we are sitting atop the world. Great powers make the rules but also break them. Same rules as Beijing traffic: the bigger vehicle has the right of way.
In the meanwhile, China is studiously avoiding over-reaction. The biggest headline in today’s China Daily is not about the inauguration but rather the appointment of a new Chinese navy commander. He led participation in an American naval exercise in 2014 and brought his ships into San Diego for a five-day port visit.
Trump’s unpredictabilty is, the Chinese think, dangerous, not only to China. They know all too well that trade and investment are two-way streets. Tariffs on Chinese goods will slow US growth, hurt American companies with investments in China, and raise costs to American consumers. Beijing’s own priority is in any event to increase domestic Chinese consumption, not increase exports. They have been supporting their currency, not devaluing as Trump has falsely claimed.
The pre-inauguration coverage focused on interviewing American Trump enthusiasts and professors urging caution and patience, with some hoping for improved cooperation. None of this would get published if it were inconsistent with government views. But the Chinese will be quick to take advantage of any mistakes Trump makes. That’s one of their traffic rules too: stay calm until there is opening, then go for it.
But for now they are staying in lane and making American-style noises about the possibility of win/win outcomes. They don’t want to be the victims of Trump’s first mistake, or even his second. But you can be sure they’ll be ready when the time comes to profit from them. One likely opening will come when he bags the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Another could come in a military confrontation, perhaps in the South China Sea. Watch this space.
I’m in China, which should go along way to explaining my failure to post on things like President Obama’s farewell address and President elect Trump’s press conference. I was going to just embed them under the title “Compare and contrast,” but I haven’t figured out how to embed on my iPhone or Kindle. Anyway it was just too easy to show what we all know: America has traded a high-minded thinker of impeccable propriety for a low-life four flusher.
So I’ll focus instead on my brief experience here: three days in Nanjing and only two in Beijing. Both astound.
I was expecting Third World. The centers of both are far from it. These places look more like Europe or America at their most orderly and cleanly, albeit too often shrouded in a thick layer of smog that has mostly disappeared there. Traffic is intense but fairly calm. Trains and train stations run like clockwork, some at a remarkably smooth 200 miles per hour. Except for the ubiquitous harassment by young women trying to entrap foreigners into buying them a ridiculously expensive coffee, people on the street are friendly and helpful, despite an almost universal dearth of English. GPS is the answer, if you’ve got free data. The Forbidden City, the palace complex of more or less six hundred years of Ming and Qing emperors, and the Nanjing Memorial to the city’s victims of a Japanese massacre in 1937/38, rent electronic guides in English.
Knowledgeable Chinese are frank and plainspoken in discussions of South China Sea (SCS) issues. They generally defend something like what they understand the government’s position to be, as most of their counterparts in Washington would, but not without citing mistakes and suggesting course corrections. Everyone here thinks the land features of SCS (low and high tide elevations, rocks, reefs or islands) belong to China, but at least some appear to think Beijing will eventually be prepared to negotiate practical compromises with the other claimants, as it has done with some of its land borders.
The Chinese understand American positions well, so they will be surprised and appalled that Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State suggested in Senate testimony today that Beijing be blocked from access to the nine facilities they have built on what they claim as sovereign Chinese territory in the SCS and that the US should back the sovereignty claims of others who had built many more facilities before the Chinese started doing so two years ago. Nominee Rex Tillerson apparently doesn’t know that Trump’s good friends on Taiwan make the same SCS claims as Beijing.
Washington until now has avoided taking sides on the sovereignty claims for decades, as the main US interest in the SCS is freedom of navigation. The Chinese are quick to point out that there is no risk from their side to commercial shipping, as 70-80% of that flows through the SCS to and from China itself. The core issue is freedom of navigation for military ships and planes, which the US pretty much wants to be able to go anywhere anytime. They don’t keep to well established sea lanes or air corridors. The Chinese don’t like that because they think US military craft are spying on them, which is surely true at times even if not always.
Of course there are bigger issues involved. China is a rising power. Some see a clash with the existing US regional hegemon as inevitable. People in both Beijing and Washington would like to avoid that, as it has the potential for catastrophe. That’s why our 15 SAIS masters students are here on a study trip: to think about ways of managing the issues peacefully. I hope Trump doesn’t make that impossible before we publish the findings April 15!