How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In this Year of the Monkey, China has been riveted by the U.S. presidential election, and more specifically by Republican contender Donald Trump. Those who usually pontificate on the nature of democracy and about what kind of U.S. president would be better for China are at a loss to explain the Trump phenomenon to the Chinese public.
Two parallel but irreconcilable narratives about U.S. politics have guided Chinese understanding of the United States for decades. The conservatives tell the public that American democracy is a sham in which money and special interests manipulate public opinions and rig the system for their own benefit—the House of Cards version of democracy. The liberals promote it as a system in which the people determine their own fate by electing their leaders, in contrast to one-party rule at home, and as something China must aspire to—the Goddess of Democracy version.
The Chinese perspectives on democracy in general and the country’s own future are very much influenced by the divide over the United States, the standard-bearer of democracy of our time. But the American real estate mogul is forcing the Chinese public to reassess its understanding of the U.S. political system. More consequentially, depending on the eventual outcome of the election and its long-term impact, the Trump phenomenon may change how the Chinese think about democracy.
In the sphere of geopolitics, the experts are even more conflicted. Trump has made China, along with Japan and Mexico, a target of his bellicose language against foreign rivals, which would seem certain to upset Chinese hawks. Yet his expressed admiration for China’s accomplishments and his advocacy for restraint in foreign interference complicate the picture.
For those who disparage American democracy, Trump’s rise gives the impression that, at least on the Republican side, ordinary Americans are close to checkmating the well-financed elites. Trump is himself a rich man. But that is beside the point. He’s running as a protest candidate from outside the system. His policy positions speak to the interests of working-class Americans, and he has so far spent only a fraction of what the other candidates have laid out on campaigning. To a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders’ unexpected strength demonstrates a similar phenomenon on the Democratic side.
This is at odds with what China’s conservatives preach: it appears from China that the American “people” may thus be able to determine their country’s fate after all. One leading conservative paper has had difficulties grappling with the challenge. The Global Times has called Trump “big-mouthed” and “abusive” and editorialized with undisguised schadenfreude that the Trump phenomenon is highlighting the decline of the American political system. Yet, in two other editorials, it explained that labeling the large number of Trump supporters as populists reflected the “loss of rationality” by America’s elites and called Trump a smart and adaptive businessman and wished him well.
The official Xinhua News Agency, which reliably paints American democracy as a game for the rich, reported that this time things look different. Trump’s wealth, Xinhua said, allows him to buck the system that has been controlled by Wall Street and corporate masters. The conservatives may regain their footing if the Republican Party establishment manages to deny Trump the nomination despite the votes. But at the moment they seem conflicted.
China’s liberals are in a bind too. Anger and despair reign. They despise Trump. But they can’t quite bring themselves to say that the moneyed elites are right and the people are wrong. Such an admission would not help them make their case for Western-style democracy in China. After all, if the people can be so wrong, how can you give them the vote?
One popular liberal commentator described Trump supporters as forgotten Americans without college degrees and compared them to China’s own Maoists. Pundits on Phoenix Television, an outlet on which many liberal pundits appear, either belittle him— for example, calling him te da pao, “Trump the big mouth”—or repeating common charges against him, such as that he is an ill-informed liar. Another liberal commentator called Trump a “naked resemblance of fascism.”
The liberals are repulsed by Trump’s illiberal outlook. Yet his big electoral wins make them rather tongue-tied, as they have been promoting elections as the only basis for political legitimacy. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon is forcing China to look beyond its two stereotypes of American democracy long served up by the experts. A more complex and realistic picture is emerging.
Confusion and despair aside, most Chinese instinctively understand one central theme of the Trump phenomenon: class struggle. Just about every analysis in China points out the fact that Trump is getting most of his support from the working class. Some pundits are adopting American language to call Trump’s rise the revenge of the 99 percent. The official newspaper China Youth Daily ran statistics showing the shrinkage of the American middle class to explain the Trump phenomenon.
This is not surprising given China’s Marxist heritage. Since the West won the Cold War, the Chinese have largely bought the idea that Western nations have successfully resolved class struggles through their democratic politics. As the Chinese suffered tremendously from extreme class struggles in their recent history, Western democracy seemed to have reached an enviable position by erasing class lines. But the Trump campaign is showing the world that this may be an illusion. America’s working class is angry.
The Chinese public might be surprised to know that many leading American thinkers have been making exactly this assessment. As David Frum wrote in The Atlantic, just before Trump started bringing in delegates at the ballot box, the current electoral mess is the culmination of decades of elite neglect, and even betrayal, of the interests of middle- and working-class Americans. Globalization, mostly championed by the elites, has benefited the wealthy as ordinary Americans have seen their income stagnate and decline. Multiculturalism, also promoted by the elites, has helped the rich and corporations; immigration has brought lower labor costs and greater abundance of talent while working Americans lost job opportunities and saw their community cohesion threatened by outsiders. One might add that similar sentiments seem to resonate among the Sanders supporters.
As Michael Lind, cofounder of The New America Foundation, wrote in a 2014 essay, “The Coming Realignment,” the two political parties in America have long consisted of incoherent coalitions. On the Republican side, capitalist elites coopted many working-class Americans by preaching about social values and identity. The Democrats, on the other hand, also had their own economic elites, who maintained an alliance with ordinary Americans who held liberal social views. In other words, both parties were dominated by the same Wall Street and corporate elites who promoted similar substantive policies that disregarded the economic interests of their own grassroots constituents. In short, the two political parties had absorbed, or repressed, class conflicts within the party structures as a way to remain viable dominant forces at the national level.
Lind predicted that the structure was not sustainable. As social values receded as a main political fault line in American politics, working Americans would unite and fight for their economic interests. This realignment would cut across party lines. Lind was unsure which one of the two parties would become the political base for the newly self-aware working class. In this election, they are represented by Trump and Sanders both. It now seems that, even if Trump eventually loses the election, the trend he set in motion is transforming the Republican Party into the political base of working Americans and is partially dismembering the Democratic Party at the same time. Populism may realign American politics for generations to come.
In this scenario, the Republican Party would become the vanguard of working Americans who want to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare, limit immigration and trade to preserve jobs, and constrain foreign adventures that seem to primarily benefit globalizing elites. The Democratic Party, then, would be the home for urban elites who support, and benefit from, free market economics, free trade, immigration, and interventionist foreign policies.
If this election paves the way for the United States to become a society polarized by class struggle, it would be a teachable moment for the Chinese about the nature of democracy.
The Chinese public would learn that democracy is not a panacea for resolving class struggle. They would also discover that, although moneyed interests have a significant advantage in a Western democracy, once in a while the people are able to take control against the wishes of the elites and influence their country’s direction. And, lastly, democracy, practiced in even the most developed country in the world, is just as capable of producing populist and illiberal outcomes as liberal ones.
Trump’s impact on Chinese perspectives of U.S. politics goes beyond democracy. The Chinese views of, and preferences for, hawks and doves in American foreign policy may be changed qualitatively. Traditionally, Chinese opinion leaders have preferred moderate internationalists from both parties, such as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who seemed willing to accommodate a rising China into the existing world order. They have viewed with trepidation Republican neocons and Democratic liberal interventionists, such as some in the George W. Bush administration and Hilary Clinton, who want to aggressively contain China, interfere in its domestic affairs, or both. Even Obama falls into the category. Although the rest of the world may see him as highly restrained in using U.S. power abroad, he is viewed by many Chinese as hostile, due to his pivot to Asia and the resulting tension between the two countries.
Trump is causing a realignment in China. He blames the country for the United States’ woes and, as president, would curtail trade that is a major source of China’s economic growth. His aggressive rhetoric against China on the campaign trail has been well publicized here. Dai Xu, a People’s Liberation Army officer and a nationalistic firebrand on defense issues, called Trump an American Hitler and condemned his victory remarks after the New Hampshire primary as “an imperialist’s war-mongering speech.”
However, a President Trump would most likely refrain from aggressively challenging China in both geopolitics and domestic issues such as human rights. On several occasions, Trump has actually professed admiration for China’s achievements. Both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Obama’s pivot, which brought China so much angst, would probably be finished. He has even made statements to the effect that, under him, the United States would curtail its defense commitments to Japan and South Korea unless the latter paid up.
The Chinese have always thought it would be better for both countries if the United States turned to fixing its own seemingly intractable domestic problems. Jin Canrong, an academic and another leading hawk in the Chinese foreign policy establishment, called Trump a pragmatist and said that the Chinese always “preferred to deal with pragmatists.” No one doubts that there would be fierce rivalry between China and the United States with Trump at the helm. But China probably does not fear an American competitor. Competition is a good thing. What China has always resisted and resented is an America that seeks to remake the rest of the world in its own image. And that is not something Trump seems ready to do.
In this spring of American discontent, the Chinese narratives on democracy and perspectives on geopolitics are all being shattered. Win or lose, on the other side of the Pacific, the Donald is leaving confusion, conflict, and discovery in his wake.