Donald Trump faces the Chinese Century

“All politics is local. Greatness isn’t.”

It doesn’t matter how it happened now. It happened. And now Donald Trump, the least qualified man ever to be nominated for or elected to high office in America, an untested and completely unworthy president-elect, elected by ¼ of the eligible electorate in a year when nearly 50% of Americans preferred to stay home and watch it unfold as a reality TV extravaganza, this same Donald Trump will be President of the United States. Why? Because Americans, we are assured, love change. It doesn’t matter what kind of change. Change with bacon and cheese crumbles is best. But any change will do.

This is an essay about change. I live in China where change is the new evangelization. The old China, before 1978, was tied to the Communist revolutionary past and political correctness, Party-style. But since 1978 and especially since 1986, China has embraced a progressive agenda of internationalism, measured involvement in world affairs–from Africa to the rest of Asia and South America, where this week President Xi is visiting, and emerging global leadership in technology and engineering. The world’s second largest economy will become the world’s largest economy while Trump is president, if he survives to serve a second term.

China is heavily invested in space, and has the advantage of sixty years of US and Russian space science to build on, giving it leapfrog advantages over other countries including the EU and India. It is not just re-doing the American space program; it is doing it better. Unlike the US, China regards space as essential to its international scientific prestige. It is looking forward to the day, within twenty years, when the International Space Station is retired and the planned Chinese Space Platform will be the only town in the game. Last month, China launched its first cargo rocket, the Long March-7, and currently has astronauts orbiting the earth for a month in Shenzhou 11 spacecraft launched atop a Long March 2F. The Chinese love space; America, even amidst talk of a Mars mission, don’t really care anymore. The attitude among the Second Amendment crowd who supported Trump is Call me if we get there.

Ass recently as 2012 when I first arrived in China, the NPC was a bit cagey about the levels of pollution in the capital. The United States Embassy, with its own small meteorological lab atop their compound, insisted on taking and publishing daily readings showing the rather horrible quality of the air. But when the correlation between rapid development and the amount of unbreathable and dangerous particulate matter in the air became an undeniable certainty, China took bold and assertive steps towards correction. It now has the most ambitious program to curb emission-based pollution of any country, and its long term plan involves billions of dollars to be invested in making China a clean-air country by 2026. No one in China—no citizen of Beijing or Shanghai or Hangzhou—has any doubt that people cause pollution and pollution is ruining the planet: they see it and smell it and want it fixed. My students in Hangzhou and in Beijing are practical. On high pollutant days—every day in Beijing—they wear face masks the way some of us might carry umbrellas if there are clouds. If Mr Trump would care to spend December in Beijing, he might be persuaded too. But it is unlikely that he will. Instead he will sit beneath a blue canopied sky in Washington DC trying to repeal laws and calling global warming a hoax. He will do this, he says, because he wants to make America Great Again.

China is open for science, and business, and knowledge. It has been opening its door to the West since the premiership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978. That doesn’t mean that it has embraced everything western. Newspapers and media are still state controlled. Certain media sites are still blocked—Facebook and YouTube being the most conspicuous by their absence. Google is difficult to access, and to do so now most people have to install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to get at the quarantined sites. It is inconvenient, some would say reactionary. But this is a place where the stability of the state as an extension of the stability of the family, and stability is of great importance to progress. Some Western ideas seem prima facie tendentious and destabilizing to the Chinese; westernization American style is still approached cautiously, and I personally disagree with the measures taken to limit them because as an American I believe in personal liberty and freedom of conscience (and speech) more than I do in the need for the state to adjudicate what is in its best interest. But my belief can now be talked about openly and argumentatively in classrooms and on television–and often is these days. It is the constructive equivalent of the absurd “abortion” debate in America.

On the other hand, America’s free press is not a good advertisement for its self-evident value. The recent election proved, in the persons of Anderson Cooper and Wolf Bliztzer and Don Lemon and a dozen others, how the nabob press of Mencken’s day is the nabob press of our day: idea-poor, inarticulate, wretched at the analysis of ideas and events, historically and intellectually bankrupt. By comparison, the level of political discussion and coverage of science and the arts on CCTV Chinese and English services is almost unremittingly impressive. A joke going through the expat community during the coverage of the election was, What can you do if you’re too dumb to play American football. Answer: Work as a news analyst for NBC.


Donald Trump did not mean to get elected the way he did. He is not clever enough to have done that. But what he managed to do by wearing the silly hat and interrupting the Nasty Woman at debates was to create a caricature that persuaded other men in silly hats who think women are nasty, and a fair number of women as well, that he stood for change.

Make America Great Again is the most simplistic of simplistic slogans. But the slogan was never challenged except by the facile Clinton riposte, America is already great. The fallacy that none of the nabob media, those information servants of Mencken’s booboisie, and none of the low information voters—on both sides—ever encountered was the fact that what makes America great is not just jobs, is not just keeping things made at home at home, your teenage daughter from taking care of “a situation,” is not preserving the ethnic purity of the work force, or being able to keep your assault weapon next to the umbrellas in the hall closet.

These things may well matter to Americans who pay mortgages and drive cars and have college debt. But we also saw how afraid either candidate was to talk about the things that have to happen to keep America great in comparison to other countries or even in reference to any serious measure of greatness, like influence and recognition of contributions to world culture. From blues to the electric lightbulb, from passenger jets to the moon, this is where America used to be great. None of this greatness had anything to do with a national social agenda, religiously driven righteousness, or its private culture wars.

It is not clear to me why someone didn’t stand up and say, Mr Trump, America’s “greatness” doesn’t depend on any of the things you’ve been talking about. We already have the biggest military in the world, with the biggest budget and the most commitments. The best air force, the most awesome navy and battle-ready infantry. So that’s not worth talking about. No one said that. Instead they talked about getting “tough” with ISIS.

No one said, Mr Trump, America’s universities are the best in the world—in the top-ranked 100 more than half are ours. But if you notice, universities in much smaller countries, and countries that weren’t in that league 20 years ago, are climbing, especially Chinese universities. China loves education. Even the uneducated love education. China loves science. Even people who don’t know much about chemistry or biology or physics—that is, most people–love science. They want it for themselves, their children. Their country. Because they know that science is a measurable, conspicuous way for a country to be great. Where did they learn that? From the United States and Russia, a long time ago.

No one said Mr Trump, American greatness comes from its artists, its playwrights, its musicians, and dancers. Its pop culture—of course—but also from its traditional culture, from hillbilly to spirituals and mountain folk songs. Imagine America in the future without a Bernstein, or a Murray Pariah or Yo Yo Ma, a Kandinsky or Edward Albee or Edith Wharton. It is not hard for someone who doesn’t read, and whose advisers don’t read, to imagine this. (What’s a casino but a fake palace without a library or a chapel, but lots of bathrooms)? But the world of culture and the arts knows that one of the reasons the twentieth century was the American century was because the times favoured artistic expression.

Twenty-first century China loves the arts. They love Chinese traditional arts and music and dance, and they love western music and the performing arts. Liao Yimei, author of “Rhinoceros in Love,” a 1999 play often taken as the starting point of China’s contemporary theater boom, said: “The Chinese government is rich and really wants to promote culture. Things happen very fast in China.” They are adapting and incorporating and synthesizing the two traditions all the time, creating something truly beautiful in opera and ballet that is uniquely Chinese. Since the time of Dai Ailian, who died in 2006, Chinese ballet has been among the most vigorous ballet cultures in the world.

America will run dry as soon as the inevitable bill passes the know-nothing Congress cutting the National Endowment for the Arts and NEH funding while defense spending and research projects on advanced weaponry sail through without debate. We have never been a great country without Anne Sexton and Robert Frost and Robert Joffrey and Peter Martins. Yet for Mr Trump, the arts, the most visible expression of a nation’s soul, have nothing to do with its visible “greatness.”

Why did no one say, Mr Trump, American greatness comes from its intellectuals and scientists, its innovative architects and engineers. It’s laborious to note that until recently (but note the phrase) the lion’s share of Nobel prizes has gone to American physicists and economists, and this year’s literature prize to a beloved folk singer. But that demographic is changing. Our essayists and social critics, from the time of Tom Paine to today, have been gadflies to a lazy republic. But there seem to be no lions any more, except Chomsky—no Susan Sontags or Arthur Schlesingers, no Allan Blooms or John Rawls—certainly no Reinhold Niebuhrs, Will Durants or Hannah Arendts. That pond, which included soul searching commentary on the nature and limitations of American democracy, has dried up, and in its place gag writers and comics give the country what it wants. It wants to laugh. We are out of tears.

China’s intellectuals are often “Party” thinkers, but as Mark Leonard noted in Prospect Magazine as long ago as 2008, despite the global interest in the rise of China, no one is paying much attention to its ideas and who produces them. “China,” Leonard says, “has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to western liberal hegemony.” One thing that became clear after the false start of the 1000 Flowers Campaign in 1957 and especially since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in 1986, China has begun the debate of the role of the intellectual in society. It is not strong enough or thorough enough just yet, but compared to America where the intellectual is a leper, and science is regarded, like the arts, as an extravagance, intellectualism is respected and taken seriously. China cannot yet love its critical intellectuals as they deserve to be loved, but it would like to. America by contrast has no real use for the life of the mind: it is to America what political dissidence is to China, the punishment being irrelevance rather than imprisonment or silencing. In the long run, however, it is the voice of Emerson and Thoreau, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Howard Zinn that changed our perception of America, in ways that will not let smart women and men go back to pre-reflective times.

China knows that a coherent vision of the state is necessary for a sustainable patriotism. It is simply no longer possible for Americans to feel the patriotism they once felt during the early twentieth century; it has been unrevivable—impossible– since Viet Nam, and even discussions of it seem nostalgic and stale. Except for the solitary exception of 9-11, Americans no longer are able to evoke patriotic emotions evoked by a single source or threat. In its place they have put a contrived interest in the security of the “homeland” (mark the phrase). They have learned to fear Syrians, Mexican immigrants, undocumented “aliens.” And they have learned to “foreignize” political correctness, gay marriage, abortion rights, Obamacare, and sensible limits to second amendment “rights” as a composite European bogeyman whose slaying would make America the awesome country—safe, secure, unequivocally self-confident– it once was.

But it was never that country.

The trick has been to persuade America that its greatness lay in things that outsiders do not regard as marks of greatness–domestic issues, some terribly minute– that rise or fall with changes in the national mood. The French do not care what Americans think about abortion. A universal health care program as a national issue in Britain is no longer seriously on the table. Neither is evolution. The Europeans and many other places in the world have never had to contend with idiotic debates about who should possess a gun, answering the question with a resounding Almost no one. Immigration and ethnic cohesion, it is true, is still a topic for many places in the world. But is usually arises only when a segment of a population behaves in a way criminally inconsistent with the behaviour expected of the general population. No one in Germany really expects that massive deportation of admitted immigrants is going to take place, just as no one (of electoral significance) in France is calling for the massive displacement of people of Algerian or North African descent just because a few criminals lurk among them. No one really thinks that doing such things will make Britain or France or Germany great again.

China, too, which is an overwhelmingly one-race country, Chinese of Han descent, has been reactively sensitive to the needs of its minorities. Its indigenous Uighur residents in the far west province of Xinjiang are one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities and there have been periodic flashes of ethnic violence in the last eight years. But more recently, in line with its cautious policy of diversification, a country which has not traditionally encouraged the intrusion of foreigners has seen the settlement of Africans, Asians from Korea, the Philippines and a fair number of Europeans and Americans as foreign experts, consultants, teachers, and businessmen. China’s passport and visa regime ensure that immigration is tightly controlled. It needs to do more in the interest of global responsibilities to share the world’s refugee resettlement problem. But it approaches this topic with some fear and trembling, knowing that the world watches its moves, knowing that simply throwing money at a human tragedy of this scale in not enough. But this is not the salient point. The juicy bit is that China self-consciously strives to overcome its famous, self-protective insularity, while America slips conformably back into the world-be-damned isolation of the nineteenth century.

It is hard to say that Trump’s imbecilic identification of greatness with American domestic prejudices will become a matter of commentary anytime soon. So far, it has gone unnoticed. But it is pretty obvious that deporting refugees, repealing health care protection, or limiting a woman’s control over her own body, and giving free license to polluters will not be seen by anyone outside Alabama as indicators of Greatness. During the campaign the president-elect often complained that America is the laughing stock of the world: he may be right, and China and Russia, its old-time adversaries, will be laughing the loudest as the clown takes the wheel of the crazy car.

About the Author

R. Joseph Hoffmann is Professor of Humanities and Teaching Development at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, PRC.

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