The old cracker barrel wisdom inside the Beltway (if there had been a country store inside the Beltway) used to be “This is a Presidential Election Year, so don’t believe anything you hear.” What we’ve been hearing recently are media spats about U.S-China immoral equivalency that could produce “a new Cold War.” Don’t believe it. Presidential year politics has Trump shaping his re-election around “I’m tough on China; Biden is soft”. The New York Times has rushed to suggest that China-bashing means you are pro-Trump. An NYT op-ed (May 20) by vice presidential candidate hopeful Susan Rice spells it out: “Trump Plays the China Card: Who Believes Him?” So what is really going on with the PRC?
In the longer background context, this Caravan’s assigned topic requires revisiting the question of “What is the Intelligible Field of Study?” Any article on international affairs by necessity provides an unacknowledged answer as it proceeds to focus on a government, a sovereign state, a region, globalization, or world order. Caravan has been structured to be regional, with particular issues then analyzed, generally, country by country.
The coronavirus pandemic throws all of these categories into an undeniably wider, deeper dimension, as this is the first-ever truly universal health crisis, leaving no geographic or political entity unaffected. This is recognized not as an either/or matter but as a both/and dilemma. In doing this we need to address the challenge layer-by-layer from top to bottom, from global to local.
From the level of “world order” we have since the end of the Cold War some twenty-plus years ago been in a transition from “The American Century” to what increasingly has been assumed to be the coming “Chinese Century.” The Middle East can no more ignore the next world order than it could afford to disregard the one that came before. This is not so much a matter of the U.S. versus the PRC as it is within the old concepts of “Zeitgeist” or “Weltanschauung,” the world picture seen as a whole.
What has happened to bring this transition about? The American Century fell into a “Faustian Bargain” of four factors: 1) American consumerism sped into overdrive through the use of new computer methods that could magnify wealth by hypertrophied marketing and sales tactics; 2) the temptation, eagerly yielded to, shifted the manufacture of everything to the lowest wage workers outside the United States; 3) the poised readiness of China under its new Dengist policies quickly provided such minimally-compensated supply of labor – ironically creating the phenomenon of a nominally communist regime happily exploiting its own workers to satisfy American capitalists; 4) globalization then provided the first-ever truly worldwide network of crisscrossing supply chains to speed and facilitate points 1 to 3 above. Now out of China has come – to repeat the phrase – the first-ever truly global pandemic which is demolishing that supply-chain network.
How will the pandemic affect world order? The near-to mid-term effects, which have been building up over the past five to eight years will be something that could be called “The Great China Discreditation.” The PRC has failed to demonstrate that it is competent to run a global great power’s diplomacy and strategy. While most of the American media continues to depict the PRC as majestically invincible – if amoral – the New York Times slipped a bit by running deep in its back pages on May 4, 2020, an article headlined “China’s Missteps and Aggressive Diplomacy Fuel a Global Backlash to its Ambitions.”
For the past quarter-century, books by our big thinkers have been piling up to the ceiling to tell us that this twenty-first century would belong to China. But “China Fatigue” is setting in. Put simply, after the Wuhan bat virus episode, the effrontery of fortifying islets in the South China Sea, the Chinese fishing boat forays to open a pattern of drilling its neighbors’ undersea oil resources, the slumlord tactics of its Belt and Road acquisitions, and the domineering demeanor of its diplomats, it has come to pass that no one any longer can trust the PRC on any issue anytime, anywhere. Jonathan Swift, the satirist, wrote “Order from Confusion Sprung”; now it looks like “Confusion from Order” lies ahead.
China has however “gifted” the world with two “China Models” of lasting utility to dictators wherever they may be, techniques that may endure quite apart from the ups and downs of the PRC’s global reputation. These continue to be played by some autocrats in every region of the world.
The first model is neo-Mercantilism, intensely attractive to rulers on every continent: keep an open economy to accumulate wealth and power while simultaneously imposing a politically closed society. Look how well it has worked, and continues to work, for the Beijing regime. Mao Zhe-tung saw this developing in his later years and denounced it as “Social Fascism” – he didn’t like the open economy part.
The PRC’s other “model” has been even more welcome and adopted by dictators around the world. If the first model can be labeled “neo-mercantilism” that distorts economics for political ends, then the second model might be called “infor-monopolization,” the control of all language to enhance political power. Together, they can make tyranny almost invincible. Both have served the PRC well.
Thucydides’ “manual of statecraft” describes the ruination of democratic Athens when the polis allowed language to deteriorate and then collapse. In our time, the corruption of language has been growing rapidly under the impact of electronic social media which has empowered sociopaths, subverted democratic practices, and weaponized tools of autocracy to surveille and suppress the people. Adding to this we have seen the media blithely violate the distinction between editorials and news. And the American President speaks proudly of his success when he “tells them (the people) something, and they believe it!” (This could be the official motto of the People’s Republic of China.)
The PRC’s strategy in this maelstrom of meaning has been to take control, to institutionalize, language and information, in the service of the Party. Examples of late have been the PRC’s omnidirectional information campaign to exalt its handling of the pandemic, and its decision to gain control over information flows between Chinese companies and overseas securities regulators, as in the Luckin Coffee stock fabrications case.
Whether the leaders of sovereign states will recognize this as the time of a “Great China Discreditation” or, to the contrary, be tempted to adopt “The Chinese Model(s)” will make a major difference in the conduct of world affairs ahead.