China uses Trump to plot its own rise

There has been a huge wave of media attention for Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House about the Trump administration’s first year in office. One can see why by reading a long excerpt here [Update: Another long extract was released today.]. It seems to consist of the kind of insider gossip that people love, with various people dishing dirt on their rivals. But as far as I can tell, it adds nothing new to what we already knew, that Donald Trump is, as Alfie Kohn accurately described him, a narcissistic, boasting, lying, preening, swaggering, thin-skinned, petulant, desperately competitive, vindictive person with the “attention span of a toddler” who is lacking in “shame, humility, empathy, or capacity for reflection and self-scrutiny” and also “lacking not only in knowledge but in curiosity”. What the book does seem to add is that Trump’s mental faculties, such as they are, are deteriorating even from their previously low levels.

But for those looking for a more substantive read, I recommend a long article in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos who looks at the rise of China that is being facilitated by Trump. Osnos says that the blockbuster success of a new Chinese film called Wolf Warrior 2 is a metaphor for how the Chinese, who used to see themselves as the victims of the imperial actions of others, now see themselves as the drivers of history.

When the Chinese action movie “Wolf Warrior II” arrived in theatres, in July, it looked like a standard shoot-’em-up, with a lonesome hero and frequent explosions. Within two weeks, however, “Wolf Warrior II” had become the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time. Some crowds gave it standing ovations; others sang the national anthem. In October, China selected it as its official entry in the foreign-language category of the Academy Awards.

The hero, Leng Feng, played by the action star Wu Jing (who also directed the film), is a veteran of the “wolf warriors,” special forces of the People’s Liberation Army. In retirement, he works as a guard in a fictional African country, on the frontier of China’s ventures abroad. A rebel army, backed by Western mercenaries, attempts to seize power, and the country is engulfed in civil war. Leng shepherds civilians to the gates of the Chinese Embassy, where the Ambassador wades into the battle and declares, “Stand down! We are Chinese! China and Africa are friends.” The rebels hold their fire, and survivors are spirited to safety aboard a Chinese battleship.

Leng rescues an American doctor, who tells him that the Marines will come to their aid. “But where are they now?” he asks her. She calls the American consulate and gets a recorded message: “Unfortunately, we are closed.” In the final battle, a villain, played by the American actor Frank Grillo, tells Leng, “People like you will always be inferior to people like me. Get used to it.” Leng beats the villain to death and replies, “That was fucking history.” The film closes with the image of a Chinese passport and the words “Don’t give up if you run into danger abroad. Please remember, a strong motherland will always have your back!”

Osnos says that the Chinese leadership, after initially being alarmed by the election of Trump who had lashed out against them on the campaign trail, quickly realized that they could manage him, a view that was cemented by the visit of the Chinese president.

During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, Chinese officials noticed that, on some of China’s most sensitive issues, Trump did not know enough to push back. “Trump is taking what Xi Jinping says at face value—on Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea,” Daniel Russel, who was, until March, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told me. “That was a big lesson for them.” Afterward, Trump conceded to the Wall Street Journal how little he understood about China’s relationship to North Korea: “After listening for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”

Russel spoke to Chinese officials after the Mar-a-Lago visit. “The Chinese felt like they had Trump’s number,” he said. “Yes, there is this random, unpredictable Ouija-board quality to him that worries them, and they have to brace for some problems, but, fundamentally, what they said was ‘He’s a paper tiger.’ Because he hasn’t delivered on any of his threats. There’s no wall on Mexico. There’s no repeal of health care. He can’t get the Congress to back him up. He’s under investigation.”

He said that the Chinese decided on a strategy to overwhelm Trump on his visit to their country with their hospitality, knowing that he would be impressed and succumb.

Cui Tiankai, the Chinese Ambassador to Washington, billed Trump’s visit as a “state visit plus.” An American with high-level contacts in Beijing told me that they planned to “wow him with five thousand years of Chinese history. They believe he is uniquely susceptible to that.”

The strategy had worked before. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, the C.I.A. commissioned a China scholar named Richard Solomon to write a handbook for American leaders, “Chinese Political Negotiating Behavior.” Solomon, whose study was later declassified, noted that some of China’s most effective techniques were best described in the nineteenth century, when a Manchu prince named Qiying recorded his preferred approach. “Barbarians,” Qiying noted, respond well to “receptions and entertainment, after which they have had a feeling of appreciation.” Solomon warned that modern Chinese leaders “use the trappings of imperial China” to “impress foreign officials with their grandeur and seriousness of purpose.” Solomon advised, “Resist the flattery of being an ‘old friend’ or the sentimentality that Chinese hospitality readily evokes.” (Henry Kissinger, he wrote, once gushed to his hosts, “After a dinner of Peking duck I’ll agree to anything.”)

Trump’s deference to Xi—the tributes and tender musings about chemistry—sent a message to other countries that are debating whether to tilt toward the U.S. or China. Daniel Russel said, “The American President is here. He’s looking in awe at the Forbidden City. He’s looking in awe at Xi Jinping, and he’s choosing China because of its market, because of its power. If you thought that America was going to choose you and these ‘old-fashioned’ treaties and twentieth-century values, instead of Xi Jinping and the Chinese market, well, think again.”

In Beijing’s political circles, some strategists worry that their leaders risk moving too fast to fill the void created by America’s withdrawal from its global role. I dropped by to see one of the city’s wisest observers of America, Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University. “The U.S. is not losing leadership. You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it,” he said.

Osnos is not immune to that false sense, common in US media, that past US foreign policy was based on noble principles rather than crude imperial designs, writing “Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment.” Really? Those are not principles that are applied uniformly across the board but are weapons that are used highly selectively to punish foes (Venezuela, Iran, North Korea) and ignored when it comes to allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Honduras).

In fact, China is now using hard-nosed policies that are very similar to what the US has long used. The main difference is that so far, China has not engaged in costly wars in far away nations.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, it has loaned so much money to its neighbors that critics liken the debt to a form of imperialism. When Sri Lanka couldn’t repay loans on a deepwater port, China took majority ownership of the project, stirring protests about interference in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. China also has a reputation for taking punitive economic action when a smaller country offends its politics. After the Nobel Prize was awarded to the dissident Liu Xiaobo, China stopped trade talks with Norway for nearly seven years; during a territorial dispute with the Philippines, China cut off banana imports; in a dispute with South Korea, it restricted tourism and closed Korean discount stores.

But apart from those paeans to a non-existent nobility in past US foreign policy Osnos’s article makes a good contribution to the US-China relationship.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Osnos is not immune to that false sense, common in US media, that past US foreign policy was based on noble principles rather than crude imperial designs

    Ah yes, I noticed that. Until US writers understand the problem it is difficult to accept their analyses.

    I really do think that many of them believe “Ever since the Second World War, the United States has advocated an international order based on a free press and judiciary, human rights, free trade, and protection of the environment” despite all evidence to the contrary.

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