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2018: The year everything started going wrong for China

发表时间:2020-09-22 11:03

China’s government has a plan for everything that matters, and for things that really matter, it has a backup plan in case the first plan doesn’t work. Such is the nature of a control and stability-obsessed, one-party government in possession of all levers of power, and which operates according to Soviet style 5-year plans.   Six years into the rule of Xi Jinping, the government of China began dealing with a series of grave crises, challenging much of Beijing’s meticulous planning, throwing its leadership off balance.   They have yet to fully recover.

The Chinese government assumed, as did many Americans, that Hillary Clinton would succeed Barack Obama as U.S. president. Clinton had been tough on China while serving as Obama’s Secretary of State, especially in the realm of human rights. A pre-election online poll taken by China’s English language Party mouthpiece, the Global Times, reported a 95 percent negative view of Clinton.   So when Donald Trump pulled off his improbable win China’s leaders were both surprised and cautiously hopeful.

Their initial point of view reminds me of a scene from the 1970 World War II film Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland.   A group of American soldiers had a scheme to rob a bank full of gold behind German lines.   They slipped away from their units, fought their way to the bank, and then hit a snag.   A German soldier in a fortress-like Tiger tank was guarding the bank, and he wouldn’t leave.

“What are we gonna do?” asked one of the soldiers.

Cue one of the movie’s great character creations played by Don Rickles.   Crapgame was a sly, New York City street hustler who ran a smuggling operation out of his Army supply depot.

“You make a deal,” said Crapgame.

“What kind of a deal?” asked the soldier.

“A DEAL deal,” sneered Crapgame, in an edgy New York accent, adding blandly, “maybe the guy’s a Republican.”

China’s leaders—the world’s great bi-lateral transactionalists--thought they had found something of a kindred spirit in Donald Trump. Yes, Trump says unkind things about China and, yes, he knows nothing about China’s culture, history or its diplomatic red lines. But here, they thought, was a New York City operator--a wheeling-dealing, bottom-line Republican.   He didn’t seem to have many principles. But the Chinese didn’t care. Principles can stand in the way of deals. Trump might just sit down with them and make the Deal of the Century—and a bonus: without another of Professor Obama’s human rights lectures.

Oh, how disappointed they have been.

The Chinese correctly reckoned that Trump, on his own, would be happy if China just bought more American made goods produced in states where he needs re-election votes. He clearly doesn’t care how China runs its country, and that’s just the kind of business partner China is always looking for.   But domestic politics have made Trump supremely unpredictable.

In January of 2018 Trump initiated his trade war with China, which soon escalated into a tit-for-tat battle of tariffs and other import restrictions impacting billions of dollars in goods moving in both directions.  

In March, in what became a Road to Damascus moment for many in the West, Xi amended the Chinese constitution to become, in essence, China’s paramount leader for life.   American public opinion of China made a U-turn and landed where it is today, with negative views surpassing even post-Tiananmen sentiment in 1991.

Then in December of 2018, Meng Wanzhou, COO of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and daughter of its chairman, was arrested in Vancouver by Canadian authorities at the request of the US.   Meng remains in Canadian custody, fighting extradition to the U.S. to face charges of bank fraud. The Chinese government was incensed, jailing two Canadians in retaliation, but ultimately blaming Trump for what they saw as a blatant attempt to one-up China in his trade war.

The Chinese view was later reinforced by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who wrote in his recent book, The Room Where It Happened, “[Trump] offered to reverse criminal prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade deal — which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020.”

Then in 2019 things went from bad to worse.

Beijing had a long-term plan for the slow, salami slice strangulation of Hong Kong, which included the gradual transfer of Hong Kong’s priceless financial loci to more manageable centers in Shenzhen and Shanghai. But the massive protests and riots of the summer of 2019 forced Beijing’s boot to come down harder--and ten years earlier--than planned. The result was a draconian National Security law which violated China’s Hong Kong commitments, soured China’s relations with much of the world, and led to a tranche of China-unfriendly legislation issuing from the U.S. Congress.

In November of 2019, the New York Times published an explosive story, backed by leaked Party documents, describing the forced detention of up to a million Uighur and other ethnic Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang province.   China’s assertion that the gulags were really vocational training centers were unconvincing.   Evidence has since emerged of forced sterilization of Uighur women, a practice which can constitute genocide.   The UN’s top human rights body, the Human Rights Council, issued a joint statement urging China to end the mass arbitrary detention. The U.S. State Department, in an extraordinary step, created a web page specifically targeting China’s practices in Xinjiang. More China-unfriendly legislation sailed through Congress.

But nothing compared to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic for paradigm-shifting impact. The pandemic revealed both the strengths and the weaknesses of a top-down authoritarian state. Signs of trouble in Wuhan arose weeks before the annual Lunar New Year diaspora. But these early alarms were suppressed by local Party leaders conditioned to await orders from Beijing. This allowed the virus to spread far beyond its epicenter.

Once it became clear to Beijing that a national crisis was unfolding, China’s authoritarian model responded with an unprecedented—and effective--national mobilization.   Trump initially praised the Chinese leader’s pandemic response. But as the virus spread to American soil and polling increasingly showed an American public unhappy with Trumps’ pandemic leadership, Trump’s previously cordial tone on China also changed. The virus became the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus, or the “kung flu.”   Though earlier professing a warm friendship with Chinese president Xi, Trump now said he wasn’t interested in talking to Xi at all.

Beijing didn’t have a plan for the fallout which attended the spread of the virus to virtually every corner of the earth. Rightly or wrongly, the world has since blamed Chin


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