Book Talk Recap: "The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom"

May 23, 2017
John Pomfret

John Pomfret, former Washington Post correspondent and author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: American and China, 1776 to the Present and Chinese Lessons, shone some light on the current complex U.S.-China relations by bringing an historical perspective from the 19th century and commenting on the upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

Pomfret saw parallels between Trump’s presidential victory last November and the rise to prominence of Dennis Kearney, an Irish labor organizer, who established the Workingmen’s Party of California in 1877 against the backdrop of heavy unemployment during the 1873-78 national depression. Kearney’s party won control of California’s legislature in 1878 and then rewrote the state’s constitution. The party took particular aim against cheap Chinese immigrant labor and those “robber barons” of the railroad companies that employed them. Its famous slogan was “The Chinese must go!” Kearney’s attacks against the Chinese found considerable support among white Americans of the time and eventually led to the national Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Today’s marginalized, grumbling Americans found similar echoes in Trump’s presidential campaign against his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who personified the political establishment for globalization, free trade and immigration.

Pomfret also compared Trump with Chairman Mao, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Both of them have/had tremendous populist appeal. Trump’s slogan, “America First,” rings similar to Chairman Mao’s proclamation in 1949 that “the Chinese people have stood up.” They are/were both unpredictable and both capable of upending the odds. Pomfret suspected that Trump’s surprising presidential victory, his capricious personality and pompous showmanship have contributed to the rising interest and curiosity of Chinese tourists wanting to visit the U.S. in recent months. Both Trump and Mao have unusual beliefs such as “chaos is good for creating new orders.” Trump is apparently unable to distinguish friends from foes, as demonstrated by his treatment of Germany and Australia, America’s long-term allies. Trump’s executive orders to reverse Obama’s environmental policies in the name of supporting job growth will increase coal use in the U.S. energy mix, whereas China is embracing green technologies of the 21st century.      

Trump had no set China policy as of a couple of weeks ago, oscillating from taking a fresh look at the U.S. one-China policy when he picked up a congratulatory phone call in December from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to re-affirming the one-China policy soon after and dropping any mention of a possible 45 percent trade tariff on Chinese imports into the U.S. Trump is no exception to all his predecessors since President Nixon, who railed against China during their presidential campaigns and then embraced China after becoming President.

From Trump’s point of view, “China has played us.” China’s system has enabled it to deal with the U.S. better than the other way around. For example, in the commercial arena, the Chinese policy on joint ventures with foreign companies is designed such that Chinese partners in joint ventures with Americans almost invariably end up becoming American competitors several years later after obtaining American technologies. In the security arena, the U.S. has failed to stop China from building artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, and de facto allowed China to push its security parameters out as far out as possible. The U.S. increasingly risks looking like a paper tiger from China’s perspective.

In anticipation of the summit meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump said in an interview, “If China is not going to solve (the) North Korea (problem), we will.” Pomfret pointed out that China’s help on this problem is in fact essential, since any pre-emptive strike of North Korea by the U.S. will entail unthinkable destruction of Seoul, where 10 to 20 millions of people reside within the striking distance of North Korean missiles. The challenge is that China’s interest in this matter is fundamentally not aligned with that of the U.S. It does not want North Korea to collapse as East Germany did, leading to a cascade of events threatening its own regime.

For such a high-level summit meeting, the Chinese side is obsessed with diplomatic protocol, with little tolerance for mishaps. The Chinese are hoping that Trump will repeat their language of “a new type of great power relations” between the U.S. and China, as the U.S. Secretary of the State, Rex Tillerson, did during his visit to Beijing earlier. This new type of relations would defy the historical pattern in which war resulted from conflicts between a rising power and the established power.

Having lived in China for five years until last August, Pomfret thought that nationalism in China is over emphasized by many American observers. Overwhelmingly concerned with personal affairs, particularly improving the welfare of their own lot and private consumption, most Chinese couldn’t care less about the nationalist propaganda around them. At a general level, most ordinary Chinese do support China’s U.S. policy.  

Pomfret was concerned that if Trump’s presidency is viewed by the Chinese as “the nail in the coffin,” signaling the end of the U.S. eminence– “the U.S. is finished,”– further accentuating the view that “America is in decline” since the U.S.-originated global financial crisis of 2008-2009, that would do harm to the Chinese process toward democracy. Even if the U.S. recedes from its global leadership role as a result of Trump’s antipathy to the liberal global order, Pomfret questioned if China wants to take on this role? Can China do it? What does China stand for? These questions are particularly difficult for China to address when it is antagonizing some of its neighboring countries and is having a hard time winning hearts and minds in its state-sponsored campaign to build “soft power” abroad.