Posted November 12th,2016
Communications between the world’s rising superpower and its existing one were off to a jolly start when China’s state media and Donald Trump, the American President-elect, appeared to contradict each other on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping had contacted Trump in the days following his historic win. According to Xinhua News, China’s state media, Xi sent a congratulatory message to Trump, who had anchored his campaign in part on the threat of a Sino-American trade war and a promise to take U.S. jobs back from the thieving Chinese. (Chinese state television reportedly went further, saying that the two men had spoken on the phone.) According to the Chinese media, Xi had cordial, conciliatory words for America’s soon-to-be forty-fifth President, declaring Trump that “developing long-term healthy and stable Sino-U.S. relations is in the fundamental interests of the peoples of both countries.” The message may not have made much of an impression: On Friday, the President-elect gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal, which reported, “Mr. Trump said he had spoken with or heard from most foreign leaders except Chinese President Xi Jinping.”
But the playbook had been irrevocably changed. The Chinese state-run media, which did not officially endorse either nominee, begrudgingly favored Hillary Clinton; despite her perceived pivot to Asia, the Secretary of State seemed, at least, to represent stability and something akin to the devil they knew. Now the leaders in Beijing, who have never enjoyed surprises, must contend with a man whose primary attributes, aside from a propensity for bluster, seem to be belligerence, impulsiveness, and illiteracy when it comes to foreign policy. Trump, some commentators suggested, might need a crash course—and fast. Yu Yongding, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing, suggested to a Times reporter that all President Trump might require to correct his delusions was some Economics 101: “All the things he said during the election were the talk of an amateur—I don’t think he was in earnest,” Yu said. “After he becomes president, there’ll be advisers at his side to explain to him what the exchange rate is, what capital flows are, what macroeconomic policy is.”
That comment, almost touching in its optimism that Trump might possess the will to graduate from his novice status, reminded me of an episode of “The Office” in which Michael Scott, the zippy fool-in-chief of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, attempts to grasp a basic accounting concept—the surplus—upon which an executive decision must turn. One of Michael’s few competent employees, a gay Mexican-American named Oscar, brings in Excel spreadsheets documenting the company’s earnings in an attempt to explain to his boss that the leftover money must be spent, or else it will be deducted from next year’s budget. Michael, however, is either too slow or too arrogant to understand (his eyes are focussed gleefully on the lens of the mockumentary camera, of course). “Why don’t you explain this to me like I am an eight-year-old,” he says. Oscar tries again in simpler vocabulary. A pause and Michael, with his brows still burrowed, says, “Mmm, O.K., why don’t you explain this to me like I’m five?”
It does not completely beggar belief to think that some version of the exchange between Michael and Oscar might play out between the pompous property tycoon and his coterie of advisers in the coming days. If Trump is sensible enough to choose those with experience in economics and foreign policy, and sustain the focus to heed their counsel—and these are serious ifs—he might learn that his campaign pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office would be a grave misstep, because it is inaccurate and beside the point. While Beijing did suppress the value of its exchange rate for a decade, it hasn’t done so in two years; instead, it has spent a trillion on keeping the yuan high, not low.
If Trump is truly the dealmaker he makes himself out to be, he should also learn soon enough that bullying China does not serve long-term U.S. interests. Millions of the jobs he promised to “return” to Middle America from China and Japan and Mexico no longer exist anywhere, because the world is no longer living in 1979, when the manufacturing sector was in its heyday and most Americans did not need a college degree to find employment that would pay enough to sustain what felt like a middle-class life style. Implementing forty-five-per-cent tariff hikes on Chinese imports will not turn back the clock, either. Poor and middle-class Americans, who spend a substantial amount of their earnings on imported products, have benefitted from lower-priced goods made overseas. His proposal would hand his constituents a price increase.
There’s a great deal to be worried about, and yet one hopes that, as pugnacious and vindictive as Trump is, he is also proud and thin-skinned, a man intent on maintaining the veneer of a winner. In the world of “The Office,” Michael finally grasps the urgency of making a decision, and does so in a way that preserves some semblance of his leadership. But even that fantasy outcome would leave in place the most troubling aspect of Trump’s ideology with regards to East Asia: its insidious effect on the moral credibility of the United States. At a time when China is growing increasingly repressive with regard to its citizens and assertive with its neighbors, Trump’s isolationism—one of his mantras is “Americanism, not globalism!”—is a boon to any dictatorial regime set on perpetuating and extending its control. Human-rights abuses have long been a sore spot between Clinton and Beijing, but considering Trump’s advocacy of torture and his vow to deport eleven million immigrants, it’s unlikely that the new President will be tempted to take a stand. Given his admiration for autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, they might even prove inspirational.
The day after the election, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-backed tabloid, declared, with a touch of schadenfreude, that the U.S. President-elect was “known for being a blowhard and an egomaniac. But if such a person can be president, there is something wrong with the existing political order.” On Chinese social media, bloggers, some perplexed, others incredulous, wondered why the United States was going “backward.” “There’s actually a beautiful symmetry here,” one graduate student in Shanghai reflected. “Two hundred years ago, China tried to close itself off with xenophobia, insularity, and an impotent emperor. It was like this great ostrich who buried its head in the sand . . . and we became so weak that foreigners took advantage time and again so we had to retreat further and further.” “The Office” ’s Michael Scott wouldn’t have spotted the symmetry here, of course, no matter how much one simplifies the vocabulary. With his gaze firmly affixed on the camera, it would have likely slipped his notice—as easily as the concept of a “surplus” or the day’s most important work message.