Sunday, March 7, 2021



Nine-Dragon Wall, Beihai Park, Beijing, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a very fraught time in the history of Chinese-American relations, as I hardly need to point out, with everybody needing to recover from the distortions of the Trumpery, when the US was ruled by an ignorant emperor whose mind was entirely focused on the irrelevant—nice playdates with their emperor, fighting over the balance of trade, and blaming them for the coronavirus—leaving them a more or less free hand in stealing intellectual property, militarizing the South China Sea, competing with the US for allies in the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, and violating human rights around the country's perimeter. While their rulers must be relieved at the prospect of a period of predictable stability, they know they will be coming in for harsher trade conditions

“Despite Trump’s claim that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” the ultimate results of the phase one trade deal between China and the United States — and the trade war that preceded it — have significantly hurt the American economy without solving the underlying economic concerns that the trade war was meant to resolve. The effects of the trade war go beyond economics, though. Trump’s prioritization on the trade deal and de-prioritization of all other dimensions of the relationship produced a more permissive environment for China to advance its interests abroad and oppress its own people at home, secure in the knowledge that American responses would be muted by a president who was reluctant to risk losing the deal.” 

and heavy criticism from the Biden administration, as in reaction to this week's news stories from culturocide in Xinjiang, where they are breaking up families of Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority groups by shipping young people to jobs thousands of miles away where they won't be able to speak their languages or practice their religion, to killing democracy in Honk Kong.

The latter is as if the Beijing government was anxious to prove everything the Hong Kong protesters have been saying about them for the last couple of years was true, and the new national security law they imposed on the territory last summer really is intended to quell all dissent and opposition and promote one-party absolute rule. That's not how they were talking in July, when they opened up the new National Security office: 

The law has caused alarm in Hong Kong but officials say it will restore stability after violent protests.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that it was "actually relatively mild as far as national security laws are concerned" and would enable Hong Kongers to "exercise their rights and freedoms without being intimidated and attacked".

Instead they have used the law to charge 47 people with "conspiring to commit subversion", a crime that didn't exist before. What they did was, in fact, to organize a primary election that same July to pick best candidates to run against the pro-Beijing candidates in legislative council elections that were scheduled for the following September (instead, the elections were postponed for a year). The Beijing authorities quickly recognized this as a way to give the opposition candidates a better chance of winning, and so—even though the Beijing side is more or less guaranteed a majority in the LegCo (half the seats aren't popularly elected but chosen from "functional constituencies" representing mostly business interests and always align with the power center, just as they did under British rule, which wasn't very democratic either). 

So it's pretty terrible, but I don't know that it's cause for freaking out. Maybe it's because I'm a Cold War native myself, brought up in the bipartisan atmosphere of détente with the Soviet Union starting in 1967 and the relaxation of Nixon's and Kissinger's trip to China in 1972. When I was in grad school both my most important professors (one a Czech-Hungarian-Jewish refugee from World War II Prague who had studied at the refugees' New School for Social Research in New York, one an extremely white Southerner who had studied with Talcott Parsons at Harvard) maintained relationships with scholars from Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe—one strange evening I was involved in shepherding a study group from Moscow including a granddaughter of Aleksey Kosygin, Natasha, with whom I and my mate Bill shamelessly flirted competitively all evening. I was much less aware of Chinese people back then (I picked Indonesian for my exotic language and was disappointed when they couldn't find a teacher and shunted me to Japanese), but they were all over the place already—I had Chinese students in the classes I taught as a grad assistant, and watched others demonstrating their enthusiasm for collective work, ten or twelve guys gathered around a car that wouldn't start in the Buffalo winter, little imagining that I would be married to the race one day.

That's around the same time, as it happens, as young Senator Joe Biden was acquiring his own foreign policy chops as a future presidential candidate. I'm pretty sure he's thinking the same way as in those days about China: that this awfulness is intolerable, and has to be lived with nevertheless. I-can't-go-on-I'll-go-on kind of territory.

I don't think it's impossible at all to bridge that, because I know it's been done before, and by people who weren't even particularly gifted (Nixon was very gifted in his own strange way, but he wasn't the only one who managed it). And that's apparently the plan.


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