A White House With Chinese Characteristics?


During President ’s first weeks in office, seasoned China-watching academics and journalists have drawn both comparisons and contrasts between his White House and the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing. Most recently, Al Jazeera English’s former China correspondent Melissa Chan, who herself bid farewell to China after Beijing refused to renew her journalist visa in 2012, weighed in on an ongoing China File conversation. While Chan sees a parallel to be drawn regarding hostility towards the press and attempts to control the media narrative, she is careful to highlight that “in other ways, the Trump presidency bears little resemblance to Zhongnanhai”:

As a reporter who had a bumpy relationship with the Chinese government that eventually led to my expulsion from the country in 2012, I recognize a hostile administration when I see one. America has entered a post-truth, “alternative facts,” and “fake news” age—one that China has lived in for decades. Trump and his coterie, whether deliberately or instinctively, are employing strategies straight out of the Communist propaganda and authoritarian playbook. The main difference is that the Chinese Communist Party uses formal mechanisms, while Trump has not yet institutionalized his tactics.

[…] During my years there, China systematically blasted journalists, accusing us of lying and driving an anti-China agenda. While discerning news consumers recognized it as propaganda, the accusations left enough doubt for some people to wonder whether we were exaggerating our stories. We waged a battle against an organization determined to go to great lengths to discredit us.

Trump has pointedly and repeatedly accused journalists of lying, always while proffering his preferred version of any story. Steve Bannon’s comment that the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile” reminds me of the kind of admonishment spokespeople of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would deliver. Kellyanne Conway has suggested newsrooms fire reporters who “talked smack all day long about Donald Trump.”

[…On the media] the similarities keep me up at night. It’s unclear how long Americans can handle Trump’s misinformation campaign. As absurd as Chinese propaganda appears to outsiders, the remarkable thing I learned while there was how successful it generally was. […] [ Source]

Melissa Chan is not alone in noticing similarities between Beijing’s well-practiced propaganda apparatus and the apparent media goals of the Trump administration:

Chan is also not alone in her worry that the U.S. populace may become accustomed to believing the “alternative facts” presented by the Trump administration. At The New Yorker, Jiayang Fan recalls her childhood in China, her mother’s account of the “confused time” of the Cultural Revolution when no one knew what to believe, and her suspicion that Trump and his administration may be attempting to replicate that climate of confusion:

The muddling of fact and fiction is a tried-and-true tactic of totalitarian regimes. What’s more, when the two are confused for long enough, or when an indefatigable war on truth has been waged for a year, or two years, or perhaps eight, it will likely be harder and more tiresome to untangle them and remember a time when a firm line was drawn between the true and the false as a matter of course. If amnesia breeds normalization, fatigue has always served as the authoritarian’s great accomplice.

At the time my mother and I were getting ready to leave for America, neither of us knew the ways in which the contours of the world could be different. For people of my mother’s generation, the Party’s truth had become so embedded in their understanding of themselves that the boundary between what they represented and what the government propagandized had faded, shifting to form the outline of a manufactured reality.

Perhaps this is exactly what Trump and his more ideological aides, Steve Bannon among them, envision. But it’s just as likely that they, too, have become so convinced of their alternative reality that what we recognize to be fiction genuinely constitutes their fact. Orwell again: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” In any case, no matter what Trump thinks of China, something about the increasingly aggressive repression of the media by China’s President, Xi Jinping, may well hold some appeal for him as a model. How liberating would it be, Trump might wonder, to make all legislation a matter of executive orders and sign them at will without Congress, vexing million-strong protests, and a media that readily reports them? […] [Source]

In May of last year, just after it became clear that Trump was poised to take the Republican presidential nomination, Jiayang Fan wrote on the “Maoism of Donald Trump,” a look at how China could easily understand the populism that allowed Trump’s rise.

At her China Law & Policy blog last week, Elizabeth M. Lynch presented a series of parallels between Trump’s leadership and the CCP’s. Besides the Trump administration’s hostility towards the media, she also saw parallels in Trump’s proposed ideological projects, his scapegoating of political challengers, and ’s penchant for seeking political gains in chaos:

It is the disarray and the upending of society that appeals to Trump.  “If you don’t destroy, you can’t construct” was a favorite saying of Mao as he took China on the pointless path of a continuous revolution. Understanding that aspect of Trump is important in figuring out how to deal with his presidency.  Appealing to economic logic when he calls for a 20% tariff on Mexican goods and calling on American values when he institutes a ban on Muslim immigration is not going to resonate with Trump.

[…] Similarly [to Mao’s -driven policies during the Great Leap Forward, which led to chaos and ultimately reaked havoc on the Chinese economy], Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order, to ban immigration of Muslims from certain countries, gave no thought to its legality or to its implementation.  Signed after 4 pm on a Friday and to take immediate effect, the world was left unprepared. Immigration officials, who had no prior notice of the precise contents of the executive order, were left largely in the dark, and when refugees, green card and visa holders arrived, chaos ensued.

[…] From Mao to Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping), Chinese politics have been roiled with political purges.  It is a way for the current leader to eliminate threats to his power, maintain his authoritarian control and ensure that those remaining quickly fall in line. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao purged Liu Shaoqi (pronouced Leo Shao-chi) and Deng Xiaoping, two senior officials who had gained support among the Party for their economic reforms. […]

[…O]n Monday, Trump carried out his first purge of his Administration: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who, like the courts, questioned the legality of his executive order and called on the Justice Department staff to decline to defend it. […] [Source]

Also last week, historians Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Cunningham described how they are becoming “troubled by how often lately we experience a strange sort of China-related déjà vu when following events in the U.S.”:

We do not mean to suggest that all differences between the systems have disappeared. They have not. We are keenly aware of this as observers of protest, feminism, NGOs, journalism, and the Internet. You cannot be arrested in the U.S. for using social media to publicize an upcoming protest. You can in China, under laws prohibiting the spread of “rumors.” An independent judiciary can at least partly counterbalance other forms of power in the States — but this is true in only one part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, and like all other forms of legal and political distinctiveness there, this has been under intense pressure.

The leaders of the Women’s March were not detained on spurious grounds, as happened to China’s “Feminist Five” in 2015. Donald Trump may hate the New York Times, in part because it presses him to release his income-tax records, but its website is not blocked. The paper’s site is inaccessible in China, in part because of articles it published on the finances of relatives of top Chinese leaders. Some Chinese rights lawyers continue their work in the face of government surveillance and the threat of arrest, but China has no counterpart to the ACLU. And so on.

What concerns is that until recently the distance between the systems of the two countries seemed to be widening but now appears to be shrinking. Since Xi Jinping’s rise four years ago, he has ramped up repression, extending moves toward tighter control that began under Hu Jintao. The contrast between the U.S. and Xi’s China — where things are tougher for rights lawyers, NGOs, feminists, crusading journalists, and freethinking academics than they have been for a quarter-century — should be so great by now that no one wonders if a report is about what Washington or Beijing is doing. But this is precisely what we sometimes wonder—and we are not alone. We know from what we have heard them say and seen them write that many journalists and academics familiar with China have wondered the same thing recently when specific stories have broken. […] [Source]

On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration last month, King’s College professor of Chinese Studies Kerry Brown wrote on Trump as the “heir to the spirit of Maoist politics”:

Picture a leader in charge of a political party whose other senior leaders hold him almost in as much contempt as he holds them. One who exults in contradictory statements and constant changes of posture and mind. Someone who has had multiple marriages, and a complex private life. A person who appeals to people’s fears, and whose prime approach often seems to stir up widespread upheaval and unrest.

That description is of Mao Zedong, but applies equally well to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

Mao’s style of leadership is said to be emulated by his current successor, Xi Jinping. But it is hard to imagine Mao making the kind of speech about the merits of globalization that China’s current leader just delivered at the elite economic summit in Davos. Actually, it is hard to imagine Mao making any speech anywhere outside of China, period. […] [Source]

A few days into Trump’s new presidency, historian Geremie Barmé compiled a lengthy list of the autocratic instincts shared by both Mao and Trump:

[…] Quotations Vs. Tweets: In the Mao era, the mysterious, contradictory, and yet powerfully inciting utterances of the Chairman were conveyed not by Twitter, but through quotations broadcast over national radio and carried in the newspapers. In the print media, Mao’s gnomic utterances were always highlighted by being printed in bold, while on radio they were recited in the stentorian voice of authority. A daily quotation called “The Highest Directive” featured in the top right-hand corner of the People’s Daily and was mimicked by every paper across the land. The quotations demanded a response and action and sent the country lurching in different directions while confusion reigned supreme in Beijing.

[…] Climate Change Vs. Human Will: The effects of climate change and the mismanagement of natural resources were evident in Mao’s China. There was a profligate depletion of water resources; increasing desertification starting from Outer Mongolia; unmodulated industrial pollution from the Great Leap Forward era onwards; denial of contaminants in food and water supplies. . . the list goes on. Mao believed that “man can conquer heaven,” that human will could triumph over nature. China now faces the challenge of climate change and environmental degradation with sober clarity; Trump’s America will be led by climate skeptics, deniers, and those who would sign up for Mao’s axiom.

The Smartest Men in the Room: Like Trump, Mao thought he was “smart,” and he distrusted experts and the educated. An autodidact, he believed that he did not need to rely on others to understand complex issues and resolve problems. He declared that the more education you have, the more dangerous you may be. […] [Source]

Meanwhile, as China-focused journalists and academics were surveying the parallels between Chinese and what could be interpreted as an emerging American analog, a judge on China’s highest court chastised President Trump as an “enemy of the rule of law” following the president’s multi-tweet attack on the Seattle judge who blocked his travel ban. From Sixth Tone’s Yan Jie:

In a Sunday post published to his own public account on social media platform WeChat, Judge He Fan suggested that Trump’s contempt for the actions of federal Judge James Robart represented a level of disrespect for the legal system comparable to the murder of a Chinese judge in late January. He’s belief that Trump is hammering the final nail in the coffin of American judicial independence is clear: The article features a mournful header image depicting candles, and the song “Farewell, Policeman” by Hong Kong singer Fiona Fung is embedded within the text.

Translating a series of tweets in which the U.S. president said Robart’s “ridiculous” decision would open the U.S. “to potential terrorists” and “many very bad and dangerous people,” He, 39, expressed shock at Trump’s open attack on a member of the judiciary. “For the president of a country that considers itself the greatest of democracies to lead an attack against a judge — and for his vice president and party members to defend him — makes him nothing more than a villain with no dignity,” He wrote, “regardless of the armed forces and nuclear bombs at his disposal.”

[…] The sovereignty of America’s legal system meant that Trump went against the grain by publicly criticizing a judge and his decision, He argued. “No matter how much they hate a court ruling, presidents can only keep it to themselves,” he wrote. “They don’t air their criticisms in public, let alone put a judge in the crosshairs.” […] [Source]

Commenting on Trump’s anti-judicial tweet storm, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver explained why some people are “freaking out”: “Disrespect for the judicial system, open disdain for it, is one of the checkboxes on the pathway to authoritarianism.” The Sixth Tone article continues to note that He Fan’s criticism of Trump’s attempt to intervene with a judge’s ruling comes just weeks after China’s top judge warned against Western “harmful ideas,” including judicial independence and the separation of powers.