In the fifth installment in a series of Radio Free Asia commentaries on billionaire fugitive Guo Wengui, Liang Jing examines commonalities between the national circumstances that led to both Guo’s social-media fueled rise in popularity and Donald Trump’s divisive climb to political power. Read also CDT’s translations of Liang Jing’s previous refections on Guo Wengui (installment one, two, three, and four); or more about Guo Wengui’s current situation and controversial allegations against leading Chinese politicians, media professionals, and business personalities.
Common Dilemmas of the Trump and Guo Wengui Phenomena
Liang Jing, June 13, 2017
Political dramas are being staged in both the US and China. Their institutions and cultural backgrounds are very different, but both their political dramas show intriguing symmetry. At center stage of both are real estate businessmen gaining huge wealth in the current round of globalization. Both are “political innocents,” that is, neither have been political insider, but they are like the Great Sage Equal to Heaven [the self-proclaimed title of the monkey Sun Wukong from the classical novel Journey to the West], raising havoc in Heaven, and creating chaos in their respective nations’ high-level politics. Their ability to emit such huge political energy relies as much on their ample capital as on their TV reality show talent. In the era of internet and self-media, they effortlessly bypass the mainstream culture and political elite to communicate directly with the social underclass, subverting the elites’ monopoly over discourse.
Reacting to them with instinctive disgust, the mainstream elite are forced to stay in the game with them. In the US, because Trump was elected president, the elite have to deal with him; in China, Guo Wengui got the low-down on too many scandals involving bigwigs before fleeing overseas beyond reach of the dictatorship, which can only negotiate “terms of conduct” with him. Their attitudes are also similar: under siege, and thinking they have no way out, braver with every engagement. Trump faces impeachment and loss of standing; Guo risks assassination. More to the point, they are confident they have a myriad supporters behind them, who trust them not to give up.
A thing these myriad supporters have in common is that they are losers in this round of globalization. It’s a very puzzling issue: why are so many of the “forgotten” willing to support tycoons like these two, whose situations are so utterly different to their own? An obvious explanation is that they can help the losers express their own grievances and resentment. Of course, there is a deeper reason: that is, the social underclasses don’t trust the elite, and are extremely dissatisfied with the prevailing rules of the game.
How long can the Trump and Guo Wengui phenomena last? How will the U.S. and China end these two grand farces raising havoc in heaven? Fewer and fewer give a damn, from what I see, while ever more are just watching for the entertainment value. Very few believe that either political farce can really bring meaningful change for the little people struggling at the base of the pyramid. For neither Trump nor Guo have, nor can come up with, any meaningful way to solve the issue of globalization’s losers. Their previous lives did not and could not prepare them for this.
It now appears that their ability to “raise havoc in Heaven” is related to their common background in real estate. For, being the trade most sensitive to the hidden rent-seeking of power, real estate also affords an easy peek into the private business of the rich, and hence the clearest view of the corruption of the mainstream elite. Spiritually, however this experience is itself profoundly toxic, making people cynical, unable to imagine the pursuit of noble goals.
While no portent of a communist utopia is being resurrected, general disillusionment with market utopia does raise a genuine issue: how to allow losers in the competition for life under globalization to live with dignity? In the brilliant phrase of critic Xu Jin, “a good society can be a paradise for the successful, but should not be a hell for the losers.” This is the greatest challenge faced today by such large societies as China and indeed the U.S. If the Trump and Guo phenomena only prove simply that traditional politicians are powerless to respond to this challenge, then recent US public opinion speculating on [Mark] Zuckerberg running for president reflects this kind of hope: the answer may come from emerging industry pioneers—successful members of the new generation. Because their experience of success is based on confidence in human positivity and potential, inspiring imagination utterly different from that of Trump and Guo Wengui. [Chinese]
Liang Jing is an independent commentator with a background in official policy research in the PRC, whose current affairs column has been running on Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese website for 20 years.