Chief of Police: One man cannot move a mountain.
Charlie Chan: No, but two men can start digging.
— Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) calling a spade a spade
Fifty years ago, Capitalists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger initiated their rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after 25 years of total silence between the world’s two leading economic ideologies. America was in a Cold War with the ‘SPECTRE’ Soviets, but it was a Cold Shoulder they shared with the Chinese. A wall had come up between them. Through backchannels and diplomatic alleyways, the Commie-hating Nixon was invited to come play some ping-pong and shoot the shit with Chairman Mao Zedong. Nixon’s sudden announcement that he’d be going to China in 1972 was a shocker, election year or not. (What’s next, some of us thought, will Tricky be inviting Timothy Leary over at the White House for quaaludes and cubes?) Fear and Loathing had begun.
Many folks agreed (but not Peter Seeger) that when Nixon went electric with Mao and Chou in February 1972 it was as monumentally meaningful as Mr. Jones’s chatfest with Napoleon in rags at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Look Left, look Right, tell me what you see. Mao snarked about the American Left-Right in his conversation, calling the Left-Left disingenuous reactionaries (i.e., the pampered middle class). Nixon and Mao and Kissinger and Chou chowed down with bonhomme and good humor, the world was their oyster, on the half shell.
At one point, Mao shot down Nixon’s passive aggressive attempt at flattery:
Nixon: I read your book [The Little Red Book]. You moved a nation and changed the world. [Mao looks at Chou, who laughs]
Mao: Oh, I don’t know about that. Maybe one neighborhood in Beijing. [Chou laughs so hard, Kissinger maneuvers das Heimliche]
And soon tiring of Nixon, Mao called it a day:
Mao: I don’t feel so well. [the translator almost said, “You make me sick.]
Nixon: You look good.
Mao: [imitating Charlie Chan] Appearances can be deceiving.
And they all agreed over their shoulders, guffawing, as they moved down the corridor in different directions that what Lennon said was true, If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, then…. Funniest thing Nixon ever heard. You don’t believe me? Read the transcript for yourself.
A later toast succinctly lays out the clearest, most coherent policy toward China (and all sovereign nations) imaginable and discusses their future role together as partners in a “new world order.” He says, in part,
You believe deeply in your system, and we believe just as deeply in our system. It is not our common beliefs that have brought us together here, but our common interests and our common hopes, the interest that each of us has to maintain our independence and the security of our peoples and the hope that each of us has to build a new world order in which nations and peoples with different systems and different values can live together in peace, respecting one another while disagreeing with one another, letting history rather than the battlefield be the judge of their different ideas.
Mr. Mao, Nixon said, tear down that wall, and Chou En-lai laughed, thinking but it’s 13,000 miles long. Why you not start with Berlin Wall? You funny, shaking his head.
So important was that rapprochement that books were written, an opera was made. Nixon in China got the wunderkind (now wundergramps) Peter Sellars treatment. Remember his Wagner? The pampered middle class enervated by the sobering revelations of the Nam experience (We’re willing to do that? No, not My Lai, Kent State.) was inebriated again, like an overflowing glass of bubbly multiverses. Great libretto by Alice Goodman, who’s been asked to go after Trump now. And the MET production of the opera is actually here on YouTube. Even the Scots have a 2020 version up on stage. Can you imagine Mao with a brogue? Or Nixon for that matter? Pass the bong.
Fast-forward 50 years to the Nixon Library, Mike Pompeo (a comic book villain’s name if there ever was one) delivering a kung-pow speech meant to announce to the world America’s intention to erect a Great Wall against Chinese capitalist aggression: What if they export their sweatshops everywhere? Essentially implying Nixon was a two-faced liar, Pompeo averred that “President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the CCP. And here we are.” He called on the world — the same one the Trump government has spurned in the last three years — to come together: “If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us.”
Has he ever considered that capitalism itself is a Frankenstein monster waiting to happen, or, put more honestly, that the US is Dr. Frankenstein out to create capitalist monsters around the globe? And Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, eating “the most beautiful piece of devil’s food cake that [he had] ever seen,” when Trump pulled a cakeus interruptus and whispered to Xi, “I’ve just bombed Syria.” Xi almost snarked some Chan, but did not want to encourage more chaos. Where was Chou when you needed him? Alas, poor Yorick.
Chaos. That’s the recurring motif of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by the former Singapore ambassador to the UN, and president of the UN Security Council from 2001-2, Kishore Mahbubani. “The Chinese people fear chaos,” writes Mahbubani early on. “It is the one force that in the past brought China to its knees and brought misery to the Chinese people. Clearly, America is suffering chaos now,” he continues. “President Donald Trump has been a polarizing and divisive figure. American society has never been as divided since the Civil War of 1861–1865.” And that was written before the impeachment, Super Bowl recovery and Covid-19. Damn. And now some people are thinking George Floyd might be the Storm the Bastille moment we’ve been waiting for.
Has China Won? has 8 chapters, an introduction, and an appendix, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” which could serve as the thesis of the book. With Trump wielding power, Mahbubani suggests, it’s as if America has gone Brexit from the world and even with its extraordinary military might still flexing muscles everywhere, no one is paying much attention any more to her manifest destiny nonsense. “One thing is certain,” writes Mahbubani, “The geopolitical contest that has broken out between America and China will continue for the next decade or two.” There are chapters delving into strategic mistakes the two countries have made in dealing with each other, chapters on their geopolitical motivations and goals, and chapters that question which way nations will go at this historical crossroad of values.
Though he briefly mentions it toward the end of the book, Mahbubani doesn’t emphasize the Clash of Civilizations trope, espoused by the likes of General William Westmoreland, which got us all greatly walled off from China to begin with — such KKK-like nonsense, if true, would mean a Jim Crow world favoring the Nordics and the Nordic Trackers, as culture is not readily negotiable. Nevertheless, Trump and Pompeo thought they’d give Generalissimo Gookphobe’s slant another go. Today, however, we deal in Empir(e)ical theories — the honesty of economics, we tell ourselves, turning capitalist exploitation into an ‘objective’ universal principle; like comparing shitting your bed to organic gardening.
If we want to simplify, we could compare the CCP and Americans systems to a contest between the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) versus The New Silk Road. The Chinese muscling west and south to Africa, the Americans muscling east and south to Africa, and each a kind of spectre hanging over Europe like a high and low pressure system duking it out and you just know a hard rain’s a-gonna fall. PNAC is the muscle behind the unrefusable offer from the neoliberals. The Chinese will sow soft discord, spread their opiated capital to the people, until Confucian reigns. They already have the West by the yinyangs, there’s no Tao about that, and some neocons, believing the CCP wants to do to us what we did to the CCCP, probably think we should just blast them to get some debt relief. (Chou just cracked up in his grave.) But we want a more nuanced approach. Let us follow Mahbubani’s train of thought.
Mahbubani spends a couple of chapters trying to figure out what went wrong in the respective approaches of the US and China that led to the collapse of their 50 year détente. He expresses initial surprise that American businessmen, who’ve made so much money in China, have failed to show up to defend China when President Trump began his trade war in January 2018. It’s one of the few areas that Congress and the president have shown bipartisan unanimity. Mahbabani writes,
Senator Chuck Schumer said that “when it comes to being tough on China’s trading practices, I’m closer to Trump than Obama or Bush.” Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said, “The United States must take strong, smart and strategic action against China’s brazenly unfair trade policies.…”
As far as Americans are concerned, China brought this on themselves.
Mahbabani notes that it’s not only Americans coming down with a Sino headache. Europeans, too, have been nonplussed by China’s tactics. He cites George Magnus, a research associate at the China Centre, Oxford University, who tells how, in his 2018 book Red Flags,
China has made a huge political mistake in ignoring the strong convictions among leading American figures that China has been fundamentally unfair in many of its economic policies: demanding technology transfer, stealing intellectual property, imposing nontariff barriers. “The US has a strong case” against China in this area, as Magnus notes.
This is dooley noted, as they say in Casablanca and the White House. Of all his hateful media, even the adversarial New York Times has run op-eds suggesting that Trump engage Europe.
Mahbabani points to “three contributing factors” that brought about China’s unacceptable behavior: one, the power of local officials to control business arrangements with foreigners; two, Sino hubris over the 2008 Wall Street financial collapse; and, three, weak central government in the 2000s. While Americans applied pressure on Beijing, Mahbabani points out that “even if Beijing wished to do so, there are limits to how much day-to-day control the center can impose.” He adds, Charlie Chan-like, “A well-known Chinese saying is: The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away. For millennia, the provinces of China, even under strong emperors, have always had strong local autonomy.” And, sure, they were laughing their asses off when the Cappies almost blew their own brains out playing Russian roulette in 2008, almost like Manchurian candidates. Wah.
Mahbabani also takes issue with American tactics. By giving the Middle Kingdom the middle finger, as only Americans can do (think Easy Rider), we’ve become occidentally disoriented in our foreign policy, becoming the kind of reactionaries that Mao and Nixon had a chuckle festival over in 1972. And, as far as Mahbabani is concerned, America has a “need to find a foreign scapegoat to hide the deep domestic socioeconomic challenges that have emerged in American society.”
Mahbabani largely blames Trump for this drive:
By plunging into a major geopolitical contest, possibly the biggest ever in human history, without first working out a comprehensive long-term strategy, the Trump administration has only succeeded in diminishing America’s standing in the world while, at the same time, creating space for China’s influence to grow in the world.
As Charlie Chan might have said: Wise man say, If you shoot from hip too often, soon you need hip replacement therapy. Better hope HMO cover. Well, anyway, Mahbabani doesn’t stop there, he continues to lay into Trump. He writes, “America would present a formidable challenge to China if it were a united, strong, and self-confident country.” He’s not done: “Trump has done the opposite. He has divided and polarized America…Trump’s administration must take sole blame for following a unilateral, rather than a multilateral, approach to deal with China…America, under Trump, is increasingly perceived as a chaotic and unpredictable actor.” His pitch rising, Mahbababni goes aria, “Did anyone in the Trump administration work out a thoughtful and well considered strategy before launching the first round of these tariffs (which were followed by many more rounds)?” He notes: “Trump replied: ‘I just like tariffs.’” Wah. Chaos. Jake, you tell yourself, it’s just Chinatown.
Sometimes while reading Has China Won? you wonder if Mahbubani didn’t get so driven to distraction by Trump that he started leaning on some magic dust to get through his analysis. He thinks,
it would be reasonable for many Chinese leaders to believe that when America promotes democracy in China, it is not trying to strengthen China.It is trying to bring about a more disunited, divided China, a China beset by chaos. If that was China’s fate, America could continue to remain the number one unchallenged power for another century or more.
That’s fine, but what I’m talking about is his diminishing Trump by trotting in Plato. He notes, “Edward Luce reminded us, that ‘democracy was the rule of the mob—literally demos (mob) and kratos (rule).’” And that “Plato said the best form of rule was by a philosopher king.” And then the punchline: “There is a very strong potential that Xi Jinping could provide to China the beneficent kind of rule provided by a philosopher king.” Sweet Jesus. Pass the bong.
But the most important takeaway from this section is Mahbabani’s discussion of the US Dollar as the global reserve currency, and how it has backed American privilege and hegemony over the many decades, and, how, most importantly, this “privilege,” which has allowed Americans to pursue “middle class” lives, on credit, (without knowing it), is in danger of collapse. He quotes Ruchir Sharma to make his point:
Reserve currency status had long been a perk of imperial might—and an economic elixir. By generating a steady flow of customers who want to hold the currency, often in the form of government bonds, it allows the privileged country to borrow cheaply abroad and fund a lifestyle well beyond its means.
As a result of this status, paper money can be printed up whenever needed — essentially IOUs bought up by foreign investors and countries, such as China, who if they ever cashed in could make the US government insolvent overnight.
Mahbabani points out that such an arrangement is built on trust and that
The world has been happy to use the US dollar as the global reserve currency because they trusted the US government to make the right decisions on the US dollar that would take into consideration the economic interests not only of the 330 million American people but also of the remaining 7.2 billion people outsideAmerica who also rely on the US dollar to fund their international transactions.
But, he writes, now much of the world sees America falling into disorder, with the 2008 near-collapse of the global economy, thanks to Wall Street hijinks, being a harbinger of ill-tidings ahead for America. As a result, China, and other countries have begun looking for ways to get around the US dollar, such as with BRICS and other talk of alternate currencies. No doubt, this left many Western bankers shitting bricks. Could such moves cause a war? Wah.
In another section, Mahbabani asks if China is expansionist, as the Americans have claimed. He obliquely responds rhetorically, Is capitalism inherently expansionist? Did America push capitalism on China? Has China shown it can play the game with equal skill, while keeping pleasing its citizens with true upward mobility and market opportunity, while keeping chaos at bay? What do you think, reader, he seems to ask. As far as Mahbabani is concerned, modern China is destined to make inroads into Europe, where the Monguls failed, due to one historian’s account, by getting bogged down by mosquitoes and malaria. Mahbabani writes, America is trying to create a pretext for military engagement with China, by claiming it is flexing its muscles, especially in the South China Sea.
In another section, Mahbabani wonders if America can make a “U-turn” away from its profligate and totally unnecessary military spending. He suggests that China looks at America the way the latter looked at the Soviets who wasted so much GDP on weaponry it helped collapse the USSR. “It is in China’s national interest for this irrational and wasteful defense spending to continue,” writes Hababani. America is locked into an “irrational processes it cannot break away from.” He gives an example of their two approaches: “An aircraft carrier may cost $13 billion to build. China’s DF-26 ballistic missile, which the Chinese media claims is capable of sinking an aircraft carrier, costs a few hundred thousand dollars.”
Another chapter asks: Should China Become Democratic? Mahbabani wonders the same about America? While the US considers regime change in China, Mahbababi writes,
Since I live in the neighborhood, I can say with some confidence that most of China’s neighbors would prefer to see China led by calm and rational leaders, like Xi Jinping, and not by a Chinese version of Donald Trump or Teddy Roosevelt.
In a surprise suggestion to the West, he adds, that for China, and its millenia long history of emperors, “a nondemocratic CCP could do long-term calculations on what would be good for China and the world.” But, of course, there are those in America, who will ignore what Nixon said about sovereign nations. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger said before socialist Allende was popped.
Mahbabani closes with a section on American hypocrisy, which falls on deaf ears, as it does with any realpolitik empire. So, sue me, they say. Mahbabani closes with A Paradoxical Conclusion, the nub of which is that imminent conflict is “inevitable” and yet “avoidable.” Why? Hubris. Always, it’s the hubris. Who will win? Look at the title? What do you think? Mahbabani asks rhetorically.
If Has China Won? has a major flaw it is that it presumes that China’s global victory by economic expansion is a victory. We are learning that we are in late stage capitalism, and that the endless expansion of economic growth in light of diminishing resources, proliferating population growth, and imminent climate catastrophe, is not a healthy response to reality. To his credit, however, Mahbabani does suggest that if the two superpowers could find a way around their dangerous political impasse they might be able to come together and lead the world out of some of its impending crises.
Pass the bong.