Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2019.01.15

Is Trump suffering from the China syndrome?

the japan times on January 8, 2019

Do you know the Chinese proverb "Shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce"? I learned this saying from my Chinese language tutor in Beijing in 2000. The proverb literally means that while superiors make policies, their subordinates always find countermeasures to castrate those policies.

In late 1968, for example, Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered 16 million educated urban youths to be sent to barren mountainous areas and poor farming villages to learn from workers and farmers. However, some of the most privileged children, mainly those of Communist Party officials, could avoid the order by joining the army or staying in nearby suburban villages.

At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to crack down on corruption by rooting out "tigers and flies," meaning targeting both high-ranking and ordinary party officials. But those officials wining and dining at the government's or corporations' expense tried to evade the campaign by bribing inspectors or tipping off political opponents.

After living in Beijing for almost four years, I was convinced that people in China have been living this kind of life for at least the past 2,000 years. Until very recently, I thought the proverb only applies to the world of Sino-centrism, but I was completely wrong. Unfortunately, it also applies to the U.S. government.

This past weekend, a special briefing was held on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's upcoming trip to Amman, Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Kuwait City. The briefing was very intriguing, not because of the number of briefers -- which was four instead of the usual one or two -- but because of what they officially stated.

One State Department official said that "The secretary's trip to the region centers on two main themes. First, the United States is not leaving the Middle East. Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere." Not leaving? Didn't your president say otherwise last month? Just to remind readers of the facts, on Dec. 19- 20, U.S. President Donald Trump had made the following tweets, which the senior State Department official then tried to emasculate:

"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency. After historic victories against ISIS, it's time to bring our great young people home!"

"Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I've been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there (sic) work. Time to come home & rebuild."

"Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight....."

Then Trump tweeted the following on New Year's Eve, reportedly giving the Pentagon about four months to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria:

"If anybody but Donald Trump did what I did in Syria, which was an ISIS loaded mess when I became President, they would be a national hero. ISIS is mostly gone, we're slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time fighting ISIS remnants....."

The four senior State Department officials tried, in vain, to emphasize that the Trump administration is not abandoning the U.S. role in the Middle East and its regional allies. But Trump's claims and narratives, no matter how erratic they may be, are too clear to misunderstand. The State Department officials are changing the policy of the president.

Trump first ordered the withdrawal within 30 days, but the military planners wanted about 120 days to allow time to decide which equipment to move in the region and finally persuaded the president. A Pentagon spokesperson said, "I'll let the president's words speak for themselves."

Wow, isn't this the American version of "Shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce"?

In the case of Mao, between 1966 and 1976 the Chinese leader was, in retrospect, completely wrong and his Cultural Revolution destroyed China's civil society and delayed its economic development by at least 20 years. His subordinates' countermeasures didn't work, no matter how hard they tried to salvage China.

In the case of Xi after 2012, nobody knows, or wants to say, whether Xi is right or wrong. His populist anti-corruption crackdown and dictatorial reform policies have so far been applauded by ordinary Chinese people. His subordinates, however, remain silent and their countermeasures don't seem to be working in the right direction.

So here comes Trump. Is he the Mao or the Xi of America? If he is the former, as during the Cultural Revolution, can anybody control the dictator -- who is more interested in political survival than in governing the nation -- until his death? Or will Trump keep alive Deng Xiaoping, who later reconstructed the nation?

If Trump is the Xi of America, the situation will never get better. The authoritarian leader is trying to rescue the Chinese economy, which is facing a "middle income trap with Chinese characteristic." His dictatorial style creates more enemies than friends to help him govern the nation. Moreover, Xi has no Deng.

It may be premature to tell which one of the two is Trump but, all in all, a nation with a long tradition of "Shang you zheng ce, xia you dui ce" has no future. If superiors make unrealistic policies and their subordinates do not implement what they want, the nation will be in chaos. America is no China but it cannot afford such a luxury anymore.