Trump and The Chinese Model of Governance

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In 1990, Donald Trump reflected on the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing in an interview for Playboy. In the early hours of June 4, 1989, Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to clean the square.

For nearly three months, students had been occupying Tiananmen, asking for more social reforms and rights to follow the sweeping economic changes that the government had planned. The students were not asking for the end of the regime — they were supportive of then-General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was inclined towards a more open and modern Chinese society.

But dark forces within the Communist Party and intrigues among the leadership prevailed and led to the decision to sacrifice the students in the square to regain the unity of the Party. Zhao Ziyang and other leaders were arrested, and hundreds  of students were slaughtered in the square that night. People across China were arrested and persecuted. Many of them managed to flee the country. Quite a few of those political refugees are now American citizens. Listening to the president elect — who expressed support for Chinese government’s show of “strength” by slaughtering thousands of young people — they most probably do not sleep well.

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said in 1990. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak… as being spit on by the rest of the world.”

As you can see from the interview, Donald Trump was all about strength and power, even 25 years ago. According to him, America did not become weak with President Obama in the White House — it was already weak, when then-President George H.W. Bush was Commander-in-Chief. So thinking that Trump was not eligible because he was politically unstable and unpredictable was wrong. A quarter of century ago, Trump was saying exactly the same things and using exactly the same language as he is today. With one difference: back then, Trump could not make it because the conditions for the implementation of his plan were not ripe yet. This time, he scored by using populism to build enough support for his plan to bulldoze American democracy.  

Strength is not the only thing that links China to the American president-elect. They are proposing the same societal model. What happened in China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre is significant. The following day, the new leadership appeared in public. It was a grey picture of Chinese gerontocracy taking the reins of society in their hands. But to everyone’s surprise, the dark power acted as if nothing happened and went on with the implementation of the economic reforms that had been prepared by the government under the ousted Zhao Ziyang.

There was one thing missing, though: no political freedom. All discussion of government action was banned. Be silent and get rich was the slogan that washed the blood from Tiananmen.

So what if Donald Trump does something similar? That is, adopt the projects that President Obama was not able to accomplish because he was blocked by Republicans? Trump has enough support in Congress and across the country to carry out a plan to modernize railways, build more bridges, airports, highways… In short, to rebuild infrastructure in a way that will create many jobs — similar to the number of jobs during the Marshall Plan after World War II.

You may ask where the money will come from in this already highly indebted country. Trump’s plan to “make America great again” will likely cost more than trillion dollars, I hear. With a businessman in charge who proved to know how to make deals, I would not worry about this. Ben White’s article in the Politico on Friday will give you an idea of how much the situation has already changed just a week after the elections. The euphoria that reigns among the bankers is incredible, and there is no doubt that many of these already rich people will find the means and the money to make their new patron happy — and make themselves even richer.   

And we may well ask: does Trump need to create his own Tiananmen in order to install a more autocratic regime that will allow him to implement his plan? In its wording, the announced plan to “drain the swamp” is equivalent to the language that the Chinese gerontocracy and party conservatives used when they ordered the People’s Liberation Army to “clean” the square — in other words, to kill the protesting students — in 1989. And the deportation of immigrants and the unleashed demon of racism may well be America’s Tiananmen — it will be vicious and horrible, but it will be done with strength, just the way Trump characterized the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

If I am interpreting all the hints correctly, Trump’s America will propose a similar model to what China did decades ago, basically trailing China in building its infrastructure and army, and in making the rich richer — with more investments coming from abroad, no doubt. As Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker:

William Antholis, a political scientist who directs the Miller Center, at the University of Virginia, pointed out that President Trump would have, at his disposal, “the world’s largest company, staffed with 2.8 million civilians and 1.5 million military employees.” Trump would have the opportunity to alter the Supreme Court, with one vacancy to fill immediately and others likely to follow. Three sitting Justices are in their late seventies or early eighties. […]

As President, Trump would have the power to name some four thousand appointees, but he would face a unique problem: more than a hundred veteran Republican officials have vowed never to support him, and that has forced younger officials to decide whether they, too, will stay away or, instead, enter his Administration and try to moderate him. By September, the campaign was vetting four hundred people, and some had been invited to join the transition team. An analogy was making the rounds: Was Trump a manageable petty tyrant, in the mold of Silvio Berlusconi? Or was he something closer to Mussolini? And, if so, was he Mussolini in 1933 or in 1941?

I wouldn’t compare Trump to Mussolini. I also do not think that Mr. Stephen Bannon is a new Joseph Goebbels. There are several reasons for that. The most obvious one is the fact that fascism and Nazism were both born to serve the big capital. Donald Trump is a big capital in and of himself. He is power and money at the same time. So we are facing something new here — something we are trying to understand, and that we must remain alert about.

For many years now, we have watched as the birth of a new, more economically powerful China created a dilemma for western countries about the high cost of democracy, which has made liberal market economies less efficient and less competitive.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek had something to say about this in 2009:

Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?

There are many indicators pointing in this direction. One can find them in simple macroeconomic figures. America’s struggle to resolve the problem of economic inefficiency is showing in its increasing trade deficit and subsequent debt to China. But you may say that this is the kind of problem that financial wizards can resolve easily. Perhaps. But here is what the president-elect is saying, as quoted by Osnos: “I want to take everything back from the world that we’ve given them.”

On various occasions — like building the wall, asking members of NATO to pay for American protection, forcing American companies to return to the country and so on — Trump used simplified language. Was it just to arouse the hopeful masses? Or because there are many things that he does not know and needs to learn now?

Whatever the case, this world is ready for Trump and others like him. The higher polarization of global society — China and America included — has created such a gap between the rich and the poor that it’s almost impossible to bridge it. With the elimination of the middle class (which first occurred in Italy with the economic rise of China and the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi), political discussion — so fundamental for the functioning of democracy — lost its grounds. Cable TV, internet and social networks are filling in the void, but unless they are used properly, they will only serve self-fulfilling pleasures. So the soil is fertile and ready.

Political scientist Randall Schweller confirms these observations on Trump in a discussion with Osnos: “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.”

So is Trump’s America a glass half full or a half empty?

It’s hard — and perhaps unfair — to say anything definite before the new president-elect’s transition team finishes its work, or before Donald Trump actually sits down in the Oval Office. But we are here to listen and watch.

In 2001, president George W. Bush issued an executive order that authorized  surveillance of Americans by the NSA. It took Congress 15 years to end this program. And this is just one example of the empty glass we might encounter with the next presidential mandate. I learned today that we are living in a post-truth era, according to the editors of Oxford Dictionaries, who declared “post-truth” the word of the year.

In this case, the “post-” prefix doesn’t mean “after,” but implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant. Good luck to everyone.

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