In the first pages of his book, The Governance of China, China’s President Xi Jinping laid down a marker. In a part entitled “The People’s Wish for a Good Life is Our Goal,” Xi tells the world, “we are taking on the important responsibility for the Party. Dedicated to serving the people, our Party has led them in making remarkable achievements, which we have every reason to be proud of. Nevertheless, we should never be complacent and rest on our laurels.”
But how good is life in China today?
Xi has clearly tossed aside Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile policy, “Never take the lead, but aim to do something big.” This multiple decades-long path of keeping a low profile has since been eviscerated by Xi. No one can mistake President Xi’s policy when in 2017, he spoke for three and a half hours. Certainly it was no three-minute-long Gettysburg Address: Xi bloviated and waxed eloquent about the great standing of the Communist Party of China. He emphasized that China was no longer a sleeping giant but a super-dragon that would no longer shy away from world leadership, and even aimed to promote its authoritarian model around the globe.
The goal of Xi’s speech, while different in substance, length and style from Lincoln’s, was similar in its goal to that of Lincoln’s in bringing their respective countries together. Xi made clear that different views on China’s direction would not be tolerated, and reiterated his view of the purpose, values, and ideals of China by providing a direction for the future 'soul' of the Nation. There is no room to doubt that Xi Jinping’s goal is to enrich the people, if for no other reason than he and the Communist Party wish to remain in power to complete the rejuvenation of China in its quest to regain its wealth and power or fuqiang.
Xi is in the geopolitical ring to win - as is Trump. There is a clear lack of trust between our nations and our respective intent.
Since President Trump’s 2016 election, trade tensions have heated up between our countries, along with concerns about China’s economic threats, cyberattacks, theft, forced transfer of intellectual property, tensions in the South China Sea and with Hong Kong, and tensions with ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. To Trump, “Make America Great Again” means holding China back.
It has been near impossible to gather satisfactory survey data from a closed Communist authoritarian nation, not open enough to allow Chinese citizen opinion. Yet, Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation conducted a Chinese poll in eight waves from 2003 through 2016, and captured opinion data from 32,000 Chinese respondents. The goal of this unprecedented work was to determine the satisfaction with different levels of government. Perhaps, not surprising, in 2016, the last year the survey was conducted, nearly 96 percent (95.5) of respondents were either “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the Central government in Beijing, with poorer results for government on the other side of the Pacific.
This really should come as no surprise with a state-owned media operation pumping out government-mandated propaganda in a highly sophisticated manner.
I recall a time in the early 2000s, signing partnership agreements with a Mayor of a large northeast city in China. I was impressed at the spectacularly impressive event with Chinese TV and newspapers there to document the agreement – stunning on all levels. I turned to my Chinese partner and said, “I will be embarrassed when he comes to America to re-enact this signing ceremony in my home state, it will not be nearly as opulent. I doubt we could generate a fraction of the media attention that was here today”, I worried aloud. He responded, “Tom, my friend, no problem, understand, don’t forget, this is China, I ordered the press to be here”. He continued with a chuckle, “I can tell you what tomorrow’s story will say if you like.”
Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and Director of Harvard’s Ash Center who conducted the opinion survey had a simpler explanation: “We tend to forget that for many in China, and in their lived experience of the past four decades, each day was better than the next.”
Yet, compared to the US, Chinese citizens are star struck with their government. In a Gallup poll taken in 2018 – two years into the Trump presidency – nearly two thirds of U.S. adults say they are dissatisfied with the federal government in Washington D.C. The widespread public dissatisfaction with the federal government has only grown worse given the inept Trump mismanagement of the global pandemic.
So while it can be claimed China’s citizens are significantly more satisfied than their US counterparts, that can change as their economic fortunes change – something that is destined to happen with the global pandemic still lapping at China’s shore and shores across the globe.
As the economy stumbles, the Communist Party lead by President Xi will come under immense pressure. For over 40 years, ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives have grown remarkably better. Over 700 million Chinese citizens have risen out of abject poverty into China’s middle class during this period.
Yet, as the Chinese leaders know from history, yesterday’s success does not fill today’s belly. If the social covenant is broken – if the ever-expected better life stalls – all bets are off. The unspoken trade-off between the rulers and the ruled is clear: If citizens see their lives improve, then the CCP can comfortably remain in power. Given the beginning of an economic slowdown in China was taking place prior to Covid-19, not to mention the fact that international governments are keen to bring manufacturing out of China, it seems China’s economic gravy-train seems to have also gone off the rails.
China has a vision and investment strategy to return to the greatness it enjoyed during its heights. While China has plans like Made in China 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative, it is hard to argue the USA has such a vision and common agenda to propel it forward. While China invests in itself, America disinvests.
Which Way Will It Go?
There is no guarantee that America gets to remain number one. Its reputation must be earned at home and around the globe. As I have argued going back a decade or longer, we need leaders to call on Americans to be architects of our collective future – not the victims of it. Perhaps this will begin to happen in 2021.
As the world’s most important bilateral relationship, China and the U.S. stand at a fork in the road. It is this relationship which has been mutually beneficial, in spite of what politicians in the West and East like to profess – will it be coming to an end?
It would be beneficial if Xi and Trump could pivot and come together to fix the world’s problems. No one is holding their breath expecting this path to be followed.
The relationship between the US and China is clearly in freefall. The question remains: where is the bottom? Where and how does this end? It should be clear to the world the China-US relationship has changed for the worse.
As I recently wrote, if we are not heading for an ugly divorce, one of us will at least be sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future.
Xi Jinping has dreams for China. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have dreams for America. Can we both sleep well on the same planet together? It is a nightmare to think otherwise.
We do know that when the Chinese and the American people sleep well, so too do people the world over.
Here’s to sweet dreams.