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Looking for a China Narrative

Jun 06, 2020

The May 29, 2020 White House statement on Hong Kong by President Trump was not as bad as it could have been—the stock market took it in stride-- but it wasn’t very good, either. Read straight through from a Teleprompter, it was laced with Trumpian complaints about the US being “ripped off” and the obligatory pinning of blame on past presidents, but it was largely free of the incendiary innuendoes and malevolent malapropisms that recently led the President to getting admonished on Twitter, by Twitter, for postings that contained hatred and lies. 

Instead, the President’s Hong Kong speech, though not at all milquetoast, represented a patchwork of clashing voices within Washington: some reasonable, some not; some trying to wedge the door open, others trying to slam it closed. 

There were cheap Churchillian cadences, lashing China with strong verbs:  

“raided our factories, off-shored our jobs, gutted our industries, stole our intellectual property…smothering Hong Kong’s freedom.” 

The “carnage” section was redolent of the pessimistic White House speechwriter Stephen Miller, but regardless of authorship, there was ample red meat for red-hatted constituents and dog-whistle nationalists. But there were also a few carefully phrased formulations and open-ended ambiguities, directed at anyone in China who might be listening, suggesting a less combative school of thought. 

Although the revocation of preferential treatment of Hong Kong was the ostensible topic of the talk, Trump offered few details and in sum, it sounded more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.  The “death knell” invoked by Pompeo after his rash determination that “One Country, Two Systems” was no longer in effect did not resonate loudly. 

Trump started out with pointing fingers, continuing to heed the advice of Republican strategists who see blaming China as the best way to deflect from the President’s own shortcomings, of which there are many. 

America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo, who has been telling European leaders that Covid-19 should rightly be called the “Wuhan Virus” scored a petty victory in getting Trump to use exactly that term. While that might represent a mild dial-down from the incendiary usage of “China virus” that Trump resorted to in mid-March, it still reeks of an attempt to “point over there” instead of reckoning with the stark failure of Trump-backed public health efforts in the US homeland. 

Flanking the President at the podium were US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The former has a reputation as a tough trade negotiator but at the end of the day he wants a deal or his efforts are waste. Mnuchin represents a more conciliatory approach. He is generally positive on China trade. He has clashed in the past with hardliners such as Peter Navarro who view China with great suspicion.   

A tea-leaf reading of stage line-up reveals that Trump is a boss who can tolerate some dissension in the ranks as long as they are unbending in their loyalty to him. Different factions, to his left and right, but alike in their silent obeisance. Mnuchin, for example, offers a counterbalance to Pompeo, which signals that the business of  business has not been entirely ruptured by the pointed politics of combative diplomacy. 

Hong Kong has clearly been censured, and may indeed face serious sanctions, but it’s not the nuclear option that Pompeo was alluding to despite some bombastic rhetoric. 

It is telling that one of the few truly decisive measures taken was not directed directly at China, but at the WHO. The US is cutting funding and pulling out, declared Trump, ostensibly as punishment for the organization’s alleged leaning towards China, but that’s a political ploy. 

It’s far easier to pick on a hapless UN organization than Beijing, which controls the levers of the world’s second largest economy and is backed by massive military might. 

Whether it was for matters of face, or simply an absence of facts, Trump merely hinted at the possibility that the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan was something conspiratorial. Though he came short of claiming the virus was manufactured or weaponized, he made vague, fuzzy claims that will allow the more fanatical of his followers to connect the dots and put the blame squarely on Beijing. 

"Why is it that China shut off infected people from Wuhan to all other parts of China. It went nowhere else. It didn't go to Beijing, it went nowhere else, but they allowed them to freely travel throughout the world including Europe and the United States.” 

Wuhan International Airport was closed for two months, except for emergency evacuations demanded by the United States and other countries who had nationals stranded in a closed city.

Domestic and international travel were both strictly curtailed. 

Trump then reiterates the claim of the hardliners who say "the world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government.” Wuhan’s bad luck being the first city to succumb to the virus on a massive scale bought time for other cities in China and around the world, but Trump keeps harking back to a delay of a few weeks in Chin when he himself dithered for more than two months with a great deal more information at hand.   

Trump’s speechwriters prudently left Xi Jinping out of his diatribes which can be construed as a calculated conciliatory gesture in an otherwise ill-tempered theatrical strike against China.

Just a week before, the President was railing against an unnamed figure in China in this way:

“Some wacko in China jut released a statement blaming everybody other than China for the Virus which has now killed hundreds of thousands of people. Please explain to this dope that it was the ‘incompetence of China’, and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing!” 

At the same time, a split between two of Trump’s top China advisors broke into the open on Fox TV.  Talk show host Lou Dobbs pit outside advisor Michael Pillsbury against White House advisor Peter Navarro over the issue of an unsigned White House position paper on China that Pillsbury characterized as watered down and weak, (on a par with something you’d expect from Obama or Biden, a stinging rebuke among Trump faithful) 

This hawkish perception led to Navarro getting grilled by Lou Dobbs a few days later. Navarro did not take ownership of the “soft-on-China” memo, which admittedly had a bureaucratic, interagency ring to it, but Lou Dobbs did not back down, accusing Navarro of “peddling pablum and BS.” 

An extraordinary ten minutes of television ensued in which the hawkish Navarro, author of “Death by China” was hammered by Dobbs for being too soft on China, in part because the President wasn’t calling it “China virus” anymore, not even “Wuhan virus.”   

The rift among hard-liners jostling for favor is very much evident in the mixed messages of Trump’s May 29 speech. Concessions are made to two contending schools of thought, alternating between “wacko” hard-core haters and mainstream hardline conservatives.

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