China and the World

Democracy in the dock

Kerry Brown talks about how Trump’s win might shape Sino-US ties


Trump won on November 8, but so too did Xi Jinping, reckons Brown

Kerry Brown has authored 12 books about China. The latest – CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping – traces the ascent of China’s president “from manure carrier to conduit of the country’s hopes,” says the South China Morning Post. This week WiC talked to Brown – a former British diplomat and now Professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London – about how Donald Trump’s election will colour Chinese views on the democratic process, and what it could mean for Sino-US relations.

When Xi Jinping came to power much was made of his vast experience of government (running counties, cities and provinces). Donald Trump is the polar opposite. Does the Party (the CCP) view this as a vindication of its own leadership selection process?

The CCP has certainly prioritised administrative experience over what we would call the general business of politics in the West – doing campaigning, trying to appeal to people’s emotions, and having politicians come from diverse backgrounds rather than through one particular system.

The fact that Trump has experience running businesses might appeal to the pragmatic side of Chinese – in a sense the Communist Party sometimes tries to run the country as though it were a huge business, although under Xi ideological training and something more like a grand Party vision has come to the fore. Even so, that Trump has zero executive experience beyond enriching himself will seem an extraordinary background for a national leader to the Chinese. And they are in good company. It is baffling for many in America!

Has the fact that Hillary Clinton got 2.5 million more votes illustrated the vagaries of democracy to the Chinese?

Since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union – a country that did so much to inspire and, in an earlier era, support the Communists in China – the CCP has been recovering from a moment of existential crisis when it felt it was too isolated as a one-party Marxist system, and that it was living on borrowed time.

Brexit and Trump have been part of a more recent narrative in which the CCP is emboldened to think it can make one-party rule sustainable.

The leadership also looks at the perverse outcomes of the democratic process and some of its idiosyncrasies – like Clinton winning the popular vote – and feels that whatever the failings of its own system, the inability of democracy to adequately reflect the complexity of public opinion makes it too risky to introduce in its current form in China.

So China’s one-party system has been boosted versus the concept of democracy in the eyes of the Chinese population?

In the short term, the outcomes of the US presidential election will have made the Chinese much much more risk averse in looking at hasty political reform. It will have made them even more cautious. But much depends on how the Trump presidency rolls out. If to the surprise of everyone, it becomes clear that Trump is able to clear away some of the sclerotic and clogged-up decisionmaking process in the US and get things done – build infrastructure, create jobs, raise growth – then the Chinese will have less of a sense of schadenfreude. But the strong likelihood is that they will see Trump’s ascent as a sign of American decline, and that their own system – at least for now – is delivering what they want. They will not want to change something that is currently, in their eyes, not broken.

Do you think Xi would have been less comfortable with Clinton? The tone of many of her comments on China’s leadership was quite negative in her memoir Hard Choices…

It is a case of ‘better the devil you know.’ As for most people, the 2016 American election had no particularly good outcome. For China it was a choice of the hard rock of Clinton’s long-held and very hard line attitude on the South China Sea, human rights, China’s role in the region, etc, and a Trump who was far, far more hawkish on the economic side.

In many ways, Trump might offer more opportunities for China – US disengagement in the region creating spaces for China to fill, and a more inward-looking, isolationist American elite.

The one area where Trump has seemed pretty consistent – the need to be tougher on the economic front – suits China in an odd way, because it holds so many of the cards. It is very unlikely that jobs can be relocated from China to the US in the way Trump has implied. Nor can the US easily walk away from China to any meaningful degree without suffering the consequences itself.

The one issue that China will not be very comfortable dealing with is Trump’s unpredictability. That might end up being the only real leverage that the US has over China.

Obama didn’t play ball when Xi came up with his framework of “a new great power relationship”. Trump says ‘everything is negotiable’ – might he cut a deal where he acknowledges equal-power status in return for something else?

If there is a ‘deal’ available, it is for China’s cooperation in economic and political areas in return for less US interference in the Asian region. China clearly wants to be the dominant power in Asia. The fact that it views Trump as a chance to accelerate this must have been behind the somewhat worried visit by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to see the president-elect last month – the first national leader to do so. For China, the opportunity to have an even more solid footing across the South and East China Seas is evidently clear – as is the chance to put greater pressure on Taiwan and nudge it towards acceptance of some kind of framework where it talks about reunification. These are very distant goals, for sure. But they have come significantly nearer under Trump. And China knows that it has the chance to negotiate these now in a way it never had before.

So four years of Trump means less chance of flare ups in the South China Sea and East China Sea?

It is hard to say at the moment – but Trump’s election creates significant unpredictability in an area where things are already unpredictable enough. Trump’s appointments and his comments on the Asian region will be watched with huge intensity in China. But the problem is that Trump so far has proved volatile, and unable to control what he says. There is a chance that if he is not able to rein in his language something will be said or mis-said or misunderstood that will lead to the kind of accidental clashes that could escalate.

Trump has said only the Chinese can solve the North Korean problem. Is that one of the few foreign policy pronouncements where he is categorically correct?

Yes. If Trump can put pressure on China to do something on the North Korean issue and take up a proper position of leadership, he will have succeeded in an area where all previous presidents have failed.

Perhaps in this sort of area, China should have more space. Ironically, Trump’s policies may open up precisely the sort of space that China does not want, however.

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