The US-China Rashomon moment


Exactly 31 years after June 4, 1989, for the first time all eyes were not be fixed just on the memory of that night in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, but followed events unfolding in the USA, during the largest, most sweeping protests in decades.

America is in fact engulfed in one of the worst crises in its history. With some 40 million unemployed and more than 100,000 dead in a destructive epidemic, dozens of cities are up in flames in violent demonstrations against police brutality. The black minority secluded in the inner cities has suffered the brunt of these upheavals, with more people infected with the coronavirus, more unemployment, and more people in prison or killed by the police than any other segment of the population.

Most of America doesn’t feel right about any of this. Why doesn’t the government call on the richest in the country to give more for the wellbeing of everybody, and why doesn’t the federal government apply a system of disincentive against police brutality, asks acute political observer Chris Nelson. Is the US going to rule with the people who got sick, lost their jobs, and are targeted by tough policing – or against them? This is not an internal American issue, but an international problem, especially because of the global role of the US.

Moreover, in the face of growing tensions with China, on the eve of the June 4 anniversary of the Beijing crackdown, in Hong Kong protesters were expected to defy an official ban on demonstrations. This could be a turning point for the territory. Last week the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing approved a law imposing new restrictions on the life and freedom of Hong Kong.

It is a very controversial move that de facto goes against the agreement with the British signed by China in 1984 to keep Hong Kong autonomous under the framework of “one country, two systems” until 2047. By then China would have become like Hong Kong, not Hong Kong like China, was the idea in 1984. Now apparently things are moving in a different direction.

China better than the US?

But the anger, the poverty, the destruction of private property, and the brutal and clumsy intervention by police in America tell an unappealing story to Chinese following events both in Hong Kong and in Washington.

Beijing’s police force after all is perhaps less brutal, or as brutal as the American force, yet there was no looting in Wuhan or other cities, unemployment is not that high, and the epidemic was handled better and faster than in the US. Moreover, Chinese police don’t carry weapons, shoot-outs are extremely rare, while the American police have all kinds of guns with them and violent confrontations are quite frequent.

Is Chinese president Xi Jinping faring better than his US colleague Donald Trump? Many Chinese today would choose the present Chinese system over that of the United States.

There is here a general element. If the US is doing something wrong, shouldn’t China do it right? America’s brutality to its people shouldn’t be a justification for Beijing’s own brutality, but occasion to prove that China is and can be better. Two wrongs don’t make a right. If the US is not as liberal as it claims, then should China be better, and not lower itself to America’s level, or not? But this may be an American view of things.

But in practical Chinese minds, without too much of a principled thrust, reality trumps ideals. The graphic pictures of America’s turmoil flooding the Chinese internet these days tell common people in Beijing or Shanghai that there is perhaps no real viable and better alternative than the present Chinese system.

The new NPC law, granting more powers against protests in Hong Kong, is then seen in a new light. Repression against the Hong Kong protesters, who have been disrupting the life of the territory for a year, is fully justified. The US – the alternative political system and the global superpower – is doing the same, so China can do it too. There is really no alternative.

Different outcomes with different glasses

China looks at the riots in cities in America and reads them as if they were in China. It sees that cities have curfews, Trump is divisive, and it deduces that the USA can’t survive.

The US public sees protests in Hong Kong, believes this proves to Chinese people that Beijing has an oppressive government, and infers Xi can’t survive.

China looks at the US and thinks the US will collapse. Just in the same way, the US has been looking at China for years and thinking China would fall apart. Probably neither will happen any time soon, but the mutual wrong perceptions might become deeper and more entrenched.

In fact, from the same information, the two countries draw very different conclusions. This is not just about police actions. Two years ago, the Chinese government published a white paper accusing the US of «trade bullyism practices» that have become «the greatest source of uncertainty and risk for the recovery of the global economy».[1] Beijing stated that «China does not want a trade war, but it is not afraid of one and will fight one if necessary». Although old, the document still provides the framework of the issue for China.

The paper explained the benefits the Chinese economy has brought in the past decades to the world economy. Yet in the introduction, it glossed over two sticking points for Washington: the fact that China claims to be a “developing country” and therefore has different trade issues than “developed countries” like the US, and the affirmation without elaboration that China has a different political system. But America actually has issues with China claiming to be a developing country and holding on to its different political system.

According to Washington, China is disrupting global trade by demanding to be treated like a developing country, while it is the second-largest economy in the world. It is also undermining the global economy by keeping an opaque political system intertwined with an opaque internal market and yet dealing with foreign open politics and open markets.

Again this has to do with past agreements. Some 20 years ago, the US agreed to China joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the understanding that within a number of years China would make its currency (the RMB) fully convertible, its market open, and its politics more transparent. Very little has happened in the meantime, and the RMB is not convertible.

This is no longer an issue open to discussion, apparently. The US intends to turn the G7 (the organization of all of the largest economies) into a G11. It has invited Australia, Russia, India, and South Korea in. That is, everybody who is somebody will be in the G11 – but China. The apparent goal is the isolation of Beijing.

It is the US response to China because of its efforts to get countries to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) without American consent. Does China want to chip away at American economic dominance by luring countries one by one into the BRI, stealthily against the US? Then, America will sweep the floor and call all major economies together against China.

Did China understand that when it started pushing its BRI against America’s wishes?

Hooked on China

Maybe there is also some other misunderstanding. China apparently assumed that the special treatment the US granted Beijing since the late 1970s would last forever and could not change. The US, being hooked and addicted to the attractiveness of the Chinese market, would wriggle and try to wangle and yell, but would never try to escape the addiction.

But the history of capitalism and that of America tells something different. As Marx saw, the early capital for capitalism is brought in by what he called “primitive accumulation”: piracy, slave trade, and robber barons. But all of them eventually must get back to “normal.” The robber barons, the pirates, the slavers, and the cowboys will have to mend their ways, or they will insist on their crooked ways and will be taken out, no matter the cost.

The Civil War in America and the fight against slavery was about the direction of capitalism.

«At an average price of $700, the nearly four million slaves in the American South in 1859 can be estimated to be worth $2.8 billion collectively. To put this in perspective, the longest railroad in America, the 705-mile Illinois Central, had recently been completed at a total cost of $25 million, with an average cost per mile of $35,000, which included all land acquisition, labor, and iron. Using this per-mile cost, which was on the high end, the thirty thousand miles of American railroad track, the most valuable industrial asset in America, were worth $1 billion. And it should be remembered that one-third of the track mileage was in the South. Similarly, slaves were worth several times more than all the gold found in California over the prior decade… The slave’s value was pegged to what he would be worth on a plantation that specialized in growing this most global of commodities. Given that the labor force involved in the production of cotton could be owned, it was valued accordingly. With the United States producing the vast majority of the world’s cotton, cotton was its most valuable export, with no close second. In 1859 cotton production made up well over half of total U.S. exports. This too had significant implications for the American trade balance».[2]

Yet America sacrificed most of its exports once it decided to go for this change of direction in its system.

China’s market is now certainly not as economically important as slavery 160 years ago, but a move away from China is similarly loaded with broad idealistic issues, including those of freedom and transparency that are at the core of America’s sense of being.

Is this China issue as important to America? If so, this means China still has time to change its ways – the deadline has not arrived yet. But it will arrive, Trump or no Trump.

 What makes China tick

On the other hand, this is no conflict between two parts of the same world, be that between the Thirteen Colonies and England or between the northern Union and the southern Confederacy. And sometimes American analysts fail to see things from a Chinese perspective.

Brilliant scholar Minxin Pei in a recent essay writes, «the coronavirus pandemic has seriously dented Xi’s image as a strong and capable leader».[3] Pei says so by analyzing the slow and clumsy response of the leadership to the onslaught of the epidemic.

However, the impression in Beijing may be just the opposite, also because the Communist Party, since the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, moves to assess policies by comparing results in China and abroad, not just by looking at China, as during Mao’s times.

Xi’s performance could have been considered bad if other countries managed to cope with COVID-19 better, but most of them didn’t and especially the US didn’t, although others had the advantage of coming after Beijing in the crisis and could have known better. This allows Xi and the local leaders to be forgiven (in fact, the locals although dismissed, have not been disciplined), and Xi is “rewarded” for his response and later management. In sum, Xi is stronger not weaker after COVID-19 in China and in the US. That is because, for all his mistakes, Xi has performed much better than Trump, according to Chinese media and observers.

That is, the US sometimes thinks and speaks (with words and actions) to China, saying something that is perceived differently in China. China conversely claims to speak to the US and the world, but actually speaks only to its domestic audience.

It is all a dangerous Rashomon, a story that appears different according to whoever is telling it, where people are deaf to one another. But unlike in the original Kurosawa’s movie, there is no independent judge who will draw a conclusion and pass a sentence. If different sides don’t find a way to talk to one another, the recourse to force could be the only solution.

Each side also should not misunderstand the moment for the other side.

The US has a tradition of going through deep regenerative crises; China abhors crises as they portend the end of a dynasty. Yet riots today are testament that 160 years after the Civil War, racism is a lingering cancer that the US has not managed to tackle properly.

On the other hand, China, with all its worship of stability and peace, is capable of dramatic turns like that at the end of Mao’s era, when Deng and his allies forfeited radical communism and embraced the essence of capitalism with the idea that “getting rich is glorious”.

To avoid a confrontation, both sides need to confront their ghosts. It may be a way out of this mess for everybody.

[1] The Facts and China’s Position on China-US Trade Friction.
[2] Srinivasan, Bhu. Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism (p.126). Penguin Publishing Group.
[3] See China Leadership Monitor.

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2 Commenti

  1. Chris Nelson 4 giugno 2020

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