In a speech just days before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared, “The Chinese people have stood up.” Since then “standing up” has carried a special meaning in Chinese political discourse. It refers to an individual or group that finally shakes off humiliation and suffering inflicted by another individual or group, and potently reasserts one’s dignity and strength.
Thus it caused a big stir when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used this phrase to hit back at Beijing’s criticism of him. “And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up,” he proclaimed, referring to an anti-espionage law he had introduced earlier. That law was widely viewed as Canberra’s response to alleged Chinese interference in Australian politics. To make sure his message was not lost on his intended audience, Turnbull switched between English and Chinese as he spoke.
To say that Australia has stood up vis-à-vis China is to imply that the former has been humiliated by the latter. For some Chinese, this is a ridiculous accusation against a country that suffered 100 years of humiliation by foreign powers. Outraged by Turnbull’s political incorrectness, they struck back by poking fun at Australia. “Facing Americans, you kneel down; facing the Chinese people, you stand up,” jeered one online post. “When did Australia become the colony of another country?” asked a commentator. “You don’t have to stand up.” Another post simply said, “Thank you for standing up, please sit down.”
Turnbull may have abused a phrase deemed sacred in China, but the same may not be said of President Donald Trump had he made the same proclamation. Before and during the 2016 campaign, his harsh rhetoric certainly left one with a strong impression that China had been humiliating America for decades. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing,” he warned in a May 2016 tweet. “It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.” In a 2015 interview he called China “an economic enemy” because it has “taken advantage of us like nobody in history.”
But once in the White House, Trump acted as if his campaign rhetoric against China had been driven more by electoral imperative than by sincere preferences. He received President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago four months after he was sworn in. One week after the summit Trump declared that his administration would not designate Beijing a currency manipulator, reversing one of his notable campaign promises. By the time he was treated with a state visit-plus in Beijing last November, most Chinese analysts couldn’t help thinking that the bilateral relationship would have smooth sailing ahead, at least in the next three years.
Then came the big bang: Trump signed an order that would impose stiff tariffs on $60 billion worth of Chinese goods. Apparently Trump had done a great job of practicing the Chinese strategy of “keeping a low profile while biding your time.” After putting down his pen, he should have proudly and forcefully said, “America has stood up!”
It is too early to talk about a full-blown trade war between the world’s two largest economies. It will take at least 45 days for the order to become effective. Besides, Beijing reportedly has made significant concessions to avoid such a war. But to many Chinese analysts, one thing seems certain: with the stroke of his pen, Trump fired the first shot in America’s battle to defend its global leadership against China.
This is not to say that Trump is the singular cause of that battle; rather he is the manifestation of an emerging bipartisan consensus inside Washington that it is long past time to get tough on Beijing. This consensus, which dates back to the last years of the Obama administration, stems from a combination of anxieties and frustrations about a rapidly rising China that ostensibly has refused to embrace American preaching about liberal democracy and market capitalism. Even worse, Beijing is perceived as actively undermining Western democracy by aggressively promoting the China Model via so-called sharp power.
Even before the punitive tariff order, there were ominous signs for U.S.-China relations. The Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, portrays China as a “revisionst power” that “seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” The 2018 National Defense Strategy states that China is “a strategic competitor using predatory economics.”
It is small wonder that a growing number of pundits have concluded that U.S.-China strategic rivalry boils down to a life-or-death struggle between two competing ideologies, political systems, and ultimately two civilizations. If so, the world should get prepared for a third world war.
To avoid such a catastrophe, Washington need do serious soul-searching. It must realize that liberal democracy — particularly of the American style — was the product of the right set of factors at the right time and the right place. As such it is hardly replicable in the rest of the world, either by emulation or by coercion. Besides, just as diversity is the iron law of nature, every human society is distinct in terms of not only natural endowment, but also historical trajectory, national identity, and political institutions. Thus political uniformity is not only impossible but also undesirable.
More important, U.S. democracy is in serious political decay, characterized by appalling inefficiency, growing inequality, and widespread discontent. When popularly elected politicians fail to govern effectively, voters will naturally turn to leaders who can do so, even if these leaders have strong populist and authoritarian tendencies that are anathema to liberal democracy. That’s why the West is witnessing “the end of history” in reversal. To successfully compete with China, America must first renew democracy at home, but Trump’s “America First” agenda appears to have done the exact opposite by further polarizing the American electorate.
Above all, Washington also should recognize that no country has a manifest destiny to rule the world forever. Just as seasons come and go, global powers rise and fall. America may be exceptional, but this exceptionalism does not necessarily make its leadership legitimate, desirable, or endurable. China may never become a global power on par with America, but it certainly deserves to play a role that is commensurate with its growing economic power. Its rhetoric to the contrary, however, Washington has repeatedly tried to prevent Beijing from becoming a responsible stakeholder, whether at the International Monetary Fund or through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. If the Trump administration is determined to “make America great again” at the cost of improved global governance — and international peace and prosperity more broadly — America will likely end up in self-inflicted humiliation and decline.