Both Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are on a mission to drain their respective swamps.
Then-candidate Donald Trump came out with the slogan “drain the swamp” on October 17, 2016, just three weeks and a day before the election that most polls and pundits thought he would lose.
As an opening move to fulfill that campaign pledge, eight days into his presidency Trump signed Executive Order 13770, “which curtailed the back-and-forth between Capitol Hill and K Street that has long frustrated good-government advocates.”
Halfway around the globe, Xi Jinping, whose tenure as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), president of China, and head of the Central Military Commission precedes Trump’s as U.S. president by three years, didn’t need campaign slogans to win a democratic election, but he did need convincing arguments within the Communist Party itself to be chosen for the top jobs.
Since then, he has embarked on a campaign to rid the CCP of corruption. Hundreds of thousands of Party members have been investigated; many have gone to jail. Activities which were even recently seen as acceptable, de rigeur behavior among CCP members — such as lavish banquets and foreign trips — have gone by the wayside.
To be sure, even prior to economic reforms making a significant mark on the Chinese standard of living, there was a level of privilege for Party members that everyday Chinese did not have. The student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that began in April 1989 were as much a protest about corruption in the Party as they were about showing respect for a leader who had sided with their complaints.
But back then, the difference between the standard of living of a Party member and that of an ordinary Chinese citizen was small by today’s standards. Even senior Party members at the national level still had no hot running water in their homes.
A Party member might have an extra bedroom in his government-issued flat. A senior official could possibly have a car and driver at his disposal. A top official, or the family of a general who fought with Mao, might have a domestic servant or two.
But an official living south of the Yangtze River had no heat at home, along with everyone else. Air conditioning did not exist for any, Party faithful or not. And actual disposable funds were not only tight, but were dangerous to expose, acknowledge, or openly spend if they existed.
The daughter of Deng Xiaoping could get into the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel’s fitness center in Beijing, where she could and did enjoy hot-water showers, rather than going to a public bath house. But she and the few others like her who were afforded this privilege could not easily buy a meal at the hotel’s restaurant. They, like everyone else, had little access to the Foreign Exchange Certificates required for payment in internationally-branded and invested hotels. Everyday Chinese currency wasn’t accepted.
All in all, the differences between the privileged and the everyday populace were difficult to discern. Both standards represented different points on the poverty line.
Then came foreign direct investment.
Corrupt behavior in China began to grow exponentially and in proportion to the massive foreign investment that the country has enjoyed from the early 1990s on. Hundreds of billions of dollars of that investment has come from the United States.
There has long been a symbiotic and sycophantic relationship between organizations representing American business interests in China and any arm or other appendage of the Chinese government that will work with them.
There are few better articles that detail the extent to which the richest and most connected American multinationals combined together to form themselves into a virtual ambassador for the Chinese government than Robert Dreyfuss’ “The New China Lobby,” published in The American Prospect in January 1997.
“In effect, the Fortune 500 have become China’s public relations machine,” writes Dreyfuss.
(Ironically, The American Prospect leans heavily toward liberal and progressive policies, and yet the tone and arguments in the article are straight out of Trump’s playbook. It makes for an eerie read, and is a telling sign of the extent to which disapproval of the status quo in U.S.-China relations is a bipartisan consensus.)
In short, the “swamp” in Washington and its counterpart in China share ties that go back 30 years and more.
The American lobby for China supported massive investment in China, creating revenues that flowed into China in coveted hard currency. Cities and backwater localities alike swelled with new factories, and new people. Chinese who had never in their lives seen a foreigner, much less a Western face, suddenly found themselves working side-by-side with them. The technologies that make everything from Boeing planes to blue jeans poured into the country.
The unintended by-product of the wealth created by China’s new economy, funded by the United States and a host of others, proved too much to resist for many of China’s political bosses. Many of them are paying the price today.
Trump and Xi share a common vision of cleaning up their domestic politics, which has had so much to do with enriching special interests on both sides. Both leaders also share a yearning to return their nations to a time when they seemed “greater.”
Why does it matter that Trump and Xi share at least one common mission for the radically different countries they lead?
Because these two countries are now locked in a trade war, which eventually requires a resolution. Both leaders and their negotiating teams need to find points of mutual understanding upon which to agree.
What better starting off point from which to resume negotiations than an honest reassessment on both sides of how we got here, and how that path helped to create a morass of bad behavior on both sides of Pacific? That behavior has led the American and Chinese leaders of today to engage in a domestic war to combat the effects of that past. Not only is common ground important now, but an icebreaker is, too. Both sides would do well to embrace the irony, and enjoy it.