James A. Millward
Osaka, June 26, 2019
Here’s an ice-breaker for Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping when they meet at the G-20 in Osaka: “Don’t you just hate it,” one might ask the other, “when people call your internment centers ‘concentration camps’?”
It is a surreal moment when the leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries and largest economies are both responsible for illegally locking up masses of people on the basis of ethnicity. Of course, Xi might argue that his camps are cleaner (at least the ones he lets the press see), and he doesn’t put children in cages. But, Trump might counter, he’s only thrown a few thousand Latin American asylum seekers in his prison-like facilities on the US southern border. And Xi holds 1–2 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in his Xinjiang gulag. After this bit of banter, they might share a laugh and get on to reducing tariffs.
This conversation won’t happen — I doubt either will bring up the camps in their discussion — but it is an astounding thing to have in common. Expectations are not high for the Trump-Xi meeting. Both leaders have dug in their heels and the US and PRC appear at structural loggerheads over trade and technological security. But despite their face-off, the two men are more similar than it might seem. Both the concentration camps and the tariffs derive from a similar attitude toward governing and towards the world.
Both Xi and Trump are authoritarian by instinct, and have flaunted norms and disrupted institutions in their respective establishments. Xi abandoned the relatively stable CCP succession system to make himself president for life, concentrating ever-more decision-making power in his own hands through “working groups” that he leads. Trump is more constrained by the US system, of course, but the Republican Party in practice no more challenges Trump’s unconstitutional and corrupt behavior than the Communist Party resists Xi.
Both leaders disdain global institutions and spurn allies. In a dispute with the Philippines, China has ignored a ruling under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (of which China is a signatory) which challenged PRC claims to vast regions of the South China Sea. The PRC rejects international concerns over human rights violations. The Trump administration voices contempt for the international order the US built; Trump’s unilaterally imposed tariffs arguably violate rules of the WTO — from which he has threatened to withdraw, as he has from NATO. Like China, and contrary to past US practice, the Trump administration has expressed a preference for bilateral deals rather than multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which would have given the US much greater leverage in its efforts to open China’s markets).
And both men mobilize ugly chauvinism for political gain. Trump’s comments, along with such policies as the Muslim ban and gross mistreatment of asylum seekers, are racist and xenophobic. Xi has vastly exaggerated fears of Uyghur terrorism and stoked Islamophobia in state-controlled media. He launched a campaign to “Sinicize” religions (including Christianity as well as Islam) and propaganda warning the Chinese people about dangerous outsiders is constant in the PRC media, which recently claimed that “foreign forces” brought the people of Hong Kong to the streets. With such fear-mongering the CCP hopes to bolster its legitimacy, burnishing an image as defender of Chinese people against enemy Others, internal and external. Trump’s railing against immigrants and implicit support for white supremacists serves a similar purpose.
It is such sentiments that lead to concentration camps, but they have also brought on the trade war, as the intolerance and xenophobia has ultimately come around to impact the two countries’ most important foreign relationship — that with each other. The strategy of boosting Us by demonizing Them is not really working for either leader. Trump enjoys historically low approval among Americans and he is reviled and ridiculed abroad. And despite Xi’s preeminence in the CCP, the 1–2 million Uyghurs in camps and a similar number of Hong Kongers in the streets create tensions within the Chinese system and undermine China’s international reputation. According to a recent study, not even enrollment in China’s vaunted Belt and Road Initiative has a meaningful impact on a country’s image of China, and the percentage of people worldwide holding a favorable opinion of China began to decline in 2018.
Over the past weeks, we have witnessed a dizzyingly abrupt, alarming and needless Cold Warization of the US-China relationship. What should Xi and Trump do about it in Osaka? An optimist might imagine face-saving and confidence-building initiatives (a new Chinese solar-panel plant in a US state whose workers’ votes Trump hopes to win?) but it seems unlikely that either will soon abandon nasty, narrow nationalism for the globally minded-cooperation the world needs — on, to mention just one pressing issue, climate change. At best, they will recognize the dangers, stop throwing more spanners in the works and begin to walk back from the brink. And the rest of us must remember that the politics of hate are not unrelated to economic interests, but disruptive of them. They are as bad for business as they are for humanity.