Among average Chinese people, Donald J. Trump, who has just been defeated in his re-election, is frequently referred to as chuanjianguo, or “Trump, China’s nation-builder.” It is puzzling that Chinese people see Trump as someone bent on helping their country. In the last two years, he has waged an unrelenting trade war and deployed all the tools at his disposal to choke off flows of advanced technologies to China to slow down the growth of its power.
Anyone familiar with the Chinese sense of humour would get the joke. The hostility of the departing occupant of the White House has helped rally the Chinese people around the flag. Politically, Washington’s escalating anti-China rhetoric and actions, such as record arms sales to Taiwan and sanctions against senior Chinese officials, has benefited, instead of undermining President Xi Jinping. In the 5th plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi was able to get the party to endorse his growth plan to make China self-sufficient in hi-tech less dependent on external markets, especially the U.S. Most notably, the resolution of the plenum referred to him as “helmsman” – a designation formerly applied only to the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who dominated Chinese politics from 1949 to 1976.
A critical assumption of America’s strategy of containing China is that a new cold war will not only weaken its power but also cause sufficient economic pain to eviscerate popular support for the CPC regime. Eventually, according to this assumption, loss of legitimacy will ultimately result in a Soviet-style collapse. While seductively tantalising, this key strategic assumption does not factor in the role of Chinese nationalism in the CPC’s survival. During the Cold War, there was no such thing as Soviet nationalism because the Soviet Union was a multinational empire with a bare Russian majority. By contrast, Han-Chinese make up 92 percent of the population and Chinese nationalism has proven a potent political force which the CPC has adroitly tapped to generate popular support for decades.
As Sino-American tensions have spiralled in recent years, the propaganda apparatus of the CPC has gone into overdrive to hammer home a new nationalist narrative – China has been forced into another existential struggle against a superpower determined to stay number one. In mid-October, President Xi attended a highly publicised ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of China’s participation in the Korean War. Without naming the U.S., Xi declared that its “hegemonic conduct and bullying… absolutely will fail.”
While it is impossible to know whether Washington’s assumption will eventually pan out, it seems that in the short-term America’s strategic offensive against China has kindled its nationalism and boosted public support for the CPC. It is reasonable to expect that nationalist support for the CPC will endure for a considerable period as a result of rising U.S.-China hostility. The biggest question is how the CPC regime can translate national unity into the economic and technological achievements necessary to sustain the new cold war. If Xi takes advantage of public support to pursue critical economic reforms, he can reap the economic benefits of national unity. But if he merely exploits Chinese nationalism for personal aggrandisement and doubles down on repression and state-capitalism, he will squander a valuable political resource.
If the Chinese nation is now united as a result of Sino-American rivalry, the United States seems totally split because of its internal political polarisation. As indicated by the general elections on November 3, the country is bitterly and almost evenly divided along partisan lines. A decisive repudiation of Trump and Trumpism failed to materialise while a divided government, with the Republicans favoured to retain control of the Senate, will likely usher in four more years of political paralysis.
The socioeconomic causes of American disunity are well-known: high inequality, systemic racism, de-industrialisation and loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs, inadequate social safety nets, demographic changes, and the list goes on. But solutions to these problems are elusive. Politically, these woes have reinforced the country’s ethnic and regional divides, with Democrats representing urban areas and a coalition of White liberals and fast-growing minorities and Republicans relying almost totally on rural support and a shrinking White population.
Since Trumpism now seems to be here to stay even after the departure of Trump, few can see how political reconciliation – and national unity – can be achieved in the foreseeable future.
Can the China threat help unify the U.S.? Historically, an existential external threat has rallied the American people. Will the unfolding U.S.-China new cold war perform this healing function again? There are not enough indications today for us to know. To be sure, elites in both parties want a tough China policy. But no such consensus seems to exist at the popular level. While a majority of the American public see China unfavorably, a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that 67 percent of Republican and 53 percent of Independents see China as one of America’s top seven critical threats. Notably, Democrats disagree. Topping their list are climate change, racial inequality, economic inequality, and political polarization. https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/lcc/divided-we-stand
Elite consensus on China may help Washington craft a few specific policies to counter Chinese power (such as military and technological competition). But the China threat may not be enough to unify the two American tribes fundamentally divided on nearly all domestic issues and, above all, their clashing visions of America’s future.
The author is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in the USA