If economic gains are reason enough for Americans to look past the Trump administration’s flaws, why would this not be the case for Chinese?

(Originally published here on September 15, 2020 in South China Morning Post.)

Don’t expect Beijing to roll over when it is collared with the same leash it puts on diplomats posted to China. Conflating one-upmanship and reciprocity as readily as US President Donald Trump portrays America’s Covid-19 disaster as a public health policy success, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian announced on Friday that US diplomats in China will face new restrictions, in retaliation for those that US State Secretary Mike Pompeo recently imposed on Chinese diplomats in the US.

Considering that US diplomatic missions in China have never been able to engage freely with Chinese society, Zhao’s move is kind of like telling prison inmates that their access to Airbnb has been revoked.

The lack of reciprocity that has always been the case was reinforced last week with the news that People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, refused to run an editorial penned by US Ambassador Terry Branstad. According to the newspaper, Branstad’s piece was “seriously inconsistent with the facts”. True to form, however, these arbiters of truth didn’t indicate which details needed correcting.

This is all playing out as the world pays greater attention to Beijing’s treatment of pan-democrats in Hong Kong, and of Tibetans, Uygurs, Mongolians and anyone else not fitting in with an obedient Han Chinese monoculture interested only in economic security.

As Beijing continues its construction of a totalitarian surveillance state, its enemies in Washington must be scratching their heads. With the Chinese government unleashing such a dystopian beast, why isn’t the Chinese population rising in resistance? And why would US allies and China’s neighbours need convincing and cajoling to join Washington’s effort to curb Beijing’s ambitions on the technological front, and others?

Let’s first look at the US election. Trump and his party think that law, order and rising stock prices will satisfy enough Americans to keep them in power for a second term. If stability and economic gains are reason enough for Americans to look past the Trump administration’s flaws, why would this not be the case for Chinese?

Then there’s the behaviour of the Trump administration itself, which has called into question America’s commitment to defend an anti-fascist, liberal, democratic world order, which had been an objective of both parties before the Republicans ceded their principles to Trump in 2017.

Capping a series of Trump appointees commandeering departments meant to be apolitical, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf delivered a speech last Wednesday that portrayed anyone protesting against racial injustice in the US as an enemy of the state. This obliterated the distinction between those demonstrating peacefully for social justice and those throwing firebombs, the same tactic used by authoritarians worldwide.

As he spoke, we learned of a whistle-blower complaint that Wolf, following alleged instructions from national security adviser Robert O’Brien, told a Homeland Security intelligence official to emphasise potential election interference from China and Iran, and to downplay threats posed by Russia.

These are still just accusations, but when we look at the fawning deference with which Trump has treated Vladimir Putin throughout his tenure, including his refusal to condemn the apparent poisoning of Putin critic Alexei Navalny, they don’t exactly come out of the left field.

Meanwhile, the sheer incompetence of Trump’s response to Covid-19 – a catastrophe exacerbated in the US by a White House that not only played down the threat in a bid to support stock prices, but actively undermined the advice that epidemiologists were trying to disseminate – doesn’t inspire confidence.

We can and should demand accountability from a Chinese government that muzzled Li Wenliang and other doctors in Wuhan who tried to sound the alarm about the spread of the novel coronavirus late last year. But the fact that so many of China’s neighbours and the rest of the developed world have got the pandemic under control makes a mockery of Trump’s efforts to blame America’s nearly 200,000 Covid-19 deaths on China.

Canada, just north of the border, just recently brought its daily Covid-19 death toll down to zero, while the US is still reporting more than 1,000 deaths a day.

As the rest of the world ponders which side to be aligned with in the new cold war, the current US administration looks more like the Chinese Communist Party on social issues, and a failed state when it comes to public health.

That gives Beijing more leeway to keep Branstad – not to mention countless other diplomats, journalists and academics – from communicating with China without any repercussions.

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