It was raining on that cold February night as I rode a taxi from downtown Shanghai across the mouth of the Yangtze River.
I was escaping a forsaken city, local Chinese having returned to their hometowns for Lunar New Year celebrations, while foreigners used the break to travel to exotic locales in Southeast Asia.
I’d chosen to stay in the deserted financial hub and spend the holiday with a family that ran a small restaurant on the corner near my apartment. For the year and a half that I helped American businesses rent office space in Shanghai, I moonlit as a prep cook for chef Wang as a hobby.
But the endless rounds of Chinese whiskey and Mahjong – obligatory exercises during the seven-day Chinese New Year marathon – got to be too much by day three. After the ninth shot of the fermented sorghum poison, a clear liquid that somehow smells like French cheese yet tastes like West Virginia moonshine, I barged out of the door into the pouring rain.
I was vaguely aware of a resort island known as a pleasant day trip spot for upper-middle-class locals and also as where taxi drivers hang their hats… Shanghai’s Long Island, if you will. The perfect place for a bored chauffer to send me.
It Didn’t Have to Be an Orwellian Nightmare
I was soaked and chilled to the bone when I found a little hotel on the main commercial strip of the beach town to check into for the night. Sitting down on the bed I opened the bedside table drawer, expecting instinctively to find a copy of the bible.
In place of the good book, the proprietors of the hotel provided what I can only imagine must represent a bible of sorts to them. There were two copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one in English and one in Chinese.
This was the kind of surprise I had up until that point become accustomed to seeing in the country. People unfamiliar with the China of the late 2000s warned me before I arrived not to debate politics for fear I would be targeted by Communist authorities.
By the time I could read enough Chinese to ask a newsstand owner to recommend a paper, she immediately chose the one with a lead front-page story about the most violent atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution.
The explicit criticism of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party didn’t come until the last paragraph on page A12, but, nonetheless, the story gave me hope about the direction China was headed.
Alas, that was way back in 2009, the year after the Beijing Summer Olympics catapulted this developing country onto the world stage.
Just a few years later, following the ascent to power of Chairman Xi Jinping, as I sat like a wet dog looking out the window of the hotel at the dull glow of the fluorescent lights shrouded by fog and driving rain, everything had changed.
As it turns out, the warning given to guests of the hotel in the form of Orwell’s nightmarish fantasy was lost on China’s leaders.
There Is No Turning Back
The great tragedy of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to become the closest facsimile of George Orwell’s dystopia the world has ever seen – thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and supportive tech companies – is not just that it will fail China. It will also help lead the world into chaos.
There is no way for open and free societies to have healthy, constructive, and fair relationships with a closed authoritarian one.
In order to maintain control, China cannot allow foreign technology companies to operate freely in its home market. Likewise, because of the threat to our privacy and freedom of speech, we will reject China’s technology companies. These technology companies represent the goods and services of the future.
This dilemma cannot be resolved. No matter how many tariffs we impose, it can’t change the fact that freedom lost in China.
We can already see the chaos in Hong Kong, but the trend line is only going in one direction.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” William Butler Yeats lamented in his most famous poem, two decades before World War II.
Like the collapse of the Ottoman Empire before Europe descended into chaos last century, American hegemony is waning. Nationalism is rising, and this is true in China more so than anywhere else.
Beijing’s claims to territory occupied by other governments (Taiwan, the South China Sea, the border with India) are rooted in an intense thirst to avenge the century of humiliation that saw its power and prestige crushed by the West and Japan.
Trade Deal Purgatory
All of this is why the trade talks between the U.S. and China are just a sideshow. There is no ultimate resolution, only perhaps a chance for China to bide its time.
Like Bill Murray’s pitiful character in the early 1990s classic “Groundhog Day,” we relive the same headlines about a trade deal day after day.
As I have repeatedly explained here, the “phase one” agreement on the table (but not finalized), is now all but confirmed to be everything officials in Beijing had hoped for, taking us back to square one.
“U.S. Considers Rolling Back Tariffs as Part of Deal” and “Wilbur Ross Says Licenses for U.S. to Sell to Huawei Coming Soon,” are the latest stories to scroll across our screens.
The Injured Dragon Recoups Its Strength
If the deal goes through, it means that our Dear Leader, hailing now it seems from Florida and not New York, has kowtowed submissively to Beijing in exchange for purchases of American soybeans ahead of the 2020 election.
I agree wholeheartedly with David that the Donald’s “policy” of indiscriminate, unilateral tariff buckshot is not the most effective way to challenge the Communist regime ruling over the Middle Kingdom.
But we are now without a grand strategy to enlist (comparatively) free market-oriented democracies around the globe to ally with us in a campaign against China’s increasingly Stalinist system.
Absent such a plan, backing down in this fashion will embolden Beijing’s autocrats in a way they could have only dreamed of before a sea of MAGA hats swept across our heartland.