China has had a loving, and long-running, sibling rivalry with the United States — until Donald Trump barged in.
- By James PalmerJames Palmer is Asia Editor at Foreign Policy.
In a courtyard house in Beijing, I teach the future Chinese elite the past failings of America. My history students, all Chinese, are bright high school seniors on course to study at top Western universities. AP U.S. history is a perpetually oversubscribed course at the after-school academy, pulling in five times the numbers of its European equivalent. But in the past few months, the rise of Donald Trump has given a worryingly eschatological feeling to the class, as if we were living through a long-predicted apocalypse.
In teaching history, it’s hard to escape the shadow of Trump. When we talked about the Founding Fathers’ fear of demagogues and the fickle mob, he was there. When we talked about the Know-Nothings, the anti-immigrant party of the late 1840s, or the fever of anti-Chinese hatred in California in the 1880s, he was there. When we talked about the wartime panic that marched Japanese families into internment camps as potential terrorists, he was there. I just hope the world is done with him by the time we get to the civil rights movement, or he’ll be there in every picture of hateful faces screaming at black children.
Racism is the single hardest part of the American experience for idealistic Chinese teenagers to grasp. China has plenty of ethnic prejudices of its own, but it has nothing that matches the poison of chattel slavery and its aftermath. Chinese historiography, as taught in schools and absorbed through media, is crudely Marxist; when I asked my students which factor determined voting preference more than any other in the United States, three-quarters of them said class — none said race. A gulf between the wealthy and the masses makes instinctive sense to them; they see it in the streets and hear it in their parents’ discussions every day. Race doesn’t.
In fairness, nor does a lot of U.S. politics. One of my favorite techniques is to find the most ridiculous parts of the system and unpick their historical origins with the class. There’s a particular “Wait, what!” face my kids make — something like a confused owl — when confronted with yet another absurdity, whether it’s gerrymandering, filibustering, or the fact that Wyoming, with about as many people as the average Beijing district, has as many senators as California, with about as many people as the average Chinese province.
They make these faces because they care about America, and they find its failings frustrating and scary. I assigned them Hamilton for homework over China’s national holidays, despite their skepticism about what exactly a musical was and why they should spend three hours listening to it. The week after, I asked them how it was and got a tumult of delighted responses: “Oh my god!” “Unbelievable!” “So good!” When I turned up early for class a few weeks later, they were playing it on their laptops. They argue about U.S. politics and history in Chinese after class. (“Was Andrew Jackson a Republican?” “No, you twat, he was way before the Republicans.”)
In most ways, my students are radically atypical: They are smart, well-traveled, and from families able to afford my extortionate fees, for starters. But their fascination with the United States is shared with a huge number of their peers. The United States is covered constantly in China — in papers, on TV, in books, in heated online discussions. Much of that is filtered through state media coverage that uses an increasingly sour and paranoid lens. Yet beneath that, a strain of Chinese faith in the United States survives — and my students, in their inquisitiveness and engagement, reflect that.
Throughout the 20th century, many educated Chinese maintained a deep, abiding belief in U.S. democracy. It wasn’t just a reference point for intellectual discussion, but a kind of faith, sometimes open, sometimes maintained in secret. In the early years of the People’s Republic, returnees from America, educated at Ivy League colleges, brought back with them a varied mixture of socialist idealism and trust in U.S. principles — only to be persecuted as spies or traitors in the Cultural Revolution.
One of them, 30 years later, described the years he spent locked in an improvised prison, a morgue, for being a “counter-revolutionary.” Speaking to the journalist Justin Mitchell, he said, “I would wake up every morning and go to the small window where I could see the sun and recite the Gettysburg Address.” My friend Ami Li, born in 1986 in the provincial town of Shijiazhuang, told me how his father had taught him about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln — “the great men of history.”
Faith in the United States produces some odd acolytes, like my buddy Rick, who has never left China but was, for years, a fanatical libertarian who spent his spare hours arguing on both Chinese and American political forums. Being an acolyte of Ron Paul in China is like being a Trotskyite in America — a position adopted as much to piss off the people around you as for its own virtues. But underneath that was a devout belief. When Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Rick blamed it on his lack of true libertarianism — but increasingly warmed toward Obama because “he believes in the country and so do I.” He is less enthusiastic about the present Republican nominee. At a dinner just after the conventions, munching on a hamburger, he told me, “If Trump wins, I am ready to take up arms and fight him.”
The ability to believe in America has taken a battering over the last two decades. The debacle of Iraq, followed by the global financial crisis — inevitably, and not unfairly, referred to by Chinese media as the “U.S.-caused financial crisis” — took the shine off American glory. That wasn’t helped by some Chinese dissidents hailing neoconservative ideals, such as future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, who wrote a cringingly awful essay backing the Iraq War called “Victory to the Anglo-American Freedom Alliance.”
But at the same time, as China’s emerging urban rich began to engage with the United States more directly, the country started to play an even greater part in the public imagination. Suddenly America was somewhere you could go on holiday to, where your kids went to school, where you might plan an escape from polluted air and sink the $500,000 needed for an investment visa into a business of your own. Online forums started to explode on a daily basis with arguments about whether the United States was heaven or hell, about whether it was amazing that you could turn up at an emergency room and the doctors had to treat you even if you weren’t uninsured, or whether it was disgusting how much a meal cost.
For a mongrel like me, born in Britain to an Aussie mom and with family scattered across the West, China’s obsession with the United States can be a little frustrating, especially when it’s referred to as the be-all and end-all of democracy and the welfare state. “Other countries have functioning health systems!” I cry. “We have sensible ranked voting! We only had one school shooting ever!” And yet it makes sense. The United States is the only country that matches China’s size and scale. European countries, even Asian neighbors like Japan and South Korea, are easy to dismiss as small nations that don’t have China’s problems. The ability of the United States to hold, every two years, a free and fair(-ish) election can’t be shaken off the same way.
And the truth is, I believe in the United States, too. I have ever since reading the first Doonesbury collection I picked up when I was 10 in Manchester, when I couldn’t understand half the jokes but wanted to. I believe in the country that saved the Soviet Union from starvation, that rebuilt its defeated enemies after World War II, that created and embraced jazz and rock and hip-hop, and that makes the best TV in the world. I don’t want students to come away from my class disillusioned with the United States or pessimistic about its future. I think of myself like a Jesuit scholar teaching biblical criticism at seminary; I want them to be believers, but I want them to be smart believers. I teach them America’s failings because I want them to understand how remarkable its successes are; how amazing it is that a ragtag nation, born in tar and feathers and whips and chains, could mean something 200 years later to a man in a Chinese prison looking at the sun.
And I want them to understand the kind of women and men who did those things, who fought daily in the pursuit of unlimited ends — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — with limited means. I want them to understand how hard and tiring it was and how many people never saw the promised land. I want them to know how flawed and broken many of those people were, how many of them were drunks or racists or just given to waving their junk on Air Force One. I want them to know these things because I want them to fight for the same things in another great country when they’re adults.
And so I hope that I can keep believing in the United States after Tuesday evening, because I want them to believe in it, too.
Photo credit: China Photos/Getty Images