China-US relations

How China and the US are spooking each other with their politics

Tom Plate says far from being a force for good, Sino-US interdependence is raising fears of knock-on instability

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 November, 2016, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 November, 2016, 6:32pm

These days, startling philosophical perspectives originate as much with our “crazy” physicists as our “wise” philosophers. What’s more, thinking in effete code so much, physicists will offer memorable ways of phrasing things when they come down to Planet Earth to communicate in, say, plain English.

Consider their fun term for spots in space where gravity somehow clamps down so hard that even light is trapped, as if in a deep coal mine. Physicists have a term for it that has wormed its way into common conversation: “black hole”.

Now, along comes another term of comparable transferable utility – and gawkiness. It’s called “spooky action at a distance”. And it bodes, for several reasons, to become my all-time favourite.

One is that social science, a dog looking up to its master, will sniff around the physical sciences in a desperate search for comparable certainty. So, as with other scientific terms, “spooky action at a distance” may come to offer insight for social science analysis – as suggested here regarding the US national election and China’s political evolution.

The background: the “spooky action at a distance” term is not new. Albert Einstein is said to have coined it while knocking the controversial concept – that two physically separated particles can be correlated – as voodoo physics. But over time, this genius began to doubt his own doubt: maybe, somehow, particles not in close proximity (having “locality”) could directly affect each other – in a kind of inexplicable long-distance intimacy, via hyper speeds faster than light. Today, the notion of “remote causality” finds considerable favour among physicists for whom quantum theory comes up short in explaining our complex physical world.

And so this American presidential campaign might be thought to fit like a glove the notion of “spooky action at a distance”. Consider that two American figures have battled to occupy a place in the political universe that will have an undeniable tug and pull on China. They do so from far away, and are perhaps at times oblivious to the influences being exerted, precisely because the source is so out of direct sight.

For China and the US, bound by trade, great power brings great responsibility

The implications of such a geopolitical tightly wound “string theory” are unclear but possibly positive. Both sides may sense or feel a potentially tendentious tug every time one or the other moves out of normal customary space; thinking optimistically, “spooky action at a distance” may eventually embed a kind of distance learning on both sides of the Pacific that serves to curb truly risky behaviour.

The pull and tug is undeniable. For example, when the political camp of President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) seeks to gather up as much power to itself as possible so as to emerge as the “core” of China’s power structure, reverberations are felt in Washington almost as if invisible strings were strung between the two capitals. Similarly, when the US begins to replace its commander-in-chief with someone else, stress is generated from such “spooky action at a distance”.

The bilateral relationship is so intertwined that it is practically strung out – as if in a constant state of intimate tension … in a sense, truly intrinsically neurotic.

One further implication: if geopolitics, in our rapidly integrating and globalising world, comes to resemble anything like a contiguous, holistic physical world, then win-lose outcomes will not offer resolution – they will be unstable isotopes.

China and the US have a huge responsibility not to permit an unstable leader to surge to the top of their political systems

Imagine the Sino-US relationship – two countries separated by 10,000 kilometres – as modulated by a sort of iron law of “spooky action at a distance”. Neither one is now – or ever will be – independent of the other.

So if one side’s political system returns inextricably into a throwback one-man dictatorship, or the other willingly elects a disturbed retro would-be strongman, possible disaster beckons. Thus, both China and the US have a huge responsibility, to themselves and to the world, not to permit an unstable leader to surge to the top of their political systems.

What kind of a job is each side doing in this regard? For China, if we believe famed emeritus Oxford professor Stein Ringen, the answer is not so great: “Xi Jinping has moved governance away from apparent softness and towards more undisguised hardness.”

In his punchy, provocative and highly critical new book, The Perfect Dictatorship – published, interestingly enough, by Hong Kong University Press – the professor imagines China in the 21st century as a modern Mao-type one-man “controlocracy”: brutal, wasteful and destructive, and rising irresistibly as a “power state”.

How did China’s Xi Jinping secure ‘core’ status in just four years?

In the harsh Ringen scenario, the culprit is not the political system, which the professor admits seems somewhat bendable in various directions, but the tendencies of the current leader himself: “Xi Jinping has gathered unprecedented, since Mao, powers to his own hands and is presenting himself as an ambitious and activist leader who may not have in mind a legacy of simply leaving the ship of state on steady keel. It seems he might be a man with a mission, and … may have concentrated enough power in his hands to pursue it and may be determined or trapped into imposing his own will to the bitter end.”

Ringen’s vision is far, far too grim for me, but as one conceivable option in China’s evolution, it would be irresponsible to dismiss it out of hand. Now, as to the direction of the United States, you should have a much better idea in a day or so.

Let’s hope that what we will face is not too – how do we say? – spooky.

Columnist and Loyola Marymount Professor Tom Plate is founder of Asia Media International and vice-president of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles