Xi’s world or Trump’s? The choice is between prosperous authoritarianism or chaotic freedom in the new cold war
Michael Chugani says Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump represent two different philosophies, one promising stable and prosperous authoritarianism, the other, chaotic democracy with greater personal and internet freedom
Which do you prefer: the world according to Xi Jinping or the world according to Donald Trump? One is the steely leader of an authoritarian state determined to remake China as the Middle Kingdom which dominates the world. He is changing the constitution so he can be leader for life if necessary to achieve his goal.
The other is the mercurial leader of a democracy who wants to make America great again but has made it less so during his first year in office. He would love to be leader for life – and has said so – but is powerless to change the constitution. He will be president for another seven years at most.
In the world according to Xi, authoritarian rule has trumped democracy as a superior model. He wants to export it to willing countries as an alternative to democracy. He is shrewdly wooing them by dazzling leaders with roads and railways paid for with cash China earned from the West. At home, he has whipped up nationalism and pride among the population by distributing rice and cooking oil in villages, raising living standards, supersizing the country’s infrastructure, and masking his toppling of political foes as a fight against corruption. Aside from opposing factions and some in the intelligentsia, every mainlander I have met worships Xi.
In the world according to Trump, exporting American goods supersedes exporting democracy. Instead of showering countries with American largesse, he has spooked them and allies alike with threats that the US will no longer be a sucker by policing the world at its own expense. He wants allies and others fearful of an authoritarian state becoming the dominant global power to pay their share for security. He wants the world to acquiesce to his demand to make America great again. Patriotism is an inborn American trait. But, instead of uniting the people through nationalism, he has divided them through politics.
Xi wins applause from a jingoistic population for imposing punitive trade measures against places such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan for daring to defy his wishes. But Trump gets brickbats from politicians and businesses for sparking trade wars through higher tariffs even though tariffs are in retaliation for unfair trade by other countries.
So, which gives you the jitters, Trump’s world or Xi’s? Before you answer, think cold war, not trade wars. A cold war is already in the making. Those who don’t see it are in a state of denial.
The last cold war between the US-led West and the Soviet bloc pitched democracy against oppressive communist rule. The democratic West won. But the cold war now taking shape is a contest for global influence between a confident new-style authoritarianism against tattered democracy in a divided West. The protagonists in this new cold war are Trump on the one side and Xi and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the other. Putin has lamented the demise of the Soviet bloc. He recently showed videos of advanced Russian nuclear weapons striking the US as a warning to Trump. Xi’s China is relentlessly testing new weaponry and increased its military budget. Trump has proposed a huge increase in the military budget for a New-Age nuclear arsenal to counter China and Russia, which he called strategic rivals.
Whether Xi’s authoritarian rule or the West’s democracy is more appealing depends on what you want. If you like steady rule by an unelected leader who improves people’s lives by creating paths to wealth in return for iron-hand restrictions on freedom of thought and speech, and a censored internet, then Xi’s world is where you belong. If you don’t mind the chaos of democracy that produced Trump and recent inconclusive election results in Italy and Germany in return for unrestricted personal and internet freedoms, and the power of the people to decide how long leaders can stay, then Trump’s world is for you.
Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host