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Cosmic stakes: Donald Trump with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, the President’s luxury Florida resort (© Xinhua/Sipa USA/PA IMAGES)

Chiang Kai-shek and Franklin Roosevelt. Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping. You must dig deep into the history of more than 70 years of US-China summitry to find even a remote parallel to last month’s meeting in Mar-a-Lago between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The personalities of the current protagonists partly account for this. It was no surprise that the encounter between the two men in Florida provided rich ground for observers of the body language and chemistry between what might almost be described as archetypes of their respective countries, cultures and, in the case of Xi, China’s resilient Communist political system.    

For if last year’s extraordinary election victory of a property magnate with no previous experience of government was the response to “elite failure” of previous US administrations, Xi’s smooth — though still incomplete — ascent to the pinnacle of Chinese Communist politics is a tribute to elite success. The scion of a senior party leader, he endured the outrageous fortunes inflicted on his and many other party families by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He went on to prosper mightily as a competent, conservatively-inclined defender of party rule in Deng Xiaoping’s reform-minded, more open China. Xi ran provinces larger than most European countries for years before he was made party general secretary and state president in 2012, at the relatively young age of 59. It is thus Xi, not Trump, who is the true apprentice. 

It says much about China’s caution in political matters, not to say fear, that its current leaders, and probably a large proportion of its people, would never dream of allowing a property investor with little or no administrative experience to run the country’s affairs. They may be discredited elsewhere, but there really is room in China for “experts”. The very word in Chinese — zhuanjia — implies a cachet of the kind that can take one far in many walks of Chinese life, foreigners included.  

True, Trump’s victory will have struck many Chinese as testament to America’s “open” political system, compared with their own. The election of Barack Obama, the first black president, in 2008 did the same. But the “it could never happen here” feeling was probably tempered by a sense of relief that it would be highly problematic if it did. You do not have to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party to believe that “Western” democracy would be dangerous in China. There is a long-held belief among Chinese intellectuals, including those who have suffered persecution at the hands of the party, that the “quality” (suzhi) of the Chinese people is far too “low” to allow them to choose the country’s leaders. The population is too large, too poorly educated and far too prey to the embedded “Chinese” cultural vices of factionalism, infighting and selfishness to expect Western democracy to flourish in China, or so this particular elite argument goes. Much safer — and wiser in terms of securing China’s long-sought goals of building national wealth and power — to keep political power in the hands of those trained to exercise it; and to ensure that they are hindered only by such constitutional and legal restraints as are commensurate with “effective governance” and the attainment of those overriding aims. To imagine otherwise is naive folly. In China, unlike the West, “human rights” are best thought of as the fruit of good governance rather than a defence against its opposite.

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