Saturday, October 22, 2016

The US is making a mockery of democracy, and China must be loving it

Leaders in Beijing are likely to be delighted at the good job being done by the American people and media to discredit the democratic process during the presidential election campaign

Some folks say the Democrats are going to be the winners in next month’s US election, some say the Republicans. From my view in Asia, where I’ve lived and worked for over 20 years, I say the Communists in Beijing will be the biggest winners. They must be revelling in the fun right now, witnessing just how depraved freedom and democracy have become.


I’m not going to waste my vote on either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, who are in a battle to finish second-to-last in two centuries of presidential candidates. I’m going to waste it on Xi Jinping (習近平) for US president. I realise Xi has a job already, but if he gets enough votes to win, “birther” issues aside, I’m betting his colleagues would give him a leave of absence to spend time in the White House, just as a gesture of goodwill to the American people. Because while Americans have done so much for Beijing over the past few decades, we’ve never done as much for them as with the 2016 election. In short, the US has done a better job of making a mockery of democracy than Beijing ever could.

The US has done a better job of making a mockery of democracy than Beijing ever could

One of the mantras of the Beijing propaganda machines is that American democracy is a fatuous popularity contest between unqualified candidates who run for office to do the bidding for their corrupt and venal capitalist backers, while China’s leaders are proven, competent meritocrats who are there solely to serve the people. Americans have now handed them Exhibits A and B and said, “See? This is what we’re talking about.” Last weekend, the one whose judgment doesn’t prevent him from engaging in locker-room talk with TV cameras rolling called on the one whose judgment doesn’t prevent her from emailing national security communiqués around the world using a “home-brew” email server to take a drug test before Wednesday’s debate. The locker-room one also told the world he thinks American democratic elections are rigged. It’s not just the candidates though. Supporting America’s self-destruction of democracy, not a few respected news sources are perceived by the public to have become openly biased, news morphing into opinion, and vice versa.

This is worse for American democracy than having two bad candidates; they’ll be gone eventually but the institution of a fair and free press was supposed to still be around. This is a horrible turn, the press giving away something money can’t buy: the perception of fairness. Why any journalist would feel the need to embellish a word Trump utters is hard to understand. His words need no interpretation, yet explaining to an American public why what Trump said is so bad in the worst possible terms seems to be part of the press’ job, as does sugar-coating Clinton’s flaws and the scandal that surrounds her. And it’s not just perception in Clinton’s case. WikiLeaks has released emails to and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that appear to show close collaboration between Clinton’s team and members of the elite press. Beijing has to love the double bonus of the US press trashing itself as it trashes the candidates.

But it’s after the election when America’s real problems begin in Asia, because both candidates have stated they won’t ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade pact the Obama administration spent years negotiating with 11 friends and allies around the Pacific, excluding China. An American failure to ratify it would, at a minimum, embarrass the leaders of the other TPP countries domestically and is likely to pave the way for Beijing to do more business with them, not less. Trump sounds like he might go as far as pulling out of Asia entirely, making noises about abandoning military alliances with Japan and South Korea.

Beijing has been making steady inroads on trade and regional politics for years, showing up with cash with no strings attached. They’re making friends with governments in Cambodia, Laos and, now, the Philippines. Meanwhile, America’s choices in November are down to a political neophyte, who sounds like he’d walk away from the region, and his opponent, who coined the term “pivot” to Asia when she was secretary of state, which now looks like American blather given what’s actually happening on the ground and in the sea here.

Beijing has to love the double bonus of the US press trashing itself as it trashes the candidates

Americans have seldom seemed to care much about how we look to the rest of the world, assuming, I suppose, that our good deeds last century were worth a lifetime of goodwill. Many Americans who live and work abroad know that is a mistake. America is not just losing the propaganda war to Beijing, it’s surrendering. For Americans who have been high on the notion of US exceptionalism, it’s time to sober up.

When I started working in the region in the 1990s, China’s economy was relatively small and in need of much work. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and the Southeast Asian countries were growing fast and people I interacted with had a generally favourable impression of America, even if they didn’t fully understand US politics and the press. When queried or challenged about apparent flaws in these, for example, during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, I used to be able to kick into a civic pride mode and explain how democracy was self-correcting, a free press was part of that, and things always came right eventually. Now, when friends ask me what’s happening at home, I tell them that I just don’t know. All I know is that we look ridiculous, and America’s rivals in Beijing hope we keep it up.

Robert Boxwell is director of the consultancy Opera Advisors

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition


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