Trump Nation

In one of my most overwrought posts (and there are a lot of overwrought posts on this blog) I despaired, somewhat histrionically, that in order to survive the horrors of the Age of Trump, I had to try to block it out and look inward. What was happening was simply too terrible, too alarming to deal with. I concluded, rather hopelessly,

On the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Will we see them lit again in America? For now, all we can do is stand and wait. And maybe pray. I do not mean in any way to be an alarmist, but I do believe Trump is going to be worse than any of us imagine. I fear we are going to be in nightmare mode for years to come, if not for generations (thanks to a Trump-selected Supreme Court). A tragedy, in every way. A complete and total tragedy.

The bad news is that I am now just as pessimistic about my country’s future. Maybe even more so. We seem to exist from one Trump atrocity to the next. Weeks seem like months, months like years, as each day brings another outrage, so many so quickly that we can’t keep up. This past week he injected nasty political swipes during an address to the Boy Scouts. Just a couple of days later he told police not to be “too nice” when arresting suspected gang members, a particularly ugly example of Trump’s brutality, actually encouraging police to rough up people they arrest, throwing to the winds the concept of innocent until proven guilty. The day before that we witnessed his new communications director referring to the sitting chief of staff as a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic.” Today he ranted against China, as though Xi Jinping could erase the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program with a wave of his hand.

It all started on June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his candidacy. I watched it live, transfixed. Here was a candidate for the presidency of the United States slandering Hispanics with glee. We all remember his chilling words that day.

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

How on earth could he hope to win the nomination while preaching hatred and racism? He would have to burn out in a matter of weeks, right? Americans would obviously see how menacing and unhinged he was, right?

For months I watched him closely, and I began to become calloused – little Trump said could surprise me. He shocked me, but he did not surprise me. I watched in astonishment when he said John McCain was only a war hero because he got captured. My jaw dropped when he made fun of a journalist with a neurological disease. And perhaps I was most stunned when I heard him utter these words in December, 2015:

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

This was deranged on several levels. Imagine President Obama announcing a ban on Jews seeking to come to America. Never before had we seen a “serious” politician slander an entire religion. Trump barely concealed his racism as he preached his message of “law and order,” which is code for keeping blacks and Hispanics in check. It was a message of fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of blacks, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanics. Then he lashed out at Elizabeth Warren, dubbing her “Pocahontas,” another racist slur (imagine calling President Obama “Sambo”). When would it stop? When would he implode?

I admit, I was hypnotized. Like so many others, I watched the Trump rallies and speeches slavishly, in a state of bemused wonder. Bemused because he would, of course, never actually win. The networks became all Trump all the time. He was spectacular for their ratings; everyone wanted to enjoy the spectacle of this madman’s rants and insults. He had no fear of offending vast swaths of Americans (like the “elites”). The cheers of his adoring crowds gave him electrifying energy. He never backed down, never apologized, never showed any signs of conscience. He encouraged his fans to rough up protesters at his rallies, offering to help pay their legal bills. Ugliest of all, perhaps, was his constant smearing of Hillary Clinton as a criminal – a charge that stuck to her, and that he still rants about, calling for his attorney general to pursue criminal charges against her for using a private server, an issue that then-FBI director Jim Comey put to rest months earlier, saying she was careless but in no way criminal.

Then we watched him win one primary after another. Jeb Bush, we were told, was going to be the front runner, and maybe Marco Rubio would be his most serious opponent. Trump was a bad joke. He had to flame out. But we all know what happened next.

The fascination with all things Trump continues. Cable news cannot serve up enough of Trump, countless panels never tire of dissecting his every word, every tweet. Noxious Trump surrogates on CNN lie through their teeth defending him, and for some reason the network keeps them on despite their obvious prevarications. And I contribute to this circus, obsessively watching all the cable shows, and then tuning in later at night to watch Steven Colbert and Seth Meyers, both of whom have made mocking Trump a cottage industry.

We are now more than six months into this nightmare and things keep going from bad to worse. All the hope that he would “grow into the job,” that “sane” voices like Ivanka Trump’s and Jared Kushner’s, would keep him in check, and that experienced advisors like Generals Maddis and MacMaster would rein him in — none of it happened. And the Democrats can’t seem to come up with a credible alternative; where is the leader we can rally around and look to for leadership in 2020? And what is the Democrats’ message? This was a serious flaw in the Clinton campaign: she never successfully articulated a message that would bring people together. Trump’s Make America Great again and Bernie Sanders’ promise of a Better Tomorrow and a new deal for the working and middle classes, were effective, whatever we may think of Trump and Sanders. And let me be clear that I thought Clinton was a qualified, intelligent, experienced statesman who would have made an excellent president. But I was frustrated at her inability to articulate a vision, other than her promise to keep building on the foundations Obama had laid down. This proved to be tone deaf: Americans wanted a sea change; what we had wasn’t working for them. They wanted a leader who would “drain the swamp” and listen to the working people. Trump exploited their fears and prejudices masterfully. You have to give him credit. He tapped into a vein of anger, despair and frustration. Never mind that his promises were empty and that his words would ring hollow. He was a shrewd politician and I hope the Democrats can learn from him. The message is everything. What is the Democrats’ message?

At the moment, the only ray of hope I can see is the inability of Trump to get anything done. His narcissistic arrogance is equaled only by his incompetence and tendency to thrive on chaos. But don’t forget, he will almost certainly name at least one more Supreme Court justice, and the fate of Roe v. Wade (and plenty of other decisions) will be in danger. The Court will shape what America is for years, maybe decades, to come. And that is too scary to contemplate.

Thanks for indulging me as I rant against Trump for the second time in six months. I just had to get it out of my system. Meanwhile, I will keep doing all I can to support the resistance, but for now I remain half-paralyzed. I fear we still haven’t seen the worst of Trump’s presidency. It’s going to be a long three and a half years.

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Liu Xiaobo

Readers of this blog need no introduction to Liu Xiaobo, his life or his death. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on his passing several days ago, and to share my thoughts on what his plight tells us about the CCP and the perils of being an activist in today’s China.

Liu was an outspoken advocate for human rights, and was sharply critical of the CCP and the stultifying effect the government had on all aspects of Chinese life, including its intellectuals and authors. Liu was persistently critical of writers in China who, he felt, had lost their ability to think for themselves. From the single best tribute I’ve read on Liu’s life and death, by the great China Hand Perry Link:

“I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.”

Often in his writing Liu deliberately stuck his thumb into the government’s eye. He was a fierce critic of the CCP’s stranglehold on its people’s psyche and he was not afraid to say so. This became most obvious in his Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms. It was to seal his fate, leading to his arrest and 11-year prison sentence for subversion. But even thirty years before that Liu showed just how courageous he could be, after he rushed back to Beijing from New York in March of 1989 to support the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

As the movement lurched towards disaster, Liu tried to reason with the students to tone down their protests and return to their classes. When the army arrived, Liu negotiated with them to allow protesters to leave the square peacefully. In the aftermath, he was arrested and imprisoned until January 1991.

“From the moment I walked out of the Square, my heart has been heavy, after all that bloodshed on June 4th. I’ve never gotten over this,” he said, afterwards.

The government has done a splendid job slandering Liu and destroying his reputation. The brutal 11-year sentence shocked the world and led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. The CCP-controlled media refer to him as a “criminal” and rage against the West for idealizing him. A particularly odious editorial in the Global Times lashes out at those outside China who dare to look favorably on Liu:

Since Liu’s medical parole was made public, the Chinese side has been focusing on Liu’s treatment, but some Western forces are always attempting to steer the issue in a political direction, hyping the treatment as a “human rights” issue. US and German authorities have also chimed in.

Obviously, outside disturbances were of no help to Liu’s treatment. It is common sense that a critically ill patient should not be informed of disputes surrounding him that may arouse emotional upheaval, but the West was unwilling to care about Liu’s condition.

Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas. They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China. They aren’t really interested in prolonging Liu’s life. While Chinese doctors were doing their best to save Liu, they clamored and asked the critically ill patient to be transferred abroad only to show their so-called “sympathy.”

Liu’s jail sentence is a solemn ruling of the Chinese law. Liu was diagnosed with cancer in jail, and the prison authorities granted him medical parole and provided him with humanitarian treatment. These are all facts. The various speculations from the West will vanish soon….

Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support. This has determined his tragic life. Even if he could live longer, he would never have achieved his political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.

Right, the government saw to it that Liu was given “humanitarian treatment.” Right, his goals of democratic reforms and human rights are “in opposition to the path of history.” It’s when we read pieces like this that we are reminded just how thuggish and brutal China’s government can be. I have tried over the years to give the Party the benefit of the doubt and to point out some of the good they have done for their people. But the fact remains they are an authoritarian government that at times displays all the characteristics of a police state. And since Xi came to power, more and more activists, and even their lawyers, have been thrown into prison. Now they continue to harass Liu’s widow, who remains under house arrest. (That’s a shocking atricle.) China under Xi is a thugocracy. You’re fine if you keep your mouth shut. But once you call attention to yourself by speaking out, God help you. The Party will crush you like an insect.

Many years ago I called China “the evil empire.” (And if you never read that post, I strongly recommend it, even though my assessment of the CCP has softened since I wrote it 14 years ago.) For all their efforts to show us a peaceful and humane China, for all their attempts to strengthen the country’s “soft power,” little has changed.

Three years ago we witnessed another CCP crime against humanity when they arrested and sentenced to prison for life a moderate Uighur professor, Ilham Tohti, who advocated peaceful solutions to China’s conflicts with the Uighurs. Life imprisonment. This was an obvious attempt to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” How can activists dare to speak truth to power when they see that their lives can in effect be snuffed out even for a peaceful call for modest reforms?

China longs to be seen as a peaceful and benevolent world power. But we cannot be fooled. It remains a morally bankrupt and semi-totalitarian state. Yes, there have been reforms, yes, people there enjoy a degree of freedom unthinkable a mere 30 years ago, and yes, the majority of Chinese would most likely vote for the CCP if elections were to be held today (is there any viable alternative?). But don’t deny that it remains a police state. Just ask Professor Tothi. Just ask Liu Xia.

Western-style democracy may not be the answer. (Look at who we elected as our own president.) But greater adherence to the rule of law is a necessary step for China to be seen as a free country. And let me add that I understand why some would be critical of Liu Xiaobo for pointing to the West as an example for China, for pointing to Hong Kong as an example of how colonization by the West would be a good thing for China, and for being in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But that is all irrelevant. Liu should never have been thrown into prison. China has once again shown the world how paranoid, frightened and cowardly they can be. No government that isn’t terrified of the slightest opposition would ever sink to such a level of moral depravity. It cannot be forgotten or forgiven, despite the Global Times’ assertion that the West’s outrage over Liu’s plight “will vanish soon.” Let them believe that. The world remains shocked and appalled at Liu’s treatment, and history will not forget the CCP’s malfeasances.

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Mao’s Hidden Massacres

About nine years ago, when I was doing work related to the Beijing Olympics, I learned a lesson I should have been smart enough to know in advance. I should have known that Chinese people don’t like it when a foreigner criticizes their government in general and Mao in particular. I was talking to a colleague over lunch when something led us to the topic of Mao, and I expressed a belief I’ve written about countless times on this blog: that Mao was a mass murderer who led China to the brink of destruction and who brought the Chinese people nothing but pain and misery. The young lady, who was one of my dearest friends in China, was college educated and spent years studying in Canada. I made the mistake of assuming that someone so urbane and well schooled would know just how bad Mao was for China. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Mao did so much good for China.” She went on to defend him, tears in her eyes, and I did not argue back. I just nodded and said, “I understand.” I had been thoughtless; I should have remembered that I, too, have gotten defensive when Chinese friends criticized my own government.

I have read countless articles, essays, blog posts and books about what Mao has meant for China. I believe more than ever that he did incalculable harm, that he sent the country into a near-death spiral, that he had the blood of millions on his hands and that the Chinese people deserve to know the truth about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I know better than to lecture my Chinese friends about this, but I have no problem writing how I feel on my own blog.

Mao has been on my mind for the past several days thanks to a recent book review by Ian Johnson, arguably the most level-headed and knowledgeable of all China hands, on a side of the Cultural Revolution I was largely unaware of, namely the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese people in the country’s far-flung rural areas. These killings were not isolated incidents; they were systematic and widespread. Johnson’s article deals in particular with the massacre of some 9,000 Chinese citizens in Dao County in south Hunan province. People who had the bad luck of being the child of a traffic policeman, for example, were labeled “black elements” and rounded up as Mao tightened the notches of propaganda warning that these “enemies” were plotting a counterrevolution. In response, local authorities decided it was best to act pre-emptively and exterminate the enemies. (Johnson writes that records show between 400,000 and 1.5 million men, women and children were murdered in such incidents throughout rural China.)

Johnson describes one of the many massacres carried out in Dao County, in which the “black elements” were marched to a killing field:

A self-proclaimed “Supreme People’s Court of the Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants” was formed out of the mob and immediately issued a death sentence to the entire group. The adults were clubbed in the head with a hoe and kicked into a limestone pit. Mrs. Zhou’s children wailed, running from adult to adult, promising to be good. Instead, the adults tossed them into the pit too.

Some fell down twenty feet to a ledge. Mrs. Zhou and one of her children landed alive on a pile of corpses on a higher ledge. When the gang heard their cries and sobs they tossed big rocks at the ledge until it collapsed, sending them down onto the others. Miraculously, all the family members survived. But as the days passed each of them died, until Mrs. Zhou was the last person in the pit with thirty-one corpses around her.

For many of these “undesirables,” the killings were the culmination of years of living as second-class citizens: “The state had stripped them of their property. It had assigned them bad jobs with low pay or rocky plots of land to farm. And it had inundated China with a barrage of propaganda intended to convince many that black elements were dangerous, violent criminals who were barely human.” Blame for the hysteria that led to these acts of genocide can be traced directly to Zhongnanhai. I wonder, would there have been a Cultural Revolution without Mao? Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is no.

The book Johnson reviews is The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution, which was originally published in Hong Kong and has just been translated into English. The review makes for engrossing reading, and portrays the Cultural Revolution as even more appalling and frightening than I had imagined, if such is possible. Accompanying the review is an interview Johnson conducted with the book’s author, Tan Hecheng. When Hu Yaobang was in power Tan and other officials were assigned to research the Dao County massacre, but by the time he was finished with his interviews and research the political winds in China had shifted and the government had no interest in shining a spotlight on itself. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Cultural Revolution, both the review and the interview are indispensable.

I regret the tears shed by my colleague, caused by my unintentionally hurtful comments. But my visceral loathing of Mao remains unchanged, and after reading Johnson’s articles it only becomes worse. Mao’s rein was nothing less than one long, brutal crime against humanity, and I wish more of today’s young Chinese understood that. As America steps closer to authoritarianism with Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, it is time for all of us to learn from the past.

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