In August, the Daily Devil’s Dictionary appears in a single weekly edition containing multiple items taken from a variety of contexts.
This week, before glancing at political division in the US, we look at what is shaping up to be a game-changing development in China. Bloomberg’s reporters refer to it as a “policy bombshell,” but mainstream media in the West have largely ignored it. This neglect may have something to do with the conviction in the West that, though there are monumentally important problems to deal with, the inertia of the political and economic system we have today is such that no one believes that anything we decide to do will ever change anything. Could China be on course to become the century’s new “exceptional nation”?
Xi’s Promise of a New Great Leap Forward
In his successful 2008 campaign, Barack Obama railed against George W. Bush’s tax cuts and wars, only to maintain both during his two terms in office. In his campaign last year, Joe Biden lamented Donald Trump’s provocative policies regarding Cuba and Iran as well as Trump’s tax cuts. But after six months at the helm, he has shown no serious intent to reverse those policies.
Both Democratic presidents claimed they would effect change (Obama) and be transformative (Biden), hiding they would be acting to reduce the inequality between makers and takers that Republicans promoted as an illustration of capitalist virtue. Both Democrats have shown themselves ready to accommodate and defend the interests of the 1% who supported their campaigns while expressing a sentimental commitment to improving everyone’s lives. The structure of US democracy seems to make challenging the status quo an impossible task. Sentiments consistently fail to influence reality.
Thought Suppression Flourishes in France and Washington
China is governed by an exclusive elite, the Communist Party. Its monopoly on power spares its leaders the trouble of having to invent campaign promises to seduce ignorant voters. Many have noticed the comfortable complicity of China’s communist leaders with an economy that has become a decidedly capitalist power structure. If the US has cultivated an efficient, legally validated system of structured private capitalist corruption that offers the wealthy class the privilege of controlling politics, the Chinese have perfected a system of state corruption that offers the politically powerful direct control of wealth itself.
All recent US regimes have had no choice but to capitulate to the private interests that literally own the economy. The Democratic Party’s public war against the progressive reformers within its midst provides a good demonstration of the phenomenon. The democratic processes laid out in the US Constitution have been successfully manipulated over time to comfort oligarchy. This makes it particularly remarkable today that China’s authoritarian regime under President Xi Jinping, a true and largely unassailable oligarchy, appears to be providing the rare example of a government intent on taking action against the powerful interests that control the global economy. Xi appears to be taking steps to move China’s political economy in a more egalitarian direction. It may not be Karl Marx, but it clearly isn’t Milton Friedman.
According to Bloomberg journalists, Tom Hancock and Tom Orlick, “Xi is engaging in a “capitalist smackdown” that will change the way the Chinese economy works in the coming years. Xi’s new agenda “puts three priorities ahead of unfettered growth.” The first, which should surprise no one, is national security. It “includes control of data and greater self-reliance in technology. All nations in our dangerous world are enamored of security. The second is far more radical: “Common prosperity, which aims to curb inequalities that have soared in recent decades.” The third is consistent with traditional Chinese culture: “Stability, which means tamping down discontent among China’s middle class.” In Chinese culture, this is the effect of the virtue of harmony.
In other words, Xi is attempting to do what Joe Biden has ominously warned he might do: use his authoritarian power to achieve pragmatic goals in the name of the people that are difficult to achieve in the kind of democracy practiced in the US.
The opposite of the now current regime of private prosperity that works by undermining what was once idealized in the notion of the commonwealth, implying a fraternal sharing of national wealth
Xi appears to be announcing a quiet but stern revolution that has already provoked panic among many of the vested interests in the world of finance, both foreign and Chinese. Forty years ago, Deng Xiaoping’s departure from Mao Zedong’s radical communist egalitarianism and his encouragement of Western-style economic freedom led to China becoming a fixture of the global capitalist system. It achieved this goal by exciting the appetites of both Western and Chinese economic opportunists, leading to a record-breaking expansion of the Chinese economy.
The new policy aims at relieving the suffering of “stretched workers, stressed parents, and squeezed start-ups.” The article’s authors designate the losers: “tech billionaires and their backers in the stock market, highly leveraged property companies including China Evergrande Group, and foreign venture capital firms that had hoped to take Chinese companies public in the U.S.” The Economist describes the intended outcome in these terms: “Alibaba in e-commerce or Tencent in payments and entertainment will be around but less overweening — and less lucrative. Policies to curb their market power will redistribute some of their profits to smaller merchants and app developers, and to their workers.”
Xi’s gambit doesn’t appear to be merely rhetorical. Whether he can accomplish his goals remains an open question. He has undoubtedly set the scene for a major drama that, as it plays out, will most likely dominate the decade to come. Both the world of global capital and the declining US empire will react. It could lead to war. It could also lead to radical restructuring of the current geopolitical order in what may become a more multipolar world. For the moment, we the spectators are simply discovering the dialogue of Act I, Scene 1.
Can Xi Really Corral Such Ferocious Animals?
The same Bloomberg article explains Xi’s political motivation for his “capitalist smackdown.” To ensure the population’s acceptance of his hold on the reins of power, Xi wants to reassure the middle class that he is defending their interests. There may be more complex geopolitical causes, but that motivation clearly explains the urgency of the shift. The authors go on to evoke the possible downside of Xi’s new agenda: “The bigger risk for Beijing: Heavy state intervention might dampen the animal spirits that drive private investment and reverse an integration with the global economy that has helped drive growth in the last four decades.”
The spontaneous exuberance attributed to unthinking creatures with energy to expend, an unbridled appetite and scorn for anything that stands in their way
Xi is undoubtedly a clever geopolitical strategist. He can see clearly the issues Western empires have struggled with in past centuries. China had a privileged vantage point for observing the British Empire’s strengths and weaknesses after experiencing a pair of Opium Wars in the 19th century. The incoherence of nationalistic rivalries in Europe ultimately undermined the British Empire that had reduced much of Asia, and particularly India and China, to a state of economic submission, if not slavery.
Two world wars that included an emerging Japanese Empire eventually cleared the space for the USA’s consumer society-led neo-colonial, officially apolitical but heavily militaristic empire that eventually crafted a productive role for China’s post-Marxist economy. The Chinese “workshop of the world” became a vital feature of a system focused on permanent growth and obsessively stoked consumerism. Following World War II, American consumers became literally addicted to falling prices on consumer goods. China, with help from US capitalists, could step in to provide an ever-expanding cornucopia of goods at lower prices.
Xi is aware that the entire Western world, struggling with various imperfect models of democracy, has reached a tipping point regarding two existential problems: health and wealth. Both are clearly out of control. Governments in the West have demonstrably failed to address both the health of the planet, increasingly subjected to climate chaos, and the health of their people. None more so than the US, a nation that continues to resist even the idea of universal health care and persists in spectacularly bungling most of its initiatives with regard to the COVID-19 drama.
With its retrograde approach to the distribution of vaccines, the intellectual ownership-obsessed West, guided by the wisdom of Bill Gates, has failed to live up to its image as the putative provider of global solutions. As it focuses on protecting and exploiting its supposed intellectual property in competition with the rest of the world, the West has, embarrassingly for itself, allowed spectacular chaos to continue and amplify. As for wealth, the effects of the pandemic have aggravated the growing and insurmountable gap between the hyper-rich and the rest of humanity. The idea that everyone can someday become a millionaire has been replaced by the clear perception that the super-wealthy will do everything in their power to ensure that only a select few will ever be admitted into their club.
China’s authoritarian system has made it easier to enact and implement policy. Powerless to solve problems, Western governments, captured by binary logic, prefer to explore hypothetical consequences and debate what emerge as two contradictory positions. With his Belt and Road Initiative, Xi has already expertly used the contrast between the image of constructive cooperation and the American addiction to war, military operations and sanctions as the solution to all problems. Xi’s gambit may translate more as image-building than economic realism, and it may rely as much on corruption as the will to collaborate, but it stands as an effective example of soft power.
Now Xi can remake his image as a populist hero at home. His announced policies even correspond to the fantasies of populists on the right and left who would love to see the financial operators ushered out the door, replaced by laws and practices that at least appear to be transferring power to the people under the protection of the government. Xi promises to put a leash on the over-exuberant animals who alone make the law in the capitalist West.
Antony Blinken Worries About China’s Ambitions
The Biden administration has apparently decided that the key to consolidating its image with voters lies in a foreign policy that consists of getting tough on the nations that refuse to get in line behind US leadership. The first among them and the one most likely to inspire the kind of fear that galvanizes American voters is, of course, China. With nearly four times the population of the United States, the quantity of fear it can generate will be spectacular. And in politics, it’s the spectacle that counts.
Bloomberg has published an article by Peter Martin with the headline, “Blinken Warns Asian Nations of China’s Growing Nuclear Ambitions,” in which he cites the US secretary of state’s “‘deep concern’ over China’s growing nuclear arsenal.”
The emotion politicians claim to have, thanks to their privileged knowledge of geopolitical realities, which, when communicated to the people, generates the degree of fear that justifies risky and aggressive policies, including war
Reuters reports Secretary Blinken’s complaint that “Beijing has sharply deviated from its decades-old nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence.” China is expected to understand that only the US is authorized to practice maximum deterrence. The following two paragraphs in the Reuters article give an idea of why Blinken’s concern is so “deep”:
“A 2020 Pentagon report estimated China’s nuclear warhead stockpile in ‘the low 200s’ and said it was projected to at least double in size as Beijing expands and modernizes its forces.
Analysts say the United States has around 3,800 warheads, and according to a State Department factsheet, 1,357 of those were deployed as of March 1.”
Who wouldn’t be concerned with only 3,800 warheads to ensure peace in the world? Bloomberg quotes Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who disapproves of “countries interfering in each other’s internal affairs.” Wang added a casual historical observation “that Asian nations had been bullied by others in the past and didn’t require ‘teachers’ or ‘saviors.’” The Opium Wars apparently left an indelible smoky taste in the Chinese collective unconscious.
The Latest Skirmish Inside the Increasingly Divided US Democratic Party
As the Republican Party continues its existential anguish surrounding the role of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party struggles to define whether its loyalty is to the people or the lobbies that fund its campaigns. The drama played out this past week in a special election pitting two African American women against each other.
The Los Angeles Times provides its explanation of the come-from-behind victory of mainstream Shontel Brown over progressive Nina Turner in a high profile Democratic primary election for a congressional seat in Ohio: “Brown’s primary win is a boost for moderate Democrats who have been in increasingly testy tussles with progressive activists and gives a new voice in Congress for voters who are more hungry for calm pragmatism than for the passionate populism that animates Sanders’ followers.”
The fear of calling into question the visible cause of one’s suffering because the status quo has proved so destructive that people think any change will make things even worse
One Democratic political consultant in Cleveland explained what he thought “calm pragmatism” amounts to: “People are tired and worn out after the last four or five years.” They have stopped thinking about the implications of political choices and simply hope there will be a new status quo. The loser, Nina Turner, claimed that her campaign “didn’t lose this race. Evil money manipulated and maligned this election.” She has a point, since the effect on politics of money — once deemed in the Christian West to be “the root of all evil” — now dominates the rhetoric deployed in campaigns to the point of definitively crippling and even excluding serious political debate. Populist passion is real, but so is the passion of fear-mongering that incites voters to retreat into the illusion of calm pragmatism.
On an unrelated topic, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, has expressed his surprise at the African Union’s acceptance of Israel as an observer despite its consistent criticism of what it qualifies as Tel Aviv’s apartheid policies. Bishara explains that African nations may “reckon that Israel has major sway in Washington and may be of help to influence the decisions of the world’s superpower in their favour.” He then adds, “Indeed, such pragmatism — read opportunism — may have worked for the likes of Sudan in getting US sanctions lifted after it began normalising relations with Israel.”
Bishara thus equates “calm pragmatism” with “cynical opportunism.” Can the Ohio voters who chose Brown over Turner be accused of opportunism? Undoubtedly no, if only because they have nothing specific to gain from Brown’s election. The true explanation is the “evil money” Turner complains about paid for yet another media campaign based on stoking voters’ fear of the unknown. Democratic Party stalwarts — which included Hillary Clinton, Jim Clyburn and their sources of corporate money — effectively countered the successful grassroots funding of Turner’s campaign and turned the tide in Brown’s favor. Those stalwarts and their backers are the opportunists. The voters persuaded by their fear of the unknown were their dupes.
What links these two stories together is what a significant factor in Brown’s primary victory. As the Times of Israel explains, a lobbying group, “Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) threw its support behind Brown.” The DMFI reportedly contributed nearly $2 million to Brown’s campaign. Why? Because they know that Turner is one of the rare American politicians who has the independence of thought to criticize Israel, something no US politician is permitted to do on pain of being branded anti-Semitic. The idea that Turner might challenge the unconditional commitment of the US to supporting Israel galvanized the white suburban voters who ended up giving Brown the majority.
The lockstep alignment of the US with Israel has been as important a factor as access to oil in determining US Middle East policy in recent decades. That policy has been disastrous for the region, the US and the world in a variety of ways. Is that the result people still expect from following a policy of calm pragmatism?
A Washington Post Columnist’s Shameful Feinting With Damned Praise
Conservative Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen quite logically makes it clear that he is ready to come to the defense of black Cubans as the most effective way of undermining pretentions of the most vocal black US Americans: “As the Cuban people — up to 75 percent of whom have Afro-Cuban ancestry — rose up to demand their freedom, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation issued a statement praising the brutal regime that oppresses them and calling on the Biden administration to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba.”
Make an objectively true statement describing a complex situation that includes a reference to a regime that has been labeled for ideological reasons as a diabolical enemy of every moral (i.e., economic) principle the United States is believed to stand for
In July, protests spread in Cuba provoked by a variety of ills for which many Cubans, succumbing to conditions of severe deprivation, wish to hold their government to account. US media predictably seized upon the occasion to nourish the dream of various interested parties in the US — mostly located in the quintessential swing state, Florida — to restore the situation of effective neo-colonial rule that the US enjoyed over the island from 1915 to 1959.
The first thing to notice in Thiessen’s piece, as in most of the media treatment in the US, is the facile use of the term “the Cuban people.” When a crowd of protesters appears, they become “the Cuban people.” Many of the same pundits in 2003 claimed that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis were ready to toss flowers at US soldiers invading their country. Honest reporters might write “a significant number of discontented Cubans” or some variation on that idea, but the dishonest ones simply declare that the protesters, some waving US flags, are synonymous with “the Cuban people.”
Thiessen reveals his utter dishonesty when he complains that Black Lives Matters was “praising the brutal regime” in its statement. Thiessen links to a BLM statement on Instagram that begins by condemning “the U.S. government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans.” At no point does it praise the Cuban government other than citing an objective fact of “the country’s strong medical care and history of lending doctors and nurses to disasters around the world.” The BLM statement notes one other objective fact concerning a government’s policies, that “the United States has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba” through its embargo.
Anyone inclined to doubt that fact need simply refer to the State Department memorandum of April 6, 1960, that describes a policy that has been in place for the last 60 years: “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship.” It recommends “every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba … to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”
Although the sanctions regime was loosened in 2015 by Barack Obama, Donald Trump scaled back and imposed new crippling measures. During his campaign last year, candidate Joe Biden proclaimed: “I’d try to reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” Instead, he has maintained Trump’s sanctions and last week added new ones, while promising even “more to come.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.