American News

The Limits of Western “Creativity” Facing China

The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a presidential election has seriously exacerbated the level of irrationality in US relations with China — and things are likely to get worse.
US-China relations, US news, China news, Chinese news, American news, John Bolton, John Bolton news, Republicans, Republican Party, Peter Isackson

© Danielo

May 20, 2020 14:43 EDT

The disastrous numbers produced by the coronavirus crisis in the US have generated a second pandemic, one that will predictably last for just the next six months: the virus of electoral rhetoric focused on blaming an overseas enemy. Whereas the Democrats, clinging to their Cold War nostalgia, still appear to be obsessed by Russia, Republicans have clearly chosen China as the more credible enemy.

President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign seized on the opportunity related to the fact that the pandemic originated in the Chinese town of Wuhan. Just as the Democrats turned their Russian obsession into the legal proceedings of the Mueller investigation and then impeachment, the Republicans have moved on from merely complaining to looking at making a legal case for their indignation.

Wuhan: The Same Evidence Can Be Enormous or Nonexistent


As the Daily Devil’s Dictionary has already highlighted, the thought processes of power-wielding American politicians inevitably turn to the ultimate solution to any problem: take it to court. As Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw said, “We’re going to find somebody to sue.” He himself explained that the “somebody to sue” was none other than the People’s Republic of China.

Now, the superhawk, arch-conservative, hyper-nationalist John Bolton has stepped into the debate to take a surprising position in adamant opposition to his Republican colleagues. While he agreed that this approach is “very politically appealing,” he thinks that “it’s a very bad idea.” Bolton, the former national security adviser to President Trump, deems it dangerous to play games with the idea sacred to all hyper-nationalists: sovereign immunity.

Reporting on Bolton’s objections, Jenna McLaughlin, the security and investigations reporter at Yahoo News, sees some merit in the idea promoted by the Israeli civil rights organization Shurat HaDin. “While officials have typically opposed lawsuits against foreign governments, a number of lawyers and organizations, including Shurat HaDin, have found creative and sometimes controversial ways to challenge sovereign immunity, such as by launching multiple lawsuits aimed at banks and businesses associated with governments they hold responsible for harming their clients,” McLaughlin writes.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Free to imagine clever ways of skirting around not only the law but especially the spirit of the law for the sake of either getting some undeserved financial compensation or scoring points in the game of power

Contextual Note

In a 2016 article on Slate, journalist John Kelly explored the rising fortunes of a new verb in the English language that had come to dominate political and journalistic discourse. The verb was to weaponize. “The history of this word weaponize reveals the shifting anxieties of the past half-century,” Kelly wrote. In some sense, the law has always been used as a weapon, not so much for justice as for “settling differences,” a traditional euphemism for vengeance. More recently, the idea of weaponizing the law has even taken the form of “lawfare,” another useful neologism. In some sense, the key to modern “creativity” is finding a way to weaponize any traditional tool. The courtroom is a great place to begin.

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For once, Bolton is right — and on two counts. The purely electoral strategy is indeed “politically appealing” for Trump and Republicans because it mobilizes those two great forces of political motivation that have the power to turn an election: fear and xenophobia. And because of its appeal and Trump’s past success with xenophobia, there is little doubt that Trump will continue to exploit this strategy right up to the November election.

Bolton is also correct when he explains that it’s a bad idea. He explains that “it would put the judicial system of the United States right in the middle of international controversy” and “would just lead to lengthy, drawn-out proceedings that are not likely in a timely manner to bring justice to victims.” It would, however, keep a large number of high-profile international lawyers busy, which may explain Shurat HaDin’s motivation.

Bolton provided a number of other reasons to prove the futility of the endeavor, its waste of valuable time and resources in the midst of a pandemic and the possibly permanently damaging effect on international relations. He pragmatically sums up his case with this reflection: “This is a state-to-state matter.”

Historical Note

Kishore Mahbubani, the former Singaporean diplomat and celebrated author, weighed in on this controversy, adding another important consideration by citing recent history. He pointed to the fact that the 2008 financial crash that began in New York. “The crisis began with investment bank Lehman Brothers’ collapse in New York, and caused tremendous damage to economies around the world, but nobody suggested that other countries should get compensation from the United States.”

Mahbubani suggests a more constructive approach: “What we should learn from this is that, instead of being punitive to the countries that suffered it first, we should immediately help the countries that get affected first. Because if we don’t help them, we will get affected.”

Asian journalist Leslie Fong looks deeper into history to make the paradoxical case that people “in the West who blame China for the Covid-19 pandemic and demand reparations for the damage to their economies have probably done Beijing a favor.” Like many Chinese, Fong hasn’t forgotten the history of Western, and particularly the shameless, destructive manipulation of the Chinese people and their economy in the 19th century with the Opium Wars by the British and French, all in the name of commerce. Britain’s National Army Museum succinctly describes the first Opium War in these terms: “Between 1839 and 1842, British forces fought a war on behalf of drug traffickers … with the full blessing of the British government.” At the end of the war, Britain assumed control of Hong Kong and the Chinese were forced to pay reparations for the cost of a war the British waged on their territory.

Fong points out what Westerners never learn in their history classes at school: “They have unwittingly — or perhaps unthinkingly — reopened a scar that is deep in the Chinese psyche and given the party more of the ammunition it needs to rally the people against what it has portrayed as hostile moves to put China down.” He goes on to say that “asking for reparations is certain to bring back painful memories of when the country was forced at gunpoint to pay 450 million taels of silver to eight imperialist powers in 1900 as an indemnity after losing a short war.”

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Historians have given the title “The period of ‘unequal treaties’ with China” to an entire portion of modern Chinese history. Encyclopaedia Britannica devotes a full article to the topic of “Unequal treaty” in Western relations with China. France’s Digital Encyclopedia of European History (EHNE) sums the period up as one of “aggressive commercial diplomacy” in which “‘Gunboat diplomacy’ opened European trade and imposed its sometimes unilateral clauses on China, which subsequently lost its sovereignty over numerous portions of its territory in favour of France and Great Britain, as well as Germany, Russia, the United States, and Japan.”

Shurat HaDin’s “creative and sometimes controversial ways to challenge sovereign immunity” belong to the tradition of bullying, gunboat diplomacy, reparations and “unequal treaties” that dominated the West’s relationship with China in the 19th century and effectively led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The British, after all, thought they were being very creative when, in the name of commerce, they promoted massive addiction among the Chinese population to opium grown in British India to pay for the tea and other products they had become dependent on.

Americans may not yet have realized it — and as Fong points out they may continue to draft policies “unwittingly” and “unthinkingly” — but China today has achieved a status today that in no way resembles the decrepitude of the 19th-century Qing dynasty.

*[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.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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