General Jin Yinan, an influential professor at the National Defence University in China, and Christopher Jin, Silicon Valley resident and a social media critic with a huge following, have engaged in an interesting debate online on the current status of the United States.
This debate is significant for two reasons. First, Chinese leaders and elite have always held a different perception of the United States and its leaders, and this peculiar perception inevitably influences their analyses and decision making. Whether General Jin’s perception is representative of the Chinese elite, however, remains to be seen.
Second, there is limited space in China to discuss its own politics. The American election, its spectacular outcome and the unfolding drama have provided a rare opportunity for Chinese intellectuals to conduct a virtual exercise in political participation, allowing them to reflect more on the merits and deficiencies of democracy and where China should be in the coming decades.
Uscnpm.org will continue to bring more of the Chinese debate on American politics to our readers because they indirectly highlight China’s own current political constellation.
The following is a summary of General Jin and Christopher Jin’s original arguments, a transcript of which can be found here (in Chinese).
Beginning with an anecdote of his travels to the US, General Jin Yinan contends that the US is a declining empire with dilapidated and crumbling infrastructure and a politically divided population. Trump’s anger, he contends, should not be directed at China. Rather, he should be angry at the elites of American society for having caused these problems.
Despite this, Jin is still critical of Trump, claiming that he is the most unqualified president in modern history with a temperament ill-suited to handle a population as large and diverse as the US’s. In addition, he has challenged or broken every rule or convention of American politics; it is these actions that have caused the US to decline. Again, he reminds us, this was not China’s doing. Indeed, although China could have protested his reckless and aggressive actions, such as his phone call to President Tsai Ing-wen, they refrained; there was in fact a greater response from the US community. Trump’s motives for conducting the call are also opaque – suggesting it may be evidence of Trump placing his own personal wealth above national interests, given his business interests in Taiwan.
In a bold conclusion, Jin claims that 9/11 and 11/9 – the date of Trump’s election – are on par as the two most terrible days in America’s 21st century history.
Where General Jin was concise and to the point in his denunciation, Christopher Jin rebuts and offers further points to support his defence of the US. He disagrees that the US is in decline and that Trump is incompetent. He points out that whilst US infrastructure is aging, it is complete, and has been so for decades (unlike China’s). Moreover, the quality of American production exceeds that of China’s, which allows it to last for much longer.
From an economic perspective, although China’s GDP is growing faster than that of the US’s in absolute terms (at 6.7% in 2016), it has slowed down considerably since 2007 (at 14.2%). The US, on the other hand, entered into a recession following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, but in the 3rd quarter of 2016 its GDP grew at 3.2%, for an annual growth rate of 1.9%. Though the second largest economy in the world, China’s GDP per capita is still far behind that of developed countries like Japan, the United States, and European nations. In addition, the source of China’s impressive GDP growth rests largely on the back of its infrastructure boom, the value of which depreciates over time. Though high speed rail and glittering skyscrapers may look impressive, it is not a stable base upon which to grow an economy. So even though China’s growth may look impressive, the structure of its economy belies its fragility, with an overreliance on infrastructure development, raw material production, and growth of state-owned enterprises. Instead, Jin suggests that a better indicator of the health of an economy derives from a state’s average income, wage gap, levels of education and research, environmental quality, and social cohesion.
Turning to American culture, Jin posits that the greatest attribute of Americans is their constant dissatisfaction with current circumstances (or sense of crisis as he describes it). Elaborating, he states that even if everything is working well, Americans are willing to complain, question, and critique anyone and everything, including presidents and leaders, as a means to expose and denounce corrupt or depraved activities. Although protests and demonstrations may look chaotic and disruptive on the surface, American society is in fact very stable (something he suggests General Jin has chosen to neglect). He attributes this political and social stability to the US’s respect for democracy (specifically, the three independent branches of the US government that act as counterweights to one another) and the belief that one can support or protest without fear of reprisal. In a similar vein, Jin suggests that the values of US films embody this curiosity and desire to improve. He concludes that many Hollywood blockbusters tell stories of discovery and exploration, of questioning, critiquing and invention, whereas Chinese films are focus more on political intrigue, and historical recounts of dynastic infighting.
On the subject of education, he disagrees with the assertion (presumably of a certain group of Chinese commentators – they are not mentioned) that English is the source of China’s own decline, contending instead that it is China’s gateway to the rest of the world. More broadly, he decries the heavy emphasis on rote learning Chinese poetry and literature, stating that Chinese culture is itself not infallible.
Finally, Jin asserts that Trump is no worse than Obama, implicitly urging readers to give Trump time to mature as president, citing his business acumen, ability to win despite expectations to the contrary, and similarity in age to Ronald Reagan when he was elected as reasons. He reiterates the welcoming nature of the US, describing it as a melting pot of people from over 130 countries across the globe; the US is a country that welcomes anyone with talent and dares to tell the truth, to make mistakes and adjust, to value fair competition, and even to critique.