New York: On 23 November, President Donald Trump’s core team finally conceded defeat (without explicitly saying so) and began the transition to a new Presidency.
The irrepressible American eagle has soared again.
What is the difference between President Donald Trump and God, my seven-year-old granddaughter asked me. She had learnt it in her very pro-Democrat school in New York, where I am at present.
I do not know, I confessed.
She looked at me with pity. God does not think he is Donald Trump. The President thinks he is God!
A seven-year-old saying this?
I began to think. Would this question not have been more relevant to Xi Jinping?
My granddaughter has never heard of Xi, although she does know China (that’s where the noodles come from).
What went wrong with the man whom only a few years ago his country had adored, the world at large had admired, and rivals at home and abroad had feared?
I began to look for an answer.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had patted himself on the back for “peace for our time” upon returning from the Congress of Berlin in 1878. And the First World War came.
60 years later, another hapless Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, also known as Appeasement Man, boasted of “peace for our time” (with a fellow called Adolf Hitler), in the Munich Agreement that sacrificed large parts of Czechoslovakia. He also claimed “peace with honour”.
But Hitler laughed all the way to the bank.
Less than a year after Chamberlain’s claim (perhaps lament), Hitler’s Wehrmacht swept through Poland. Britain and France went to war with Germany. The Second World War devastated Europe, Asia, and large parts of Africa. It changed everything.
The demented fellow who started it all put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. Be warned, Xitler!
The futility of appeasing expansionist totalitarian states was demonstrated yet again. Will we never learn?
How does a state turn totalitarian? Why do normal people (who are like you and I), willingly abandon their intelligence and accept fictions created by mad leaders? Forget the big guys suffering from burgeoning megalomania, what ails the “little fellows”? These are the aam aadmi for whom the mass media (now social media) messages and demagoguery are specifically designed.
I read again “They Thought They Were Free”, the 1955 classic by American journalist Milton Mayer, based on his interactions with several German ordinary folks (for whom the Volkswagen was designed) soon after the Second World War. He wondered why Germans did not stand up for their rights, even as one mesmerizing demon drove them to their destruction. What did they see around them? That nobody went hungry or cold or ill? And what about the horrors that they could sense? Those were willingly relegated to the realm of hearsay.
The conclusion was that totalitarian regimes remain in power only if they keep moving and set everything around them in motion—perpetual motion mania.
During the Nazi era, people were constantly fed with continuous changes and “crises” provoked by enemies of the Fatherland within and without, so they had no time to think of all the dreadful things happening around them or to object or protest.
These malignant methods of deception come one pill at a time, one step at a time, till the volks (people) become inured to them, profoundly affecting their judgement.
The inexorable momentum towards autocracy and tyranny is measured in drips, not as a flood, and accelerates step by step till those who don’t understand what is happening, their brains excised, respond mechanically.
A system slowly manifests itself in which hate and fear supplant sanity and reason, and ordinary people are willing to kill and to die. In the body politic as in the body personal, non–resistance to the minor affliction opens the door for non–resistance to the deadlier.
Think of the Long March (Mao Zedong running away from the Nationalist Chinese forces), the Hundred Flowers Blooming, the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the devastating Cultural Revolution (Smash the Four Olds), Seek Truth from Facts (facts provided by the Communist Party), the “To be Rich is Glorious” mantra, the Four Modernizations, One Child Policy (now rescinded), Three Represents, Three Supremes, Three Dreams, the Circular Economy (latest madness).
Nazi Germany (like today’s China) emphasised non–intellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, duty, purity, labour, simplicity) elevating the self-esteem of the little man. Intellectuals, especially those who questioned the spreading poison, were effectively silenced, respect for the teacher metamorphosed into resentment, trust into suspicion (remember the Cultural Revolution in China during which Xi denounced his parents?).
In October 2020, Xi asks PLA troops to be “absolutely loyal, absolutely pure, and absolutely reliable”.
The similarity frightens me.
Is Xi PingPong’s favourite read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”? It expressed Hitler’s racist ideology, identified the Aryan as the “genius” race, and declared the need for Germans to seek living space (lebensraum) in the East. China’s landgrab is all around.
Through his four turbulent years in office, President Donald Trump (who once wrote a book called “The Art of the Deal”) fingered his friends and allies, withdrew from multilateral institutions and agreements, and cozied up to dictators and wannabe Sultans.
He faltered badly on the Chinese pandemic, not seeing the evidence hiding in plain sight. He called out China only after the virus had begun its deadly destruction.
Suddenly, America’s leadership of the free world looked shaky.
How could the Can-do nation that organised the yearlong Berlin airlift to bring food, fuel and medicines to 2 million Berliners, put a man on the moon, invented the world-changing personal computer, and created Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, and has 40% of the world’s Nobel Prize winners, be so clumsy?
The universal message of the Statue of Liberty seemed lost in America’s chaos, polarization, and dysfunction.
In a recent Pew Research Center poll in 13 major economic powers, over four of every five respondents agreed that the United States has done a poor job of handling Covid-19.
People across the world, including America’s closest allies, began asking if the US could provide the leadership to tackle pressing global issues such as climate change and other shared challenges whose solutions required expertise, ability and effective coalition building.
According to what I have read, a journalist on a 24-hour Bosnian news channel commented wryly: “The Vice President is wearing a mask, while the President doesn’t. Some staffers wear them; some don’t. Everybody acts as they please. As time passes, the White House begins to look more and more like the Balkans.”
With trust in America at record lows over the past few years, it was Chinese master Xi Jinping’s magnificent opportunity, his moment to expand Chinese influence at America’s expense by stepping gracefully into America’s worn out shoes.
It became increasingly common to hear people contrast Washington’s debilitating partisanship and gridlock with the ruthless efficiency of Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
Flush with tainted money and having linked three quarters of the world to the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, Xi grandly launched his global Bilk and Rob Initiative (BRI) and touted it as a win-win proposition. Over 100 countries succumbed.
And then hubris intervened.
He began to believe that the word was begging for socialism with Chinese characteristics. Is lunacy the prerogative of only one leader?
Xi blew it.
If the global can-do nation, the United States faltered in dealing with the Chinese pandemic, China fumbled badly. With its great information firewall, it could hide the truth from its own people, but in this age of nano-second information transfers, it could not hide its culpability.
The world quicky saw (even if not many said so) China’s deadly cover-up of the pandemic (abetted by its faithful slave in the World Health Organization), its abusive diplomacy and ridiculous territorial claims, its damaging approach to development, and its revolting human rights violations, including the mass internment of its Uyghur Muslim population.
A recent Pew Research Center global survey revealed that China’s image is sinking rapidly, plummeting to all-time lows in nations such as Canada, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The man who would be king (remember the 1975 movie with Sean Connery?), Xi himself did not fare much better.
Over three out of four respondents had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in global affairs. A year ago, it was six out of ten.
In the countries polled, Xi’s negative image reached the highest levels on record.
With Joe Biden about to become the next US President, Xi has little chance of fixing his mistakes (even if he were perspicacious or honest enough to realise them).
For China’s political system is the biggest barrier to its role as a global superpower.
The USSR collapsed because its massive military strength could not be supported by its crumbling economy. Its repressive political system appealed to no more than a handful of exhausted autocrats.
Soviet citizens celebrated its collapse as much as anybody else.
Xi and his sidekicks seem not to realise that a nation’s influence is not based just on its weapons and troops, or its economic might, or its foreign exchange reserves.
Above all, influence, like leadership, must be accepted, even wanted, by others.
I have been in diplomacy 47 years and counting. We believe in quiet discussion and persuasion and gentle dialogue. We do not threaten Armageddon every time another country disagrees with us. Which is why our diplomacy is so successful, sceptics notwithstanding.
China’s default response to international or domestic opposition is intimidation rather than persuasion, leaving a miasma for those who are forced to agree to Beijing’s demands.
But Xi clearly believes that his objectives can be realised by coercion, blandishments, and threats. This confirms that he is an imbecile.
The Chinese Communist Party places more emphasis on being feared than being loved, which severely limits its ability to be a benign global leader.
Probably it has never heard of Caligula who famously said of his conquered subjects 2,000 years ago: Let them hate me as long as they fear me.
The fear usually dissipates, the hatred lingers. The Chinese Communists are not smart.
China will never replace the US, no matter how much Trump pulled back on the world stage.
The emphasis on denial, deterrence, and bullying sabotages Beijing’s efforts.
Just ask the victims of China’s land for loans scam, garbed as the Bilk and Rob (sorry Belt and Road) Initiative.
Ask Sri Lanka, and Kenya, and Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea, and Argentina and the Maldives, and the people of India’s Gilgit-Baltistan, presently under Chinese-Pakistani occupation. When they cannot repay China’s loans for useless white elephant projects, China simply gobbles up their real estate.
Do not even go that far. Just talk to the Tibetans and Uyghurs about how “soft” China’s power is.
Xi and his devotees (remember every Chinese must memorise Xi’s divine speeches) are too consumed by domestic concerns, and too insecure in China’s standing at home and abroad.
So, Xi tries to redefine diplomacy, by encouraging his officials to use abuse and threats over discussion and debate.
Xi Jinping reminds me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, egotistic, megalomaniac, narcissistic, with a deep need for excessive adulation, making his ideas the core philosophy of the nation as divine knowledge, and giving frequent commands of “off with his head”.
I do not know what you mean by your way, the Queen rebukes someone, all the ways about here belong to me.
Face often red with fury, Queen of Hearts is a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion—a blind and aimless rage.
In the US, when a bandit is on the loose, police warn local people that he is armed and dangerous. Xi Jinping, the greatest mafia thug in history, is armed, dangerous and vicious.
He seems to have internalized the 1976 US warning to Pakistan (by the equally arrogant but booster Henry Kissinger) that Washington would make a horrible example of the Prime Minister and his country if it went ahead with the French plutonium reprocessing plant.
And the dire threat to dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2001 that the Bush Administration would bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if it did not cooperate with America’s war on Afghanistan.
A few months ago, when a senior Czech politician led a delegation to Taiwan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, then in Germany, warned that his government “will make him pay a heavy price for his short-sighted behaviour and political opportunism”.
The Czechs responded sharply, as did even normally gentle Germany since the threat was made on its territory.
As a former Indian Ambassador put it, China lost India (for a very long time) when it killed 20 Indian soldiers on their disputed border by deceit and treachery (and refused to acknowledge its own greater losses). The world sat up and took note as the Indian military thrashed the People’s Liberation Army.
In the South China Sea, China made threatening noises, threatening fire and fury and then quietly stood down. Suddenly the Chinese juggernaut, based on lies and duplicity, began to wobble.
England got mad over a Chinese national-security law to quash Hong Kong’s city’s democracy protestors. Even African nations were outraged at the racial discrimination faced by their nationals when the virus erupted.
And so China resorted to abuse, the only thing in which it excels.
The Communist Party-owned newspaper, rather grandly called, the Global Times, dubbed Washington’s campaign to contain China “as futile as an ant trying to shake a tree”.
It gloated that Australia was becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”, and labelled it “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes” (Why am I not surprised that over 8/10 Australians detest the Chinese Communist Party?).
Is there no Chinese edition of Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic on How to Win Friends and Influence People?
China’s policy of threatening retribution is alienating foreign governments and driving them together.
There is an interesting new example in the Indo-Pacific region, now the global centre of geopolitics Four powerful Navies, led by India, and including US, Japan and Australia, worked to alleviate the consequences of the devastating 2004 tsunami. And began discussing interoperability.
Canberra, blinded by its economic linkages with China, pulled out in 2007, but asked to be taken back a decade later after China’s generous descriptions of Australia.
An act of God brought the Quad together, and the acts of a godless country are seeing an informal partnership coalesce into an almost formal anti-China bloc.
China is visibly frightened, seeing its divide and rule policy falling apart. Even as it steps up its nationalist rhetoric, invoking past “humiliations” and blaming the world for all the bad things that have happened to China, I predict that it will try to weaken the emerging partnership by settling issues bilaterally with Japan and Australia.
Donald Trump had blasted China’s unfair trade practices during his electoral campaign in 2016. “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” he had said in May 2016.
Less than a year later, standing alongside Xi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, his tone was totally different, describing their relationship as “outstanding…tremendous goodwill and friendship was formed”.
That was Xi’s opportunity to reset relations with the US. Except that he was blinded by arrogance and the self-delusion that he was visiting a vassal state. His condescending body language said it all.
Donald Trump preferred transactional politics and trade deals. Human rights and Chinese belligerence were inconsequential to his “America First” policy, if China stayed away from America’s fiefdoms.
Xi tried to use America’s withdrawal from global leadership to stake his own claim. He spoke the hypocritical language of win-win alliances, dealing with climate change and a more open international trading system.
When Trump quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017, China began to aggressively push its own regional trade deal, the just signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
In 2017, Trump ditched the Paris climate change agreement, and Xi boasted that China would be a “torch bearer” on the issue.
Japan, South Korea, Philippines strengthened their relationships with China. A fawning Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, leader of one of the US’ closest allies in Asia, said that he “loved” Xi Jinping.
Beijing believed that a world with Chinese characteristics and under Chinese suzerainty was just months away. When asked to walk the talk and open up his markets, Xi chose to intimidate his global partners through fierce nationalist rhetoric.
And then, in late 2019, that pudgy pugilist, a raving lunatic, a megalomaniac, obsessed with his bloated sense of self-importance, suffering malignant narcissism, wanting to be the master of the universe, intolerant of dissent, desperate for attention, unleashed a deadly virus on a complacent world from Wuhan, creating the greatest existential threat in our lifetimes.
It tried to hide the truth in cahoots with that disgraceful Director General of the has-been World Health Organization. Precious time was lost.
But the decline in China’s international acceptability pre–dates the virus.
Stung by allegations of Chinese interference in its political system, largely through the Chinese diaspora, the Australian government in 2018 outlawed such activities. Beijing was furious and began to protest too much (sorry Hamlet) against real and imagined insults. Australian leaders were refused visas, the Chinese ambassador threatened to destroy Australia’s exports to his country, and an Australian writer was charged with spying.
Canada was no different.
At the request of the US Government, Canada arrested a top executive and daughter of the founder of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, China promptly detained a former Canadian diplomat and a businessman for spying. Last year, for all its prattle about free trade, China moved to block Canadian canola seed and meat exports.
China’s behaviour under Xi Jinping enraged many countries. They should not have been surprised. Chinese “democracy” offers a clear choice—toe the party line or enjoy free board and lodging in a detention centre.
Ask Jack Ma, the much-celebrated founder of the Amazon clone, Alibaba. He criticised the Chinese financial system a few weeks ago, and has disappeared.
And suddenly its hideous blemishes that it spent decades concealing, again came under international scrutiny. China is now pummelled for its ongoing crackdown on human rights and dissent, the destruction of civil rights in Hong Kong, and military expansionism in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
Remember the videos of Fijian officials watching in horror as Chinese diplomats showed up, uninvited, to a reception celebrating Taiwan and beat up a Taiwanese diplomat who tried to keep them from entering?
The Netherlands changed the name of its trade-office mission in Taiwan to Netherlands Office Taipei: China threatened to cancel shipments of medical supplies for fighting the coronavirus.
Human lives do not matter to the Communist Party of China. For Xi, it is “I, me, myself”.
The law of unintended consequences is on display. China wanted to frighten the world, and ends up offending it.
What does the world think of Xi PingPong? Ask the millions in every country who have lost their livelihoods and their family members. Ask those dealing with stress and depression.
Ask me. In recent weeks, the virus has claimed some of the brightest stars in the Indian Foreign Service.
Xi faces internal challenges from within the Communist Party who are not happy with his heavy-handed style of using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. This angst is likely to grow sharper ahead of the 2022 National People’s Congress in China, where Xi would normally hand over to a chosen successor.
On 6 October, Germany presented a statement to the United Nations on behalf of 39 countries, mostly from Europe and North America, publicly condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, where up to 2 million Muslims, mostly Turkic minorities, are in detention centres.
China cannot be seen to be weak internationally, after feeding its people with delusions about its invincibility. For the Communist Party, weakness would mean its eclipse.
As I write this column, I see a fantastical report about a fictitious Chinese Professor telling his imaginary students that China used microwave weapons in Ladakh to scare away Indian soldiers! The imaginary professor forgot to add that these weapons are based on Mars, where the Chinese (shhh, don’t tell anyone) have had a secret colony for many years.
The microwaves seem to have addled China’s brain, making it forget about the 193-nation Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, that oversees the global endeavour to permanently and verifiably eliminate chemical weapon.
Of course, the miserable Chinese students, their brains excised, will believe this arrant nonsense.
The Chinese virus (political as well as medical) has severely damaged Beijing’s reputation (and cranium) as countries struggle to deal with rising caseloads.
Xi’s disease, that induces hallucinations and amnesia, is hurting China. The putative rival to the US has very quickly become an international pariah. One American is dying every minute owing to the virus. Their families and friends will not forget or forgive.
With apologies to Francis Key who wrote the US national anthem, Star Spangled Banner, Communist China is the land of the zombie and the home of the scared. For all its verrucae and frailties, America gives generously, China robs shamelessly.
In years gone by, I used to play two games, neither of which originated in China. In one board game, the objective was to sneak your pieces into the opponent’s den, using stratagem, subterfuge, and craftiness. It is called Chinese checkers
The other one was a party game in which a message was whispered from one to another. By the end, the message bore no resemblance to the original. People only heard what they wanted to hear. It is called Chinese Whispers.
Two hundred years ago, Oliver Twist popularized the phrase “the law is an ass”. Two hundred years later, it is clear that PingPong is an ass.
America appeals to the human spirit, to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, precisely for the values it espouses, free speech, democracy, political openness, equality before law and equal opportunity. In none of the many countries where I have served, has a challenger, in a live television debate, snubbed the head of state: “Oh, shut up, man.”
The “perfect” world with Chinese characteristics now consists of North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, all paragons of freedom and democracy. Turkey is trying to get in.
The world looks for renewed evidence of the United States’ distinctive ability to deliver on issues that matter the most right now, since it has been in the past a willing and competent partner, with an amazing ability to self-correct. We are seeing it right now.
Despite the economic slowdown induced by a worsening pandemic, reports indicate that America’s busiest ports, Los Angeles and Long Beach are choked with imports, with cargo ships waiting for berth space. Labour and equipment shortages are colliding with the still-healthy purchasing power of the US consumer. Only a few years ago America led the successful conquest of the Ebola virus. And even as I write this column comes the reassuring news that American pharmaceutical majors have sought and should receive emergency authorization for what is claimed to be highly effective anti-virus vaccines. With its immense operational know-how and economic, technical, and intelligence resources, America, whom we all love to denigrate, has bounced back when the world needed it more than ever before.
It reaffirms my conviction that despite the best efforts of Shri PingPong, there exists a free world where the spirit is free to roam and the mind free to think.
I prefer it. So do ten out of ten people on our planet. Including the Chinese.
Yehi hai right choice, baby!
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.