China has been feuding with the rest of the world for a while, and for now it seems to be winning. The economic powerhouse shows no sign of retreating from its trade war with the United States, is successfully pushing around such major American businesses as the National Basketball Association, and continues to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong and its Uighur and Kazakh and Uzbek regions with unabashed ruthlessness.
President Donald Trump has famously proclaimed that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” but so far that’s not how the one he started with China has turned out. The tariffs that Trump has imposed on Chinese imports have done harm to the country’s economy, but the American companies and consumers who pay them have also taken a hit, and the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese imposed have hurt the farmers and ranchers and manufacturing workers and service workers even worse.
The American manufacturing sector that Trump promised to restore to its blue-collar glory is now in recession, the white collar guys are cutting back on investment, and farm bankruptcies and suicides are up despite the billions of dollars Trump has doled out in subsidies. The overall economy has slowed, and although we’re still adding jobs it’s at a slower pace, and there’s no consolation in China’s woes or the slowing global economy.
All of which comes at a time when Trump is preoccupied with an impeachment inquiry and an already perilous reelection campaign, while Chinese dictator-for-life Xi Jinping can more easily withstand the economic pain of his people. Trump is the self-proclaimed master of “The Art of the Deal,” as well as a “very stable genius” with a “very big brain” and “unmatched wisdom,” but he finds himself in a disadvantaged position when negotiating with China. He’ll be tempted to surrender to China’s extortionist demands and sell it as the best deal ever, knowing that most of his die-hard fans will believe it, while XI will patiently await either that outcome or the results of the next presidential election, and the smart money seems to be digging in for a prolonged trade war with no happy outcome for anyone.
Meanwhile, the smart money in several major American industries seems willing to accede to China’s extortionist demands. One of the strongest arguments for a trade war with China is its extortionist demand that foreign companies doing business there agree to share their high-tech intellectual property with the country’s competing businesses, but many billions of dollars worth of American companies both big and small have figured it’s worth it to gain access to the market of more than a billion increasingly affluent Chinese.
The increasingly affluent Chinese consumers have a taste for America’s decadent popular culture, which is one of our country’s biggest export industries, and many of the big movie studios and recording companies and comic book publishers and internet streaming services have so far agreed to China’s strict censorship of what they sell to that vast Chinese audience, and have too often altered what they present to American audiences. The current glut of action-adventure movies that have degraded the America is largely because they’re mostly dialogue-free, and easily translated to a larger foreign market that is equally blood-thirsty in its cinematic tastes, but the studios are also steering away from anything politically offensive to the Chinese dictatorship that controls access to the increasingly affluent Chinese market.
The latest example is China’s feud with the National Basketball Association, of all people, which is hard to explain. Back during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese dictatorship tried to erase any western influence from the motherland, including classical music and impressionist art and the western literary canon and the Judeo-Christian tradition, but Chairman Mao Tse Tung was as avid a hoops fan as any Kansas boy and somehow the great American game of basketball was given a pass. Playgrounds and club teams flourished, the Chinese developed an appreciation of the game, and when the freakishly tall and talented Yao Ming started at center for the NBA’s Houston Rockets the increasingly affluent fans got to see him play against the most talented players in the world. It was a hit show in China, even after Yao’s remarkable career was ended by the injuries that usually affect 7’5″ guys, and the NBA has been raking in big bucks in the increasingly affluent Chinese market ever since.
The general manager of the aforementioned Houston Rockets issued a “tweet” that he stood with those Hong Kong protestors, though, and after that China announced it wouldn’t be televising the two NBA exhibition games that had been scheduled, and that the rest of the NBA season was also in doubt. That led the NBA’s commissioner to apologize for the “tweet,” and the enormously talented but entirely self-interested shooting guard of the Rockets to opine that he’d been treated very well by the Chinese during his exhibition game there, and it looked like a sellout of American free speech values to the even more lucrative Chinese basketball market. At this point the NBA commissioner is making clear that he apologizes for the “tweet” but not the American free speech values that allowed it, and he’s on the plane to China for those exhibition games even if they aren’t being televised, and some deal might yet be worked out. By coincidence Yao is now the commissioner of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we assume he has some sway with the Chinese dictatorship.
Those democracy-demanding Hong Kong protestors that the general manager “tweeted” about won’t find any succor, on the other hand, and the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care much about them during ongoing trade negotiations. Some high Chinese officials have been banned due to the crackdowns on the Uighurs and Kazakhs and Uzbekis, but those are all restive Muslim populations, so they shouldn’t count on Trump’s continued support as he pursues the greatest trade deal ever.
China’s a major world power, with economic and military and diplomatic strength to challenge the United States, and it doesn’t have to play by the rules of democratic western world, and it seems to understand that Trump’s self-proclaimed powers seem puny by comparison. China is also a foe of pretty much the rest of the modern world, though, and against its combined might they look puny. If some first world superpower were to give up its petty feuds with its erstwhile allies and lead a united front the Chinese would be at a negotiating disadvantage, and might be forced to allow free trade as well freedom to its people, but for now and the foreseeable future the Chinese are winning.
— Bud Norman