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In Trump’s America, you can’t lecture China any more

We won't be hearing too many lectures from American intellectuals about China being on the “wrong side of history", as former president Bill Clinton put it.

Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Evan Vucci/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

1. Who’s on the ‘wrong side of history’ now?

Every political system has advantages and disadvantages. The downside of electoral democracy is that leaders without any political experience who appeal to people's worst instincts can get elected. We have just seen that happen in the United States. At the very least, we won't be hearing too many lectures from American intellectuals about China being on the “wrong side of history", as former president Bill Clinton put it, because the country has not yet moved toward electoral democracy as a method for selecting top leaders.

2. Does the Chinese model offer an alternative to this political crisis?

The Chinese political system, no matter what its flaws, retains an openness to learning from the best political practices of other countries. American political leaders have never shown, or even articulated, such a willingness. Hopefully that will change. Chinese-style political meritocracy may offer some insights, but so do the ideas and practices of American founding fathers who tried to combine democracy and political meritocracy. The problem is that it's very hard to put in meritocratic checks in the political system once they are taken away, except through the use of military force. Some of my Chinese friends argue that the US can re-establish an electoral college system where the state representatives use their own political judgment rather than simply reflecting the preferences of the electorate, but that's a non-starter now. 

3. And what does China think of Trump?

Trump is often viewed as a pragmatic businessman who stakes out positions that can change in the course of negotiations. What probably won't change is his opposition to TPP which is good news for China. And the fact he calls into question current military and security arrangements with East Asian allies suggests that he won't be as much of an obstacle to a greater role for China in the East Asian region (compared to Hillary Clinton, who would likely have fought hard to maintain the US military "pivot" to East Asia). 

4. What will Trump’s China policy look like in reality?

He may pursue some protectionist policies, but other forces in the Republican party may hold him back. If he does succeed, then the Chinese government will have more ‘cover’ to implement much needed economic reform that tackles vested interests such as SOEs, similar to China's entry to the WTO which provided then premier Zhu Rongji with cover to sack tens of millions of workers from SOEs. 

About the authors

Daniel A. Bell is Chair Professor of the Schwarzman Scholar Program at Tsinghua University in Beijing and director of the Berggruen Institute of Philosophy and Culture. His latest book is The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (2015, Princeton University Press). 

openDemocracy is a digital commons – a pluralist, high quality online space free and open to all – covering world affairs, ideas and culture.

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