The tariff wars between the US and China over the last few months are likely to smoulder on in 2019, with neither side willing to escalate or de-escalate the situation. Relations between the two powers are cautious — there is much to lose by angering the other — but both are seeking to enforce their hegemony. The UK media has largely focused on Donald Trump — as has become the norm over the past couple of years. Any news that is not Brexit- related is probably to do with Mr Trump.
But are we worrying about the wrong side of this global stand-off? Certainly, Mr Trump is a loose cannon and is not so much widening existing gender, race and partisan divisions as crowbarring them open. But the US constitution ensures checks such as judicial review, the threat of impeachment and overriding presidential vetoes, all of which restrain Trump. Under other presidents it has provided a tiresome obstacle to necessary reform; in Mr Trump’s case, these reigns are the means by which his more experienced Republican colleagues — and now the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives — can halt some of his more excitable moments.
By 2024 at the latest, Mr Trump will no longer reside in the halls of power. The same cannot be said for Xi Jinping, who has successfully removed presidency term limits. Mr Xi is slowly dismissing any constitutional checks against him. As well as removing term limits, Mr Xi’s political philosophy — ‘Xi Jinping thought’ — has been incorporated into the constitution and will therefore be taught at schools. Only Mao Zedong has achieved this feat before. Critics have argued that Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been used as an excuse to purge political rivals, and the most recent National People’s Congress granted a new anti-corruption agency powers that outrank those of the Supreme Court. It has been described by Amnesty International as ‘a system threat to human rights in China’. A recent crackdown on churches has been highlighted by Human Rights Watch as a sign that Mr Xi is tightening his control over all aspects of society.
Of course, none of this is to say that Mr Trump is not one of the most divisive leaders America has ever elected. Defenders of democracy should keep a watchful eye on policies such as the separation of families fleeing violence and poverty, or holding US federal employees hostage over his infamous wall. Understandably, the Western world feels more threatened by Trump because he is supposed to be our leader, the leader of the free world.
Mr Xi, on the other hand, rules a country that has long been known for the stringent control of its citizens. The ‘Asian Values’ promoted by Asian leaders have allowed for the continued ‘othering’ of East Asia by the West. This ‘othering’ was just as present when the Ottomans were amassing power and in the Victorians’ fascination with ‘exotic’ orientalism. All this has, to some extent, allowed the West to ignore Mr Xi — until now. American politicians and spy chiefs are warning that China is fast becoming the foremost threat to global norms and rules. Arguably this has been the case for some years, but Mr Trump’s election, Brexit and the rise of populism in Europe have distracted us and allowed Mr Xi to foster a cult of personality many of his predecessors would have admire.
Underground churches and dissidents such as the recently jailed Qin Yongmin, demonstrate that there is dissent and resistance, but it is fiercely monitored and oppressed. Furthermore, Xi’s disregard for human rights can no longer be justified by the prioritisation of development. China’s brutal treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority is an example of ongoing discrimination, despite China’s rapid economic climb over the last few decades.
Mr Trump is certainly operating in a way which doesn’t respect many of the tenants of American democracy — freedom of the press, as a recent example. But Western liberals bemoaning his actions would be better served focusing on Mr Xi’s swift disposal of even a pretence at democracy.