I’ve been writing and speaking lately on the obvious question of the moment: Have we Americans lost our minds? Judging from the evidence to hand, no objective observer could miss the unusually large lava flows of irrationality on display lately. No historian of America would deny that similar things have happened to varying degrees in the past, so that a new visitation is not entirely surprising . . . except of course to those who, for one reason or another, lack knowledge of the past. No sentient contemporary can miss the ragged emotionalism welling up from the ambient anxieties stalking the land, in which the COVID-19 ordeal obviously plays a part. And no one can mistake the shocking polarization of these lava flows leading rapidly in an already-excitable election year to an increasingly real Cold Civil War, possibly not so cold for much longer.
Being in Singapore this past year, I’m also often asked about the deterioration of Sino-American relations, whose causes include political refractions of COVID-19 but are hardly limited to them. Whatever the causes, all the inputs in the relationship are lately public and negative. No calming back-channel, no “hotline,” no regular exchanges at any significant level provide balance or ballast against the downward spiral, which now includes whispers of contending conspiracy theories about responsibility and motives concerning the virus.
The free-falling deterioration worries me, and worries many Singaporean policymakers as well. With internal pressures driving leaderships in both Washington and Beijing to scapegoat the other, and in the American case to build a re-election campaign around such scapegoating, an accident can turn into a war no one wants with stunning speed. No one wanted the World War to break out in August 1914 either, but rivalries have a way of getting out of hand. As Robert S. Vansittart wrote of Kaiser Wilhelm in The Mist Procession (1958), he “may not have liked war, though he liked doing everything that led to it.” Substitute Donald Trump and Xi Jinping for the Kaiser and you see the morbid possibilities staring back at you.
Xi Jinping, too? Yes. When it comes to nations going nuts, the questions directed at me here in the Red Dot are all about the United States, none about China. Aside from the fact that I’m supposed to know more about the United States than I do about China, the reason is obvious: The changes in the United States are dramatic, in the sense of being relatively sudden, telegenic, and transparent, while the situation in China is more opaque, shrouded by a muted media and longer engrained in the political system itself.
Other general differences that highlight U.S. difficulties and mute China’s also abound: Trust in institutions is low in the United States but high in China; incumbent leadership in the United States is unpopular and in China it is popular; hopefulness generally in the United States is shaky and ambient anxiety levels are high, while the trajectory of Chinese expectations incline upward and anxiety is better bounded.
But if China could go crazy in its relatively recent history, too—Taiping, Boxers, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution—there’s no guarantee that it cannot and is not happening again. Alas, no law of political nature states that only one side of a great power rivalry can go weird in the head at any one time.
I claim no deep expertise on China but I regularly consult such expertise, in which Singapore is rich. On that basis, combined with what I’ll boastfully call well-marinated intuition, I’m prepared to argue that China is differently but definitely vacated from its right mind these days. America’s type of irrationality is flamboyant, extroverted, aflame; China’s is insidious, inward kept, smoldering. You can’t miss the former; you have to look to see the latter. There is another non-trivial difference, too—of which more below.
The sources of Chinese irrationality—and we speak mainly about the state, not necessarily the society or the culture—are threefold.
First, while the Chinese state is no longer Marxist in any meaningful way, it is Leninist, and its absolutist inclinations are waxing under Xi Jinping. China has moved rapidly, as these things go, from a revolutionary state under Mao Tse-tung to “Thermidor” under Deng Xiaoping, to a form of single-party state capitalism under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and now to a neo-totalitarian pretender state under Xi. The Chinese state is today more a shoot-the-messenger system even than it was 20 or 30 years ago, the result being that, like the Soviet Union throughout most of its history, enforced conformity and the fear of deviation in dissent it produces prevents the system from telling itself the truth in any reliable or meaningful way. The early reactions to the COVID-19 outbreak this past December, first in Wuhan and then in Beijing, vividly illustrate the case.
Second, about that political pressure. As Frank Lavin has brilliantly explained, China’s ascending “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy does not necessarily signal any aggressive tendencies in Chinese foreign policy. It is better understood as a natural extension of the autocratic body language of China’s internal political order:
Its behavior toward other countries has less to do with that country and more to do with itself. The highest value in the Chinese system is internal cohesion. One of the implications of a policy statement is to reinforce this internal dynamic. . . . China has spent 70 years refining a unitary state, and they have succeeded. So the Chinese government brooks no public discussion of policy alternatives, no texture or color.
A degree of willful delusion is thus baked into the system. An essential trait of an aspiring totalitarian system, evident since the neo-Assyrian Empire of the 6th century BCE, is that it has no idea of moral rectitude but its own, rendering it ideologically narcissistic and transactionalist simultaneously. It spins an unfalsifiable myth upon which to legitimate its unrestrained authoritarianism, which has no goal save for its own perpetuation. This may not be a qualifying condition for elite-generated insanity, but then again it might be.
Transactional premises if left to range for long enough rarely stay contained to elites. Things have gone beyond governmental subcultures and habits in China. Wolf Warrior diplomacy reflects “wolf warrior” tendencies in the population, especially among younger age cohorts fed on “wolf milk.” Wolf milk refers, for example, to a series of popular commando-style adventure movies in which Americans are always the villains and brave Chinese warriors vanquish them over and over again. Then there are the very dark and very popular novels of Liu Cixin, first The Three-Body Problem and then The Dark Forest—both now translated into English. These novels may fairly be described as maniacal “survival of the fittest” dystopian fantasy at galactic scale.
This pulse-raising fare has sprung political legs, and at least a few observers in China—including the remarkable Zi Zhongyun, a 90-year old scholar and translator—have been brave or brazen enough to sound warnings about the dangers. It looks to be doing no good. Militant Han nationalism has been rising in China in rough inverse proportion to the stalling out of China’s double-digit economic growth rates. Even before COVID-19 the stall was a consequence of the middle income trap, the downstream demography of the one-child policy, the inefficiency of politicized banking institutions and financial markets, China’s negative soft power abroad, and State-Owned Enterprise-centered cronyism and corruption at home all rolled together.
The CCP leadership thus has no choice but to let the wolves howl above the COVID winds, lest the dissatisfaction that is part of its fuel mixture turns to burn inward. What it cannot afford is to let the wolves go hunting for company in the upper and middle ranks of the PLA, with consequences the Politburo cannot control. It’s one thing to order hundreds of unarmed protestors to be shot and killed in Tiananmen Square, another to stare down an armed mutiny. If a war crisis with the United States were to arise from, say, an accidental encounter at sea, a lot of young Chinese would demand heroic parts in the next movie, the real movie this time. Resisting those demands could become a tricky business.
Third and also related, while popular trust in the government and the state is high, trust among the senior cadres of the state is not. Xi Jinping’s protracted anti-corruption drive has been hard to distinguish at most times from an old-fashioned, highly personalistic party purge. It is a matter of taste and perspective as to whether to label the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, complete with their histrionic self-incriminations, as insane or deranged. It depends on how one defines normal, and in some cases, like this one, normality got trampled by the vicissitudes of the early 20th century. But something roughly similar, albeit histrionics with more demure Chinese characteristics, has been going on in Beijing over the past four years.
As a consequence, Xi Jinping has manufactured so many enemies that he may not one day retire from office and just walk safely away. This is not unusual for absolutist authoritarian systems; all are shadowed by the “bad emperor” problem and most lack reliable succession procedures. So in context it is not obviously irrational for a leader to be so feared and simultaneously to fear so much for his own health; but it’s too surreal to call it normal, except perhaps by comparison to North Korea.
And remember that while China claims to be a “people’s republic,” no constitutional means for expressing political agency exists, so despite the regime’s popularity its legitimacy rests on contingent performance, not genuine popular sovereignty embedded in institutions, let alone rule of law. This means that a sudden dive in the regime’s popularity and de facto legitimacy is always only an accident of history away. Regime precarity and irrationality are not the same, but at the least they resemble cousins once removed.
If we look broadly at the United States and China, we see another critical difference between them: The deeper source of their irrationality, and how it manifests in political culture, is not at all the same. The best way to illustrate the difference is by recourse to literature.
Two dystopian novels bestrode the 20th century, at least in the English-speaking world. In 1931 Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, and in June 1949 George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, that is) wrote 1984. In 1985, social critic Neil Postman aptly juxtaposed the two books as a basis for his own volume Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Postman summarized as follows: 1984 featured an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state that seemed an imaginative futuristic composite of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia; Brave New World, written before either fascist or communist totalitarianism had fully congealed, depicted a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying, and stupefied bubble. For understandable reasons, Americans and other Westerners took Orwell’s depiction of the threat to human freedom and vitality more seriously than Huxley’s: “We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held.”
But the real problem for America, and so far a bit less acutely for the West, has turned out to be the one limned by Huxley. Since history truly is “irony in motion,” as Emile Cioran understood, it has been a problem accelerating rapidly since 1989 in part because 1984 never came and the Cold War ended soon thereafter with a bloodless Western triumph. Victory touched off not an actual end of history but rather a desultory, self-indulgent holiday from history. Nothing fails like success, and nothing drags pride toward penitence like hubris. So here, roughly thirty years later, we are. As Postman put it:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
Ring a bell?
Postman had no answer to the daunting challenge he identified. The first problem, he argued, was getting people to take it seriously. “An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” he wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”
As foresightful as Postman was, he never imagined that Orwell’s nightmare would return in the inchoate but rapidly congealing form of Xi Jinping’s China. Neither, to be fair, did Orwell himself have any way to predict the rise of a ruthless Asian surveillance state locked to a social credit system the likes of which would terrify even Franz Kafka. Americans no more worried about China in 1985, let alone 1946, than they worried about themselves melting into a sea of self-wrought, semi-literate narcissism.
Now a burgeoning Orwellian China, formidably changed in the mere seven years of Xi Jinping’s tenure, is sidling up to Huxleyan America. Stereo dystopias have come to life, one full-on bass and one full-on treble, in uncomfortable embrace. They are now facing off against one another, each reeling from its own form of madness (and nuclear arsenal) that is, in turn, deranging its low-light perceptions of the other.
China’s perceptions of the United States make for interesting speculation. The core problem, perhaps, is that Chinese leaders’ and intellectuals’ search for a usable past has not yet borne stable fruit. Since roughly the mid-1830s Chinese society has been traumatized to its metatarsals by a series of rolling shocks profound enough to unhinge any culture. When the Chinese reach deeper into their past to integrate lessons from the past two centuries, so move on from the shocks, they glean no clear guidance, for that past is so capacious and variable that only interpretations, not consensus, can be sifted from the record.
In consequence, characteristic of the culture is that the stipulated way forward takes the shape of the “thought” of the great man, the leader, today the emperor in all but name. For the most part under Xi Jinping, his “thought” inclines to read history backwards, in the sense of bending it to the purposes of the present. In any case, an embedded personalistic approach is a formula for wild oscillations of perspective every so many years, in accord with biology if not intervening politics. It does not make for a wise wager on a continuing “rising” in an Orwellian juggernaut.
As for we Americans, our culture, amid its present mania, takes us in a culturally characteristic direction as well. There are sound realist reasons for having reset U.S. China policy since January 2017, some of them flowing from the changes wrought by Xi Jinping and some older; but, ironically perhaps, those realist reasons point to antecedent American theological-idealist errors. The main generic one is that somehow the American elite managed to make the same mistake twice in less than two generations.
Western modernization theory, developed in tandem with decolonization in the 1950s and early 1960s, posited only one West-facing road to modernization, and it was, in the spirit of the times, a Skinnerian-inflected, culture-free materialist mashup of parochial error. Part of the predictive palate was the conceit that, as in the West, once traditional societies got more literate, urban, and labor-specialized they would become more secular. Religion, synonymized to superstition in this view, would wane. The irony was double, for unbeknownst to the theorists who propagated this mythology, its own origin lay in religion as well, specifically an abstracted, denatured form of Calvinism.
Of course, the opposite occurred in much of the world, notably the Muslim world. Upward material mobility correlated with greater levels of piety and observance, as Ernst Gellner and others who actually understood the region predicted. But the neo-Calvinist priesthood averted its eyes, and when a fast-developing China hove into view the same mythology was trotted out again, apparently none the worse for the wear. Chinese authoritarianism would melt away, we were assured, once per capita GNP reached some magic mean. The one-party state would blossom into political pluralism if not at first full-fruiting democracy. Doubters were stigmatized as ethno-bigots, for had not the Asian tigers—first Japan, then South Korea and Taiwan—proved the theory that market-driven economic growth produced democratic political innovation? As globalization took larger shape the theory itself took on a global aura: China would become a “stakeholder” in the international order.
What was actually happening is that we, once again, got busy theologizing geopolitics without, of course, realizing it. Just a few years back we imagined the CCP reading from the hymnal of universal best governance practice, and Chinese democracy rushing to birth on the umbilical cord of its own marketization. When we suddenly realized that Xi Jinping’s China was no aspiring stakeholders after all but a recalcitrant nonbeliever, we set to shun it if we could not convert it and make it born again. We call shunning “hard decoupling” now. (The “woke” crowd, in other domains, calls it “cancel culture,” for they are no less religious in their form of madness.)
We are, then, back at our Manichaean mischief. We, the children of the sons of light, are turning the Chinese into the children of the sons of darkness. We are doing it lately in our favorite para-Calvinist way, the current variation being to sue them for COVID-19 damages in a novel and demented form of Dollar Diplomacy. We do this still without the slightest whit of self-awareness, or any hint of concern that our Enlightenment-“lite” universalism may not in fact be universal.
The stereo result is precisely as Ambassador Lavin put it: “It might just be that the country most hostile to the rise of China is China. And the country that most effectively undermines the U.S. role in the world is the United States.” The two elites are engaged in simultaneous monologues with themselves, yet somehow imagine that a more or less normal kind of dialogue is going on between them. It’s almost amusing, but not quite.
Where is this burgeoning Huxleyan America vs. Orwellian China set to lead? I’m afraid we’ll all too soon learn the answer.