When I moved to Beijing in 2013 to explain global best practices in journalism to a diverse group of Global Business Journalism Program students, I had not expected that I also would frequently be asked to explain American politics and democracy to a global audience. I’ve been interviewed regularly in Chinese media, but also in European news outlets from Finland to Slovakia (plus the good old USA).
This week, I discussed the rise of Donald Trump with my friend Matti Posio, who heads up the national news operation for a group of Finnish newspapers, Lannen Media. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Q: You have met Donald Trump in person. Tell me about it.
I am one of thousands of people who has met Donald Trump at black-tie social events. For me, it was the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington several years ago. He was cordial and polite, very different than his public persona. He was clearly a celebrity among celebrities. Reporters were coming up to him an asking if they could pose for photos with him. He was patient, unlike the hot-tempered character on the campaign trail. Nobody I talked to thought he would ever run for president. I really didn’t do more than exchange small talk. He seems comfortable with social conversation and, obviously, he has been going to formal events for a half-century. From my very short glimpse into his life, I would say that he is a very good actor playing certain roles that are expected of him at different times.
Q: I don’t see how anyone can actually be like that. Is his personality the same in real life than portrayed on media?
How many of us get to see him in “real life”? Real life is his life in his big mansion in Florida. Real life is his family. I can imagine Orson Welles playing the role.
Q: What is it that foreigners / Europeans really don’t get about Trump?
Do you mean, “Why is he getting so many votes? Why would anyone vote for him for president?” Politically, he is the right man at a very strange time in American political history. After two decades of anti-elitist rhetoric on right-wing talk radio and the Rupert Murdoch-owned conservative cable news network Fox, there is a large minority of the country that believes their way of life has been taken from away from them by the faceless “them” — minorities, immigrants, big companies shipping jobs overseas, corrupt speculators, too-big-to-fail banks, gays and lesbians, working women, feminists, or Big Government giving their tax dollars to undeserving others, Donald Trump is a reality TV performer and is playing to that audience. He is playing the role of populist demagogue, race-baiter, keeper of the working-class flame, proud leader of the “poorly educated,” ranter against the system and the elites and Wall Street and Big Business. So what if he is a son of privilege, a highly educated billionaire and someone who has played the system for years to make deals and make money.
Q: What are the main reasons he has become so popular?
He strikes a responsive chord with less-educated, lower-income white voters across the political spectrum. He is winning among moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Evangelical Christians.. He is even getting a modest share of higher-educated, higher-income voters. He is bringing new voters into the system, economically struggling people who thought they had no voice until Donald Trump appeared. While Trump moved relentlessly forward in a media frenzy, his opponents spent months destroying each other rather than going after him. His opponents sound like traditional politicians — which they are — at a time American voters yearn for the myth of “authenticity.” Trump is acting the role of “truth-sayer” supremely well, even if the fact-checking web sites say he is lying much of the time.
Q: He is behind both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the real election. Could he still win?
When it is a one-on-one race, anything could happen. If there are independent candidates dividing the non-Trump vote, anything could happen. There has never been an election like this. Bill Clinton says he expects a close general election. Pundits, who have been wrong all year, are predicting a Trump defeat that costs Republicans control of the U.S. Senate. I’ve been predicting that the public will eventually tire of Trump and “cancel” his election-year reality TV show. But I’ve been wrong for months, along with my fellow political reporters and pundits. So, to repeat an American political cliche, never say never.
Q What would happen if he really became the president? How much would he change?
In recent days, his primary opponent rival Ted Cruz has claimed that Trump told the New York Times editorial board privately that he would act very differently as president than he has during the campaign, as least as far as immigration is concerned. None of us know. As a reporter, I’ve always said that the best way to judge what a politician will do after getting elected to office is to study what he or she promises during the campaign. We can’t read his mind. If he does everything he’s promising to do on the campaign trail, there will be a constitutional crisis and a global economic and diplomatic catastrophe. You’ll have the Putin-Trump axis versus the world. I can’t see it. He would have to change or he would be ineffective domestically and isolated internationally.
Q: Let’s assume he doesn’t become the president. Has he already achieved something, left a lasting mark in the country and its politics? What is it?
Yes, he has achieved something of historical significance. He has destroyed Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. If he wins the nomination, the party of Reagan will have ceased to exist. It is the same thing that happened to the Democrats in 1972, when George McGovern won the presidential nomination and destroyed the four-decade-old New Deal coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Democrats won the White House four years later because of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, it took them two decades to recover institutionally from the crack-up of 1972.
Q: You are currently a professor in China. What is told about Trump there? How much of it is true?
Trump has been portrayed in Chinese media as an eccentric, bombastic showman and celebrity. He’s seen more as a curiosity than a threat, so far, at least. Most people who are savvy about the United States ask me, “Could Trump be elected? Why would Americans vote for Trump?” It’s similar to questions people would ask you in Europe. The coverage of him on Chinese state television is generally straightforward, so far, at least. There has been a bit of negative editorial commentary in traditional state print media, but nothing nearly as inflammatory as what Trump has said about China. And Japan. And Korea. And Mexico. And Iran. And Europe. And Obama.
Q: Would you consider moving to China all together, should Trump be elected?
How about Finland?
This week’s summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama has been overshadowed in the United States by the historic visit by Pope Francis — and then the sudden resignation of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. But the China-U.S. summit is likely to have broader and longer-lasting implications on both the global economy and geopolitical matters.
Here is my analysis of the high stakes and — at least for leaders in China — high hopes for the summit. It is in a Q&A format based on questions formulated by China Radio International designed to stimulate a roundtable discussion on its Today program.
Q: Xi Jinping’s first speech upon arriving in Seattle was peppered with U.S. cultural references, including the film Sleepless in Seattle and the television series House of Cards. He also shared some personal experiences, like his life as a visiting student in Iowa. Do you think the personal touches went down well with his American audience?
A: It’s always good to drop a few cultural references — though I will say that House of Cards may be more popular in China than it is in the U.S. At Tsinghua University, where I work in the Global Business Journalism program, everyone wants to know if it’s an accurate depiction of American politics and journalism.
More seriously, President Xi definitely connected with his business audience of leaders of major technology companies — and I think that is a big win for future partnerships with the tech and aerospace industries.
Q: Since China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties, only four Chinese presidents have paid state visits to the U.S.: Li Xianian in 1985, Jiang Zemin in 1997, and Hu Jintao in 2006 and 2011. We now have the fifth. How different is this one: what has changed and what remains the same in bilateral relations?
A: The biggest visit from a Chinese leader was not even a state visit, it was from Deng Xiaoping, who was vice chairman, not president.
What is the same? The desire of the leaders of both countries to deepen economic and cultural ties. The differences: the end of the Cold War, the rise of China’s economy (even with current uncertainties) and the increasing importance of China on the global diplomatic and military front. Also, for much of the relationship, China and the U.S. used each other as a wedge against the Soviet Union and then Russia. Now China and Russia are closer in a geopolitical sense than China and the U.S.
Q: Apart from political rhetoric and media outcries, what really makes the two giants like each other and what turns them apart?
A: The leaders like each other. The countries share mutual respect, win-win economic ties and a concern for future of the world economy. The issues that drive them apart include economic competition, Taiwan, U.S. criticism about human rights issues and U.S. military alliances (particularly with Japan).
Q: Is there anything special about the personal relationship between Obama and Xi Jinping? They twice have discussed ideologies and history. The pictures of them walking on the Sunnylands Ranch in 2013 and their late evening stroll indicates some mutual understanding of the top jobs.
A: They have definitely connected on an intellectual level and it’s clear from the body language that they like and respect each other. You don’t see the same thing when President Obama and Russian President Putin get together.
Q: Xi Jinping’s visit comes at a time when geopolitical conditions in East Asia have evolved to a very subtle point. The Obama administration declared to its “Pivot-to-Asia” diplomacy shift in 2012. Tensions have been growing in the region with Shinzo Abe seeking to expand Japan’s overseas military role and several Southeast Asian nations embroiling themselves into a territorial dispute with Beijing. Is the timing of the trip too tough?
A: There’s never a perfect time for a trip. Japanese assertiveness on military matters, issues in the South and East China Seas, cyberspying all have created some tensions. The slowdown of China’s growth also has created some uncertainty on the economic side. But there are many important things the two countries can do to benefit each other and the world situation, economically and geopolitically.
Q: How does China fit into the current global strategy of the United States? And vice versa?
A: That’s a complicated pair of questions. The U.S. has not taken part in the AIIB — the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank — and tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to launch a Trans-Pacific Partnership anchored by the U.S., Japan and Korea. But despite those problems, both countries are eager to welcome investment from the other nation to help grow jobs in their countries. And both are interested in improving the economies of Africa, where both have invested a substantial amount of soft-power capital.
In terms of geopolitics, the U.S. believes that China is a key player in resolving almost all of the most difficult international issues of the day, from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East. The U.S. wants China as a leading player and not a marginalized actor.
Q: China has been very active in recent years on both political and economic fronts. Despite a global economic slowdown, China still manages to maintain a GDP growth at around 7 percent over the years and is now the world’s second largest economy, right after the U.S. Since Xi Jinping came to power, China has proposed several international cooperation mechanisms such as the AIIB, the New Development Bank, the Land and Maritime Silk Road Initiative and so on, taking more responsibility in regional and international affairs. What do you make of the U.S. reaction to this?
A: I think the U.S. should be more welcoming and more cooperative — while realizing that some tension and competition is natural. I’m not sure how much of this reflects the concerns of Japan about China’s growing influence and how much is Washington policymakers’ policy concerns. The world economy should allow for both nations to grow — it’s not a zero-sum game.
Q: How much damage has been caused by conflicts between the two?
A: There have always been tensions and there still are. Taiwan was and will be a continuing strain, but the strain has been handled by both nations with mutual effort. Both nations have accused the other of spying, and they have had strong words about military actions in the South China and seas. But they have kept their disagreements civil and kept them in perspective. The shared goals of the two nations are much more important than the continuing differences.
Q: What’s the way to bring China-U.S. relations to a new level while properly handling these conflicts?
A: Agree to disagree about some things and work on the issues where progress can be made. A bilateral investment treaty is good for both countries and should not be blocked because of American fears about cybersecurity. However, international companies need to reach a comfort level that their trade secrets would not be compromised if they do business in China.
Q: China and the U.S. both shoulder responsibilities in dealing with major international issues, like the Iran nuclear issue, the North Korean nuclear issue, climate change and so on. What’s a more constructive way for the two sides to cooperate in order to solve these difficult problems?
A: I would hope that we hear more about this from President Xi at the United Nations. The key thing is more and higher-profile Chinese involvement alongside the U.S. and Russia. Korea is a very difficult problem and can only be resolved if China and the U.S. are in complete agreement about the future of the peninsula.
Q: Leaders from both countries have been exchanging visits regularly in history. When people reflect back in the future, how do you think they will think about this visit?
A: To use President Xi’s words, it was the first summit of the major-power relationship era. In my view, the most important meetings between the nation’s leaders were in 1972, when President Nixon came to Beijing, 1979, with Deng Xiaoping, when China was beginning to reshape its economy, and 1998, when Bill Clinton visited China as China was emerging as a global economic power. To me, this is the logical fourth leg of the chair — and could steady the relationship for the decade to come, whoever is elected president of the U.S. next year.
Q: Several economic deals are being announced this week during the visit, including companies such as Boeing and Cisco. How significant are these deals? Can economic and trade links still function as the main stabilizer of the overall China-U.S. relations?
A: Yes. Economic ties and trade not only will help the two nations but the global economy. The world economy may be more dependent on Chinese economic growth than U.S., particularly nations of Africa and Central and East Asia.
Q: Moody’s Analytics’ chief economist has calculated that every 1 percentage point drop in Chinese growth reduces U.S. economic growth by 0.2 percent. This is equal to the price of oil going up $20 a barrel. How interrelated and interdependent are the two economies?
A: I agree with Moody’s. Of course, the Chinese people are hurt more than the American people by any slump in the Chinese economy, but there is a ripple effect in this interdependent world. I think that the African and East Asian economies would suffer more by a prolonged slump in China, but the U.S. would feel it.
Q: China has been on a path towards reforming its economy. How important are China’s economic reforms to the U.S. economy and that of the world?
A: Internal reform in China is important to the U.S. — not reform for reform’s sake, but reform that makes the Chinese economy more efficient and reform that creates more disposable income in China and more markets for global goods. Also, reforms in rule of law and protection of intellectual property are very important to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Q: Given the moves last month on the value of the RMB, how much of an issue is that in the relationship now?
A: Although some Republican presidential candidates have criticized China’s devaluation of the RMB as currency manipulation, most global economists do not believe that, and neither does the Obama administration. This was a legitimate issue in 1999, but times have changed. The IMF has stated that the RMB has shown signs of floating with the market, and I think the U.S. administration appreciates that.
Q: China and the U.S. respectively have proposed different international economic entities. China proposed the AIIB and the New Development Bank, while the U.S. is pushing forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In what ways can these two countries and these different entities cooperate, especially in terms of global financial institutions reform?
A: It would be ideal to unify these partnerships, and I think that is likely at some time. But it might take a decade or more. International financial institutions are in serious need of reform. I’m not optimistic that such reform is coming in the near term, but it is inevitable in the long term.
Q: The U.S. Federal Reserve recently made a decision to delay an interest rate rise. How much did China’s current economic situation factor into the decision?
A: It played a role — along with the continuing economic softness in Europe. The Fed is ready to raise rates, but it remembers when its rate increases in previous decades created panic in Mexico and other emerging markets. So it is acting more cautious now. However, rate hikes are a near certainty over the next year.
Q: How does the decision affect the Chinese economy? How much should the Fed take such affects into account when making these decisions about the U.S. economy?
A: The impact should be minor, more psychological than real, more based on speculation than reality.
Q: In recent times, U.S. companies and business associations have mentioned issues of market access, national security and cyber-security laws, and potential requirements to hand over corporate security materials. Chinese tech companies like Huawei faces similar problems in the U.S. What can be done about this?
A: Talk about it honestly and openly, as has been going on. Agreeing on a treaty that would provide “rules of the road” for cybersecurity. That’s a first step. The agreement may not be unveiled this week, but a framework for future action is possible.
Q: Another on-going item is the bilateral investment treaty, or BIT, between the two nations. What are the main challenges, and how should they be overcome?
A: The main challenges are rule of law, cybersecurity, openness of U.S. markets to Chinese companies and openness of Chinese markets, particularly financial, to U.S. companies. Prolonged negotiations will be needed to resolve them, but both sides want to achieve results, so I’d be optimistic.
Q: In terms of a compromise, might we see a type of “cyber arms deal” being reached, which would help establish which kinds of cyber attacks could be outlawed – attacks on civilian infrastructure, for example?
A: Yes, that’s exactly right. Government on government spying has always existed. But companies want assurances that they will be able to do business without fear of corporate espionage.
Q: One of China’s most wanted economic fugitives – Yang Jinyun – was returned to the country by the U.S. last week. This marked the first time China has succeeded in repatriating a wanted corruption suspect from the U.S., with whom it has no extradition treaty. Has Yang Jinyun’s repatriation laid an important foundation for bilateral cooperation, or is it just a separate move done only as an olive branch for a presidential trip?
A: It is symbolic but it also is part of a series of concrete actions by the United States to help China in cases of corruption-related fugitives. The U.S. Justice Department has shown a willingness to help China deal with corruption cases, which are different than political cases.
Q: Beyond all specifics, the fundamental question has always been: What does the rise of China mean to the USA, and vice versa? What should Xi Jinping say to Obama? “I have no intention to challenge the existing world order.” What should Obama say to Xi Jinping? “Play the second fiddle.”
A: No, there is no need to talk about who is number one and who is number two. It is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. The leaders must show each other and their nation’s respect. I think that exists. Xi Jinping doesn’t have to make any assurances about the existing world order. The new world order is emerging — and everyone knows it. There is no reason for irrational concern on either nation’s part. The leadership of both countries — economic, diplomatic and moral — is vital.
>> Link to CCTV Dialogue program: http://english.cntv.cn/2015/09/24/VIDE1443041881178448.shtml
>> Link to CRI Today program: http://english.cri.cn/7146/2015/09/25/3641s897467.htm