Amid the many tributes paid to the late George H.W. Bush last November, an understandable minority dwelt on the moment when Bush became the first sitting president to throw up on a major ally. After 16 time zones in 10 days and a dose of flu en route, a dish of sushi pushed the president over the edge—and his stomach’s contents into Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap during a Tokyo state dinner.
Any red faces over the historic incident have paled with time. Comedians, naturally, had a field day, and Bush even managed a weak quip in the moment, winking at his physician to “Roll me under the table until the dinner’s over.” A sense of humor, and prevailing aura of presidential dignity, helped to save face.
The preservation of prestige has always been a larger component of foreign relations than many observers would care to admit. Now, nearly three decades after Bush’s Tokyo mishap, the game is again playing out, but with very different players, in East Asia. While the ongoing brinkmanship contest between President Trump and his chief rival, China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping, involves two vastly different personalities and political systems, it’s clear both share similar dysfunctions and needs: pride, nationalism, rampant paranoia (creating a tendency to box themselves into narrow policy choices), and an obsession with loyalty and face.
The concept of face is often misunderstood or overemphasized in simplistic analyses of Chinese culture, but its overarching importance in maintaining hierarchy and status is unquestionable. Xi or those close to him have a rich history of nixing insufficiently dignified nicknames. Only a few years ago, propaganda chiefs had encouraged the affectionate moniker “Big Daddy” or “Uncle” Xi—until suddenly, for whatever reason, such endearments became politically unpalatable; grassroots titles, including the similarly cuddly “steamed bun” or “Winnie the Pooh,” are meanwhile considered outrageous slurs. Even allies are not permitted a hint of mischief—in 2017, apparatchiks rushed to censor an exchange in which Xi’s pal Putin jokingly called him a “lone warrior” when the Chinese delegation arrived late to a meeting.
If Xi is obsessed with maintaining face, Trump delights chiefly in others losing theirs. In 2016, when a disagreement on the runway forced President Obama to use the rear staircase of Air Force One instead of the traditional red carpet on a state visit to Beijing, the then-candidate openly gloated over the president’s supposed snub, and said that he would’ve left the G20 summit over such a matter. During his campaign, Trump promised pointedly to offer Xi a McDonald’s hamburger in lieu of a state dinner should he ever visit a Trump White House. In April 2017, Trump in fact served Xi chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago, but still upstaged his guest by casually launching his administration’s first missile strike during dinner.
These sort of remarks and acts baffle Beijing. What, they wonder, is going on with this guy—what’s he really thinking? If a lavish “state plus plus” dinner in Beijing, as was lavished on Trump, didn’t soothe the American president’s ego, what, if anything, will? They have tried flattery and backdoor channels, attempted cooling the rhetoric of the Made in China 2025 plan, and thrown in icy vows “not to be bullied”; all the usual moves. By the summer of 2018, a columnist in Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily was referring to “lunatic ravings”; a separate editorial spluttered about a U.S. administration that had “lost reason and is nearly insane.” While the publication is close enough to Party leadership to reflect genuine misgivings, neither piece can be read as representing an official Party position on the American administration—which has yet to emerge. Seeking to defuse trade talks without showing concession, Xi and his advisers are faced with a curious reversal of roles.
In the decades when Chairman Mao ruled an isolationist People’s Republic of China, foreign experts would peer over the border from Hong Kong and attempt to decode what was happening in Beijing using recondite scraps of gossip, state media, smuggled texts, and defectors’ tales. “Pekingology” was an industry of guesswork and experience, largely practiced by seasoned spies, obscure academics, and journalists who would pore over black-and-white photos of the Politburo in an attempt to guess the significance of each member’s positioning. It was painstaking, teeth-grinding work; “Does Logic Help?” a heading in the CIA’s “The Art of China-Watching” manual, published in 1975, wondered.
Now Trump poses a similar conundrum for the Chinese. Neither ideology nor convention offer much guide to unpacking the forty-fifth president’s long-term goals. To figure out whether Trump is guided, at any particular moment, by ego, self-interest, whim, or whichever one of his motley clan of ever-changing advisers and cronies is running the show backstage, experts in Beijing can only check POTUS tweets for whether they’re sent from an Android or iPhone, or puzzle over which of Trump’s circle of supposed surrogates or advisers best speaks for him.
Is it Michael Pillsbury, the ex-Sinophile mentioned in Trump’s press conferences, who now preaches the Yellow Peril Gospel in his The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower? University of California Irvine Professor Peter Navarro, an adviser whose views on Beijing can be well inferred from his documentary Death by China? U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has taken the lead in Chinese trade negotiations? Former journalist, marine, and China hand Matthew Pottinger, at the National Security Council? What about trusted “old friends” such as Hank Paulson or Henry Kissinger? Who knows? Beijing’s analysts will only find their own “inscrutability” reflected back at them, inversely: Instead of the Communist Party’s studied waxwork opacity, the opacity of Trump comes with an endless excess of misinformation, mendacity, and contradiction. Like students of Xi Jinping Thought who try to marshal disparate comments and policies into something resembling a cohesive plan, Trumpkinologists face an exercise in painful futility: the putative study of a vacuum.
Beijing started out projecting confidence. “China has a lot of experience in taming a new American president, and Trump should be no exception,” an editorial in the Chinese edition of the Global Times confidently affirmed, belying any initial shock at the billionaire’s victory. “China is used to dealing with businessmen, and in this way, he may be easier to handle than Hillary,” claimed Jin Canrong, a high-profile international relations professor.
Only in recent months has the tone changed. By some accounts bewildered, Chinese officials now affect admiration. “I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician,” wrote Mark Leonard in the Financial Times in July 2018, amidst the impact of the tariff contest. Although it’s possible, even likely, officials were feeding remarks intended to inveigle Trump (even depicting him, for example, as a “Sun Tzu-like strategic genius”), he has genuine admirers among their ranks. Some Chinese buy into the “successful businessman” blather, and see a pragmatic venerable elder—something he would have to be to have survived in China—rather than an aging grifter, as he is more usually seen in the West.
At 72, Trump, after all, is only two years older than the People’s Republic will be in October; none of its leaders could have successfully endured his repeated humiliations, bankruptcies, or public exposures without being arrested or disappeared. It’s widely believed, for example, that the country’s youngest billionaire, 42-year-old Jack Ma, did not volunteer his own resignation as CEO of e-commerce giant Alibaba last summer, but privately accepted it. As overseer of both a vast Amazon-like structure, and digital payment network, Ma was close to commanding an enterprise larger than his own government, and arguably too rich to jail. Trump’s dogged survival skills may impress those for whom politics and business is more literally a life-or-death daily struggle.
If China’s negotiators truly have arrived at a state of puzzled esteem (a debatable thesis, as Trump’s thirst for flattery has become an international punchline at this point), it may also have something to do with disillusionment at his opponent: Xi’s star does not shine as brightly as it once did. The days when the General Secretary could make a speech at the UN about women’s rights, or laud free markets at Davos, and the media would broadly sing along, have petered out. The once and future reformist, strongman, and free-market debutante seems diminished, even if no one in his circle or society is telling him so. His lack of momentum is the source of an entire system encompassing many careers and institutes: the Xi Jinping Thought industry, dedicated to analyzing the Chinese leader’s “hodgepodge of Dengist and Maoist terminology” and “vague ideas,” as The Economist once summed it up, into submission—or at least something resembling an ideology.
Trump’s popularity with certain Chinese elites is likely to make Xi more paranoid than ever. Like other PRC leaders, Xi is largely insulated from public opinion, and seemed barely able to field even a single question without losing composure at the only foreign press conference he’s ever assented to, in 2014. PRC politics is opaque by design, with Xi’s dogma and rhetoric boring all but the most dedicated observers into disinterest. American politics is, by contrast, a smorgasbord of openly competing interests, with rapidly shifting dynamics. Trump exults in the office, but detests the responsibilities; Xi, meanwhile, is minutely obsessed with controlling all aspects of governance. Trump courts attention, and is perpetually aghast at seeing his inadequacies paraded by the press; Xi crushes critics, then demands their adulation.
When Bush lost his dinner in 1992, his Japanese hosts discreetly declined to air any footage on public television. Now, the overseas-facing English-language Twitter for People’s Daily Online openly trolls Trump. “One by one,” the account tweeted with a smiley face, upon news of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s departure from the Trump administration.
Xi’s personality of cult and centralization of power has caused many to compare him to Mao. In fact, Xi’s obsession with order bears little resemblance to Mao, who ruled through division, turning lieutenants upon lieutenants, purging rivals. Mao delighted in turmoil, urging his base to unleash havoc at mass rallies. “All under heaven is in chaos,” his motto ran. “The situation is excellent.” Of today’s leaders, the one who most closely hews to this playbook is not Mao’s successor, but his American rival.