Scott Montgomery explores Chinese perceptions of US decline.
Friends were over the other night, and while the wine and beer were flowing, we heard a story. One of our party, we’ll call her “S,” teaches an ESL class at a local college. Most of her students are recent immigrants from Latin America, but her class this quarter has a well-educated woman from China, a filmmaker. “Ms. C” frequently offers “S” challenging comments, not always in dulcet tones, about how Americans get her native land all wrong.
Our friend, who is excellently diplomatic, engages such commentary to encourage more English practice. She has herself responded by invoking certain matters to suggest that China may be less than perfect, again to extend the conversation. These matters include the number of prisoners in China’s jails, universal government surveillance, the policy of mass covid quarantines (“Didn’t these make people’s lives harder?”), and whether the authoritarian system as a whole might adversely affect individual freedom (S avoids issues likely to raise the temperature too high, like Taiwan or the labor camps in Xinjiang).
Ms. C, meanwhile, has carved answers to everything her teacher says. She replies: the U.S. incarceration rate (prisoners per 100K population) is five times that of China. Surveillance, she says, keeps China a safe place to live, rather than America, where citizens are attacked every day and police shoot black people all the time. “America is No Country for Black Men!” she says, with perfect enunciation. As for the pandemic, no country was so crazy as America. Many millions refused to use masks and even rejected vaccination. Regarding freedoms, “We have many of them in China, if you don’t say stupid things or do illegal things.” The U.S., on the other hand, has absurd and dangerous liberties: “Guns have more freedom than people!” All this is true, because “government here is broken; no one is in control.” Half of Congress “wants U.S. to default and go bankrupt!” Lastly, “What happened to America?”
S ends her story by joking that Ms. C’s English seems to have improved under her care. Everyone agrees and sips their drink. I’m not convinced, however, that her words are her own.
Ms. C appears to be something of a Chinese nationalist. But it would be wrong, I think, to dismiss her comments as mere echoes of propaganda. True, her statements have the sound of meme-like shards and barbs from Beijing. But they almost certainly aren’t the pure product of low-level officials in basement offices, carrying out orders from higher altitudes. Ms. C’s attacks, however oversimplified, have enough reality in them to make any counter-arguments difficult. No less, they are sure to ring bells for people worldwide who have heard from their own media about U.S. domestic problems (I was in Paris when the murder of 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place in 2012, and a refrain on French tv was “guns and chaos.”).
America’s overcrowded prisons, its police shootings, its anti-vax movement—now with a presidential candidate from none other than the Kennedy family—its horrific paralysis about gun rights, and a Congress internally at war—all these are real and world-famous at this point.
U.S. domestic failures may or may not be bemoaned at home, but overseas they have a distinct geopolitical presence and, in a sense, a purpose. It is this: to provide nutrients for the claims of Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes that liberal democracy is in the process of collapse. Putin and Xi have been claiming the decline of the West for the past decade, and the West, with the U.S. as perennial leader, has done its part by providing the needed evidence.
Beyond this, such failures have also given nourishment to illiberal movements everywhere, in Europe, Central Asia, Africa, Latin America. The irony here is itself a sign of how integrated the situation has become: every problem noted above, after all, has its own origin in the drift toward illiberalism in large parts of American society. Europe, of course, has its own forms of tribalism, its own cherished fears of the darker races and immigrants of many shades, its own eastern promises turned toward authoritarianism. But the only leadership it seems to find in the U.S. example is how to defend and extend these regressions. Such is the real meaning behind Viktor Orban’s invited visit to Dallas and the Conservative Political Action Conference last August. “My country,” Orban declared at the beginning of his speech, “is the Lone Star State of Europe.”
Photo by RDNE Stock project