From the Roman Empire to Chinese dynasties to Cold War-era African regimes, coups have thrown wrenches into the stream of history, marking the erosion of domestic governmental legitimacy as well as the rest of the world’s perception of a state. Since such forceful grabs of power appear to contradict the democratic ideals America has long championed,citizens of both the United States and the rest of the world were appalled at the attempted coup in Washington DC.
Overwhelmingly, the world responded with condolences and statements of sustained faith in America’s democratic institutions- with the exception of China, America’s main rival in geopolitical and economic power. In staggering contrast to expressions of sympathy and hope, Chinese state media called the pro-Trump riots a “beautiful sight,” mocking Nancy Pelosi’s previous statements about anti-CCP demonstrations in Hong Kong, accusing Washington of hypocrisy and karma in their trumpeting of democracy overseas, while blatantly not serving the will of their people (as seen in the Capitol’s riots). Early the next morning, the site for US’ embassy in China was overloaded with jeering messages: “Why don’t you come to work on time? We are all here waiting for you to talk of US democracy and values.” Twitter suspending Trump’s account also drew criticism, since America has a record of condemning China’s suppression of speech. But on a more serious note, a loud consensus among Chinese online discourse was that the Capitol’s spiraling into chaos was the “falling of the beacon of democracy” - an implicit nod to January 6th as the prelude to China’s ascension to America’s status.
For all of Trump’s slander against China, along with the backdrop of America’s self-ordained reputation as the leader of the free world, the events of January 6th lend themselves to an insidious insight: Trump and the CCP share more similarities, in the form of power-holding tactics, than they make themselves out to.
The CCP and Trump share disinformation as a common means of controlling the populace. Trump’s instances of blatant and divisive falsehoods are pretty undeniable- downplaying COVID19, largely rejecting environmental and virological science, and boasting that the economy is the “greatest it’s ever been,”, to name a few. He has constantly reinforced a “them vs us” mentality- in the past several months especially - scoffing at the idea of providing federal assistance to Democrat-led cities and states, labeling BLM protestors as “terrorists” and “angry mobs,” and the rise in calls for social justice in general as “far left fascism” and a “cultural revolution,” “attacking our country.” Over the past four years, multiple studies indicate that political polarization has accelerated, due to a rise in reactionary and sensationalist media, algorithmic echo chambers, negative partisanship, and rampant misinformation through the internet.
A staple of Trump’s simultaneously self-victimizing and self-righteous rhetoric is the perpetual accusation of fake news, of media (which he insinuates as unilaterally left-leaning) waging war against him and the average citizen. As a result, those who identify as Republicans have decreased their trust in the news overall, almost solely relying on Fox News and even further right outlets for information. Trump’s promotion of conspiracy theories is another layer on top of the divided hellscape he paints for his audience - questioning Obama’s birth certificate; suggesting that Obama had supported ISIS as president; proposing that a 75-year-old man confronted by police was part of Antifa. Such claims open up the range of reality to seem more threatening, encouraging constant, irrational fear and suspicion on partisan grounds - with Trump himself as a messiah-like exposer of lies.
Alternately, the CCP uses disinformation on its citizens to homogenize them into a nationalist bloc that believes their government and country are superior - most directly in comparison to America, as its main riva - rather than pit internal factions against one another or idealize a single person. Chinese and American exceptionalism are two wings of the same propagandistic bird. Over the past year, COVID-19 and US domestic unrest were hot topics for Chinese disinformation. In late December 2019, when a doctor shared an image of the first COVID-19 diagnostic test with a warning to his seven coworkers, its subsequent circulation resulted in his being detained and forced to sign a statement of secrecy and self indictment for “disrupting social order” by authorities. Medical experts agree that if China had not stalled for the next three weeks, intensely censoring and removing content online with keywords regarding Wuhan, viruses, lockdowns, and crises, and forbidding medical institutions from passing treatments for COVID19, countless lives would’ve been saved. Citizens’ outrage at the government’s stalling was suppressed, and any factual basis for such discontent was removed from the internet to be replaced with conspiracy theories about how the US military was the source fo the virus, altered records of cases in China, and false, demeaning reports of European and American handling of the virus - including tales of European healthcare workers leaving patients to die and Trump planning to lock down the entire US - to showcase relative competence.
By blocking external sources of information and censoring content internally, the government essentially only permits a single narrative to exist in the public, which they can reinforce officially with their own accounts and broadcasts. This gives the average Chinese citizen no choice but to either believe the government, or to not believe anything at all. Since the latter is more difficult - knowing that what the media and others say is false, but having no safe way of knowing what is true - most citizens are forced into a state of passive acceptance of a constructed sense of reality. This architecting of trust in the government is an interesting complement to Trump’s tactics. Where Trump points fingers to stir suspicion in everything producing information other than himself and his allies, the Chinese government does the same to everything outside of its entire government- a nationalistic, rather than self-centered or partisan, agenda.
In regards to American domestic unrest during 2020, the CCP capitalized on the images of police violence in America that mirrored the ones the US had so often condemned in the streets of Hong Kong. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats, labeled as such from a Chinese movie about a Chinese commando who kills American criminals with his bare hands, gleefully spun out rhetoric to paint America as violent, rampant with discrimination, and fundamentally dysfunctional and hypocritical. It’s not like China is actually better in any of these respects; their unrestrained police force, concentration camps of Ughur Muslims and military occupation and suppression of Tibetans speak for themselves - not to mention their targeting Africans living in Guangzhou with arbitrary evictions and implicit house arrest in response to COVID-19. What’s important to note is that this antagonistic sort of rhetoric parallels the kind Trump himself used against the same BLM protestors- hateful, mobs, destroyers of America, even threatening fatal violence (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) - but on a more narrow-minded and short-sighted scale. Especially in context of Beijing scrambling to preserve their standing after being exposed (at least partially) for intentional mismanaging of COVID19 in the face of primarily America (Trump)’s accusations, the protests and Trump’s response were the perfect opportunity to flip the narrative.
Experts and analysts have generally concluded that the aim of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric is not to expand his base, but to whip them up into higher fervor and to see him as the only source of authenticity. But what is more central in light of events at the Capitol is not Trump’s undermining of public faith in the media, but in government institutions- namely, the election system. In 2016, Trump insinuated that he wouldn’t concede if if the election results indicated he didn’t win, tweeted “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” following the election, and even formed a blatantly partisan coalition - who were prolific for heralding election fraud tales - in the Presidential Advisory Commision on Election Integrity.
After two years of fruitless data-demanding and perusing, it was disbanded, only to be replaced with Trump leading a charge to sow doubt about the validity of the 2018 midterms, with tweets invoking suspicions about Russian interference in support of Democrats, or strategic influxes of illegal immigrants to inflate Democrat votes. In the months leading up to the 2020 election, he tweeted “THERE IS NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” repeatedly claiming the election would be rigged and then loudly launching over fifty lawsuits in swing states to dispute his losing results. As icing on the cake of crap, Trump and his campaign were gearing up for Trump 2024 announcements as early as the beginning of November 2020, a blatant violation of constitutionality and precedent. The strength, bluntness, and frequency of his election skepticism draws power in the form of public trust away from the government, and vests it in Trump himself as a sort of transcendent preacher of the “truth” and had the presidential office “stolen” from him.
The CCP has a different way of undermining elections- they don’t have them. Better yet, as of early 2018, they simply abolished term limits for the presidency. Even in light of Xi Jinping’s recent escalating efforts to revamp internal and cyber infrastructure and the military and inject more nationalist and traditional Confucian philosophy in education, this step was an alarming swipe at power, since it was only near the end of his first term (rather than his second), indicating a long-term agenda that couldn’t wait. Given Xi’s idolizing of Mao, and viewing himself as meant to carry on Mao’s legacy - a regime defined by state-orchestrated mass murder, famine, instigating and fueling wars in several countries, and attempting to strongman Taiwan into submission - Xi’s plans for the future could be a harrowing threat for the rest of the world and Chinese citizens.
The Chinese constitution still says that the president can serve for a standard of two terms (ten years), but is now missing the line stating they can’t serve for over two consecutive terms, which makes the previous clause essentially meaningless. Xi already is the CCP’s general secretary and military chief, both of which don’t have any term limits to begin with. Securing himself such indefinite power drastically overhauls all tumultuous political precedent since Mao, and opens up possibilities for even more deviation from the past structures of stability. Already during his first term, Xi has cracked down on dissent and corruption, thus ousting political rivals as well as winning public support, something Trump tried to achieve but failed in (making false allegations of fraud against Ted Cruz for winning in the Iowa caucus, launching a plethora of personal attacks on Joe Biden throughout his campaign).
Like Xi, Trump’s term has also defied virtually every precedent of the office, but I’ll focus on legality and policy rather than more subjective areas of rhetoric and character. In addition to aggressively contesting the election, at the latest G7 summit, Trump trivialized the international conference into a self-plug for his businesses and golf courses - thus violating the Constitution’s clause preventing presidents from financially profiting off foreign governments without Congress’ consent. When the House of Representatives repeatedly sent subpoenas for Trump’s financial and administration records, he completely ignored them, flaunting a lack of penalization for dodging or even acknowledging accountability, as well as weakening Congressional power. He’s even publicly claimed to have “fell in love” with Kim Jong Un, the dictator of one of the most backwards and oppressive, authoritarian countries in the world, setting a harrowing precedent for future American foreign alliances.
The 65 members of Trump’s executive office (roles like Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, Press Secretary, etc) have a turnover rate of 91%, consistently for disagreeing with Trump rather than actual incompetence. Examples include Secretary of Defense Mark Esper being fired for opposing Trump’s demands to use active duty troops to face protestors, which in itself is an anomaly since technically it occurred so close to the election and subsequent transition and is generally interpreted as a symptom of an unstable government. Michaul Atkinson, the US inspector general, was also fired soon after receiving the impeachment trial-inducing notice by a CIA whistleblower (the phone call between Trump and the Ukranian president where Trump used financial aid as leverage for Ukraine investigating Biden), a move widely criticized as a strike against speaking the truth. This Ukraine incident also crosses significant legal lines, most notably leveraging foreign aid for personal gain violates the Impoundment Control Act in the Constitution. This plethora of political and legal violations, while not as dystopian as Xi’s record, is still having the same type of effect on American institutions: reducing their validity through a single political actor.
It’s expected that the power dynamic between China and America will take a turn after the latest events at the Capitol. Trump’s more egocentric version of the CCP’s consolidation of power has blatantly failed, both itself and in the face of American ideals’ precedents and a global audience. Xi’s successful version of achieving authoritarianism will only stand out as such in comparison to a self-destructive and polarized America; even if the CCP’s Orwellian practices are obvious, perhaps the rest of the world will have no choice but to begin to look towards them for leadership due to their sheer power and apparent stability. Despite following in the similar, albeit diminished footsteps of the CCP in gaining power, Trump’s self-centered policies were too impulsive and shortsighted to amount to anything more than headlines and polarization rather than strengthen America. As different as the two global superpowers seek to be, power is power, and power-grabbing tactics don’t discriminate by geopolitics.
The culmination of four years of Trump’s impulsive lashing out and feeding hysteria in his base has blown up in his face, humiliating Americans, and giving China an opening to truly assert themselves as the apex global leader.
1. Chinese State Media Calls Pro-Trump Riot 'A Beautiful Sight
2. Chinese netizens jeer riot in US Capitol as 'Karma,'
3. China mocks US 'double standards' over Capitol chaos
*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.