Fear and faith in Beijing

The first election in which I was old enough to vote, I found myself in Shanghai. When the absentee ballot arrived, I passed it flippantly to my language tutor, telling her to vote. “It may be the only time you get to do it,” I teased. I remember her fascination with my state’s ballot initiatives and her delight in my being one small vote in favor of gay marriage, in-state tuition for undocumented migrants – which I explained by use of China’s hukou system as metaphor – and against gambling.

Throughout the campaign, I remember being grateful for the objective remove – away from the negative advertisements and talk shows and with only the certain words of the New York Times. When Obama won reelection in 2012, I felt pride in my country, relief that his first victory had not been a fluke, that this was truth of America’s hopefulness and confidence in the future. This time was different.

The morning after the election, a Muslim friend from Afghanistan told me that even the day’s very smell reminded her of when the Taliban took over. A Jewish friend from Pittsburgh told me that this day was one his family had taught him to fear. And yet, I don’t know any of my black friends who felt newly afraid. In some way, we always have been. When we were dismissed, even by our liberal friends for pointing at shadows, we knew it was there. Hate was ever just below the surface.


As Hillary Clinton’s victory slipped away, I found myself comforting classmates with the words that it was going to be okay. I promised that with a faith that reminded me of the only thing I had to defend my belief in God: that something this great could not so long endure on the basis of a lie. No man could destroy this country – not even with the sixty million who voted for him.

I wavered between wanting Trump to fail and wanting him to succeed. The truth was that I no longer knew which was which.  Let his new Supreme Court roll back women’s rights and voting rights. Let millions become newly uninsured. Let twelve million decent people continue to live in fear of deportation – surely he cannot deport them faster than our current president already had. And then let the recession that was long overdue, regardless of who won, come. But even as soon as the day after the election, those who voted for Trump would have to return to the misery of their own lives. Shouldn’t I fear more what might come from their shock when he  failed?

To the extent this election is even in part about white America’s fear of an America that no longer looks like them, this election will not stop that. Already more babies of color are born each year than white. To the extent that this election is about the displacement caused by globalization and technological change, while the former may have slowed down recently, the latter is poised to become even more acute. History shows that little short of war can stop them and only then temporarily. Some take solace in the promise of the youth vote, but as one classmate quipped when assessing the vote breakdowns by age, didn’t today’s old once grew up in the era of Woodstock? Who is to say we too won’t end our lives in refutation of our youth?



The Canadian singer Feist once sang about “a sadness so real that it populates / the city and leaves you homeless again.” There were many feeling homeless as the gap in votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would not close.  One classmate asked that others be mindful of the hurt many were feeling. Soon came offers of support and small gestures of sympathy. Beside me, a classmate whispered, “No one would be doing this if Hillary had won.” It was true, but it pained me that he could not see why. He did not see a class of women, already uncomfortable by their minority, just witness a woman not only denied the history of being the first to lead the country, but by a man who has spent a lifetime demeaning them. He did not see his immigrant classmates suddenly come to terms with the fact that they were no longer undocumented but illegal, even those with prized H1B visas questioning whether they would be welcome, questioning whether they even wanted to return. No one would be doing this if Hillary had won, because her victory was not being cheered by the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Among the Chinese, Trump’s election brought more diverse reactions. The first were those who deferred to CCTV’s bland description of him as a businessman (rapper Jay Z’s quip “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man” seems more apt), suggesting he just might do America some good. For the few who had lived in America or found themselves surrounded by Americans in Schwarzman College, there was curiosity at times bordering on sympathy for how deeply the reality of his victory saddened and troubled many Americans. “We never thought someone could be so moved by the results of an election,” one Chinese classmate told me.  And then there were plenty of Chinese who saw this for what it was, the greatest blow to American exceptionalism in its history. A Tsinghua student who had once told me plainly  that his dream was for his country to overtake America, could not resist sharing two popular memes on China’s internet. The first read, “Welcome to China: the place that you don’t need to worry about any election.” The other was a fake ballot, in which someone had written in “Jinping Xi” for president. America had sent a clear signal to the world that it was in retreat.

The foreign ministry press conferences quickly revealed that whatever hubris there may be, and no matter how big of an opportunity China had just been handed, there was also reason for concern. China, which exports four dollars in goods to the United States for every dollar it imports, knew that it was in the crosshairs of a man fully capable of launching a trade war. But there were reasons for deeper concern too: even as they readied a regional trade deal to place above the ashes of America’s ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s leaders must know that they are not ready to lead the world. Many make much of the “Thucydides trap,” the belief that rising powers create the conditions for conflict with the incumbent hegemon. The more common condition for conflict is a power vacuum. There is less risk in what Trump himself would do than there was in the unintended consequence of what other nations, friend or adversary, would do in anticipation of him.

I watched most of the election results next to a classmate from the south. He hadn’t voted for Trump, but knew plenty of people who had. “These people, they don’t like being told they’re stupid all the time,” he said. He put his head in his hands in disbelief. He is headed to the military in a few months’ time. “I’m going to war.”


Once the silence wore off, my classmates in Beijing were swift in their transformation into experts on the failure of the left and, less credibly, America’s long ignored working class. In an election that was more than anything a repudiation of the establishment, some still dared to claim that elite programs like the Schwarzman Scholarship that bring together aspirants to global leadership became even more important. And yet, there sounded something Antoinettesque about this. It was no less clear who were exercising maturity (if not yet statesmanship) in moving forward and who were simply exercising the chameleonic opportunism that had gotten them this far.

Even if the elite were not listening to “flyover country,” there were plenty of warnings within the power structure that there was trouble afoot. In 2011, the writer, Chrystia Freeland, now Canada’s minister for international trade, warned about the rise of a “new global elite” who have more in common with each other than their respective countrymen. During the four years I spent at Yale, I was struck by how few possessed the benign strain of patriotism that lends itself to public service. A visiting professor from India who had been on Yale’s campus in the turbulent sixties remarked to me once that he wondered where the activism and national idealism he saw then had gone. Yale, as much a home as any to America’s own form of noblesse oblige, had been undone by an ethos of uncritical, self-serving institutionalism.

The Chinese who had made it to Yale’s campus were broadly indistinguishable from the kids from England, or India, or Sao Paolo in their outlook. One could be lulled into a sense of optimism by that apparent unity, but these classmates were not of their countries but merely from them. The unity was of class, not of nations. We indulged a meritocracy that permitted inequality, the Americans unique only in their belief in equality of opportunity far in disproportion to its reality. But what is meritocratic on the surface can be pre-determined from the start: no gaokao or SAT can correct for the advantages wealth affords. Wealth creates its own pathology of ceaseless competition, with winners who believe themselves entitled to spoils instead of filled with expectations to serve. The fervent belief in equality of opportunity lends itself to self-centric narratives that can become openly hostile to the less fortunate – ‘I pulled myself up,  why can’t you?’ – and blind to the public goods that made their success possible.

Even if many of them wish they could undo the chaos of that time, the generation of Chinese youth sent down to learn from the peasants never forgot those lessons. Indeed, many are grateful for them. How can the world’s leaders rebuild ties to the people they proclaim lead?  At least at Tsinghua, it was heartening to find those who wished to devote their lives to their country, even if it was not my own. I reflected on the difference between Yale, which had only just years before welcomed back ROTC on its campus, and the at times unsettling numbers of Chinese students in uniform marching and shouting in formation at Tsinghua. I remembered the surreal atmosphere weeks before of their and the Schwarzman program’s simultaneous scavenger hunts, each racing past each other, they in uniform, through Tsinghua’s narrow, dusty, trashed alleys like extras in a bad war film.

There are limits to programs like Schwarzman. In the 1920s, a Japanese man named Isoroku Yamamoto  studied at Harvard and traveled the United States, becoming fluent in English and its customs, and favorable in his outlook. That man opposed the invasion of China. That man opposed war with America. That man became the admiral who led the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Wandering around Tsinghua’s campus, my thoughts often turn to the father of a once close friend. He was a member of Tsinghua’s huifu gaokao class, the young people who returned from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to build a new China. I think of him sitting for that exam, knowing that he was competing against several years of would-be applicants whose studies and future had been disrupted by Mao’s whims. Those who passed were truly the best and brightest of a generation. I think of his decision to leave China for America for further study. I never asked him if at the time that decision was meant to be permanent, but that he insisted the woman who became his wife speak to him only in English gives some hint of his intentions. From Michigan they went on to settle in southern California. But by his forties, as the China he left behind began to make its presence known, he became one of the many Chinese immigrants somewhere over the Pacific, setting up a software business in Beijing. All the while, many of his Tsinghua classmates who remained behind, some of them still close friends, would go on to the heights of Chinese society. He raised two beautiful daughters in the sunny idyll of La Jolla. Compared to his classmates with far greater wealth and power, I wonder if he ever asks himself if he made the wrong bet. I wonder who envies whom.

One of the saddest truths of being an expat in China is often knowing more about modern Chinese history than the country’s own people. But that ability for multiple realities to exist simultaneously seems less poignant in light of Tuesday’s election. How truly different are the two worlds America is living in; how great are the consequences when those two fault lines collide? Perhaps my own life obscured that: living just forty minutes south of Washington, you could enter a world that votes red, listens to country music, and watches Nascar. Crossing that border daily perhaps I, best positioned to see the gulf in the country, instead became a different kind of blind.

The last time I was in China four years before, the Japanese government had just inflamed Beijing by acquiring the title to the Senkaku islands, one of many bodies of land barely worthy of the description as rocks which, through  misinterpretation of history, are used as proxies for China’s regional rivalries. Overnight, stirred by the media and even more fervent netizens, protests erupted in major Chinese cities. On a visit to Beijing, I saw signs posted to shops that read “No dogs and no Japanese.” I watched Asian classmates who spoke anything short of perfect Mandarin – including, ironically, Chinese Americans – hostilely asked if they were Japanese. If Donald Trump provokes China, I know how quickly a mob can form.

History matters. Our knowledge of it shapes our perception of the present and our aspirations for our future. Its unfinished business gives purpose to our lives. It lessons serve as stern warnings and inspiring beacons. It is through history, its virtues and its abuses, that we understand our national and most personal of narratives. In China, the former New York Times reporter Howard French writes,

most Chinese students finish high school convinced that their country has fought wars only in self-defense, never aggressively or in conquest, despite the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the ill-fated war with Vietnam in 1979 … Similarly, many believe that Japan was defeated largely as a result of Chinese resistance, not by the United States.

Because no one learns of the millions of people who died as a result of the catastrophic decisions made by Mao Zedong during the Great Leap Forward, he is more popular today among China’s youth than his parents. China’s instilling of its “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers creates a nation in which hypernationalism restrains the government’s ability to act in what it knows to be the country’s best interest for fear of losing legitimacy. Tiananmen Square is one of the many topics considered “too recent to be seen with objectivity.”

China’s intentional misunderstanding of its history leads it to present error. It is not alone in Asia. The continent awaits its equivalent of West German President Richard von Weizsäcker. George Packer writes that his 1985 speech on the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II’s  “unprecedented honesty about Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust” created a “landmark on the country’s return to civilization.”

On television it is always World War II in China. The latest deployments of the US military receive more news than they ever do back home. All around the world nations are pussyfooting with war. And half of it seems to be because they can’t agree on the history of the last one.


A few days before the election, Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury and president of Harvard, visited Beijing. Asked about the election, he leaned back in his chair with his usual air of smug knowingness, holding the microphone at an angle not unlike a dog would with a bone. “I believe Hillary Clinton will win the election,” his confidence projected as a hiss. Earlier that day, a Harvard Business School professor dismissed out of hand my concern that this election would go late into the night. I turned to a classmate and whispered, “It’s exactly this arrogance that makes me worry she’s going to lose.” Perhaps it was some combination of my innate contrarianism or the insight of being a black man with a white father. Perhaps it was just plain superstition.

I felt more shame than anything when that same professor would later declare before my classmates I was all but clairvoyant. (I wasn’t – I thought Hillary would still win.) But one of my classmates, who openly and dumbfoundingly declares his aspiration to be president, messaged me: “How did you know? I come from a background where I should be voting for Trump, and I didn’t see it. How did you?” Just days before he had been on the fence, not out of conviction, but out of uncertainty of the winning side to pick. Days after, he is applying to join the Trump administration, “out of service.” A Russian opposition journalist compared the establishment’s concession to Trump worthy of Chamberlain: when had the right thing to do become so unclear?

I bet the classmate to whom I expressed my cynicism about conventional wisdom that, if Trump won, the Dow would close down 1000 the next day. He took the under. By the time the stock market closed the next day, after trading down as much as 800 points in futures, it had ended up. It was hard to say whether it was a sign of confidence in America or the short-sighted impulse of the allure of the new regime. No one said markets have to be moral. Only fools believe the market is always right.


In a way, it seems ironic that China, which makes much of its 5000 years of history, has been ruled for the past sixty-seven years by the youngest form of government. But before communism, it was the Western import of a “republic” that first captured the imaginations of Chinese reformers. Li Gongzhong, a professor at China’s Nanjing University, writes of the interesting evolution of the Chinese translation, gonghe, which translates literally as “joint harmony.”*  Missionaries were the first to attempt the translation, with a common choice, minzhu, conflated with democracy, the term with which it is associated today. It was the Japanese who settled on the characters gonghe, which for two thousand years in Chinese history was understood as the period in which ministers temporarily collaborate to govern the state on the monarch’s behalf.

For a period of time, the United States was referred to in Japan as “Land of a republican government,” which helped the term reinvent itself from its classical Confucian understanding. The example of its government, its Revolution, and George Washington were repeatedly invoked in China’s break from the Qing emperor.

The Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao, who studied in Japan, would go on to play a prominent role in bringing the term back to China and, through it, inspiring the political debates that led to the Republican Revolution. The term’s  spread was so rapid that within a few years essay questions requiring comparison between Russian despotism, British constitutional monarchism, and American republicanism had appeared in as unlikely places as the Hubei province civil-service examinations.

Li writes that the scholar Kang Youwei “fused the Western theory of evolution with the traditional Confucian theory on the three phases of historical development (chaos, political order, and great harmony).” Republican government promised great harmony, but not before the people were ready. Liang Qichao, influenced by the German scholar Conrad Bornhak, believed America’s republic succeeded only because the people were well educated in knowledge and morals. As China’s revolutionary fervor grew, moderates argued that China required a transitionary period of constitutional monarchy. The radicals, led by Sun-Yatsen, charged ahead only to descend into warlordism.

The chaos of the revolutionary period left the term gonghe discredited, an aspiration that became “the object of disappointment, suspicion, and criticism.” And yet curiously, like the many rights ignored in its constitution, the term remains in China’s formal name. What Li sees only as an “empty slogan … a seemingly dispirited wraith, fluttering across China’s skies,” might instead be seeds of something yet to come.

Walking on the shores of Singapore weeks before the election, I watched the the global economy float through the strait. A Chinese classmate asked if I really believed democracy was the best form of government. I told her yes, that while I believed other systems could be legitimate, and indeed even more efficient, none surpassed democracy. I told her that while democracies may often fail to live up to their potential, freedom was in the power of choosing one’s fate, even if it meant failure. I said to believe in democracy was to believe in something hopeful about man. I understand now that the beauty of democracy is that it also allows us to see our ugliness and, if we are brave enough, to confront it. I pray that this election can be more than humbling, but redemptive too.

This section draws on “Republic in early modern China: the cross-cultural dissemination of a political concept,” Li Gongzhong, Chinese Studies in History, 2016 (49:3).