The Shutdown Drama in D.C. Was Beijing’s Cup of Tea

Observers in China have not missed the irony that the government shutdown took place as Donald J. Trump marked the first anniversary of his presidency.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

HONG KONG—It’s a weird day when you find yourself agreeing with the Chinese Communist Party’s shills.

As funding for American federal agencies ran out on Friday, and members of Congress could not reach an agreement to develop a stopgap bill until Monday, Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency was sharing photographs of signs that showed closures at the Statue of Liberty and the Library of Congress.

But there are some nuances. In 2013, when the U.S. government suffered a similar experience there was plenty of gloating and smirking in Beijing. Not so this time around. The reactions have been sober, well thought out, measured—it’s almost like the People’s Republic is finding its footing, and the Party’s spin doctors are figuring out how to communicate with people beyond the Nine-Dash Line.

A few lurid headlines persist—“American government shutdown costs several billion U.S. dollars each day, two parties let loose a torrent of verbal abuse,” for instance—and a cartoon showing a donkey and an elephant pulling down Capitol Hill was published in the bombastic Global Times, but the commentary offered by the tightly controlled rhetorical bullhorns of the CCP has been subdued compared to a little over four years ago.

Observers in Beijing have not missed the irony that the government shutdown took place as Donald J. Trump marked the first anniversary of his presidency. They took easy swipes at the man—splashing images of gaudy gold decor in his Trump Tower penthouse, and an aerial photo of his massive Florida vacation mansion.

Trump is being compared to China’s tuhao, or nouveau riche who are often characterized as lacking in refinement. For readers in the People’s Republic, the contrast being drawn here is one with the CCP’s political and military leader, Xi Jinping, whose bildungsroman includes episodes of sleeping in a flea-infested, cold cave in northern China with other young, educated men and women who were “sent down” to the countryside by Mao Zedong to experience rural life as peasants. One question doesn’t need to be stated, but is insinuated without effort: Who would you rather have lead the world?

How the tables have turned. Whereas the CCP’s propaganda was once easy to skewer, now it’s Chinese reports that are pointed, talking about how Trump is “off the cuff,” “tacky,” and “emotional.” The American president’s tirades embarrass his nation every day, and his closest advisors might bring about not only his downfall, but an entire administration’s.

Beijing recognizes the anxieties brewing in America, particularly on Capitol Hill. Gridlock in governance happens, perhaps inevitably, but to fail so spectacularly so often in such a public fashion is seen as systemic weakness by America’s East Asian counterpart.

The CCP’s operational mechanics are notoriously mysterious, even cultish, with one secretive beach retreat being the location for an annual meeting ground for top officials, where they set policy goals and form a consensus before announcing the path of the nation. In other words, there’s little chance of the CCP government breaking continuity—and that’s exactly why it has remained the dominant ruling party within China. In comparison, all of those golf trips to Mar-a-Lago have been a colossal waste of time.

In a Xinhua article, one writer points out that the “Trump administration has backtracked on almost every notable policy Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had put in place.” The government shutdown, as the same writer put it, “exposes a chronic flaw” in the American political system.

As word of the American shutdown made waves in Chinese news reports, Xinhua’s banner story on its homepage was, as usual, about one of Xi Jinping’s recent proclamations: “The work of governance involves fulfilling four major tasks.” The report is chock full of Party-speak, with handwavy claims that apparatchiks must “maintain the people as the central developmental thought” and bolster the CCP’s own hierarchy. But read between the lines and the message becomes clear—fall in line, and don’t let this ever happen to us.

While not every Chinese proclamation is a response to America, comparisons never trail far behind. There is a growing contradiction between America the ideal and America the reality in the Chinese eye. If the cost of democratic freedom is daily scandal—from government shutdowns, to diatribes on social media, to electing a president who couldn’t stop himself from having an affair with a pornstar right after his wife gave birth—then is America still great?

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Of course it is. But try telling that to Xi’s fans.