Steinberg: Beware the Cult of Personality

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Donald Trump and Xi Jinping | AP Photos

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Xi Jinping.

Any idea what that means?

Here, I’ll make it easier: A) Street slang for “Extreme Jumping,” the practice of leaping off tall buildings, cliffs, etc., in one of those flying squirrel suits while taking a video for YouTube

B) Korean for “Sin Juniper,” a kind of gin made with radioactive juniper berries

C) the president of the People’s Republic of China for the past three years

Too easy, right? It’s “C,” though don’t feel bad if you guessed differently. We’re Americans, we can’t keep track with every detail in this big old globe of ours. I imagine a third of the country, if you asked them to name the leader of China, would say “Mao Zedong,” and he died in 1976.

You’re certainly not alone.

“I never heard of him,” Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News last September, after laboriously reading Xi’s name off a piece of paper. “I don’t know who he is.”

They certainly know in China. Xi is perhaps the most powerful leader since Mao, centralizing power in himself, a trend that the Western media duly noted.


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“He has retreated into the world of Mao: personality cults, plaudits to the state sector and diatribes against foreigners supposedly intent on destroying China,” Time magazine wrote, while The Economist splashed “Beware the Cult of Xi” on its cover, stories that got both magazines’ web sites blocked in China last week, joining the New York Times, which has been barred there for years.

You can’t read phrases like “personalty cults” and “diatribes against foreigners” without thinking of Donald Trump, who has been criss-crossing the country, displaying his flabbergasting ignorance of international affairs (I wonder how he would do on my little quiz above). You may think that, since Wisconsin, Trump has had his “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment and is now over, limping off to die, politically, in the limbo of forgotten things. But he’s still leading by a considerable majority — leading Ted Cruz, alas, who is, arguably, worse. At least Trump is erratic.

Though not about China. Trump has been harping on that nation “winning” for years. He called global warming a plot invented by the Chinese to benefit their economy. He uses them to underscore the GOP Rambo worldview: that the United States is a victim, betrayed by its weak leaders who coddle and flatter the Chinese when they should be holding their feet to the fire.

O’Reilly was struggling over Xi’s name because he was asking Trump whether he would hold a state dinner for Xi, the way Obama did last September. Trump, of course, blustered that he’d buy him a McDonald’s hamburger and get down to the hard business of getting the Chinese to do exactly what we want.

China is not winning. It suppresses the media because its leaders don’t like the news they’re reading. Several top leaders, including Xi’s brother-in-law, were named in the Mossack Fonseca papers for parking their fortunes in Panama, and they weren’t doing so because things are so stable in China. Submerged in pollution, its 1.4 billion people are alternatively whipped by rampant nationalism and dissatisfaction with the severe limits on their lives imposed by the Communist dictatorship, which up to last year included being compelled to have no more than one child per family.

For all his tough talk, you’d think that Trump — rendered “Chuanpu” in the Chinese press, incidentally — would strike fear into Chinese leaders. The opposite is the case. They seem to be savoring the spectacle of his rise.

“They are relishing this moment,” Zhou Fengsuo, a democracy activist who fled to the United States after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, told The Guardian three weeks ago. “They are very happy. They are laughing over this.”

Which means that Trump’s decline will be bad news in China. But good news here.

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