David Wertime (@dwertime) is a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, a Truman National Security Project fellow and a Humanity in Action senior fellow. Isaac Stone Fish (@isaacstonefish) is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, on sabbatical from Foreign Policy magazine. Melissa Chan (@melissakchan), a former Al Jazeera correspondent in China, is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Center.
When we heard President Trump had fired FBI Director James B. Comey, the man tasked with investigating the president’s alleged ties to Russia — and only days after Trump’s son-in-law’s family apparently traded on the Kushner name to sell access to United States visas — it brought back memories of our times living in China and our experiences reporting on its corrupt, illiberal political system: the falling levels of trust in the media, the courts and other institutions. The uncertainty that comes when those in power disrespect the rule of law. The exhaustion that sets in among those brave enough to take on the system.
To be clear, that grim status quo remains a very far cry from the United States, with its tradition of free speech, open dissent and raucous democracy. But China shows us the corrosive consequences of life under a capricious regime where men, not laws, rule. As journalists with years of experience covering China, we have watched with grave concern as Trump has issued attack after attack upon America’s political system and its values. His nepotism and his glaring conflicts of interest have sadly meant that words and phrases once reserved for discussing the Chinese Communist Party elite have become increasingly applicable to Washington.
A look at China explains why these echoes should alarm us. The country has a long history of repressive leadership, but even recent developments offer a cautionary tale. Since taking power in late 2012, Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has drastically narrowed the already-cramped space allowed for political criticism. Political enemies have seen anti-corruption probes end their careers. Xi’s administration has issued a series of new rules criminalizing any online commentary with a trace of dissent: Even some respected journalists have been caught in that dragnet. Trump lacks Xi’s power to repress, but the U.S. president has already called for changing libel laws, regularly brands critical stories “fake news,” and even called the media the “enemy of the American people” — echoing both an old Soviet condemnation and a Chinese one, “class enemy.”
Trump’s firing spree — particularly of a prominent law enforcement official such as Comey, and his quick dismissal of acting attorney general Sally Yates and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara — evokes some of Beijing’s politics, where deviations from the party center meet harsh punishment. Yes, constitutionally, many U.S. officials serve at the pleasure of the president. But that does not mean that such officials, particularly the FBI director, serve merely at the president’s whim.
Many Americans have strongly resisted what they consider to be some of the administration’s worst excesses. Trump’s immigration bans have failed against spirited legal challenges supported by widespread protests. But we must beware resistance fatigue. A permanent state of outrage and horror at Trump’s cronyism is unsustainable. When most of our daily lives — whether it’s grabbing a coffee, driving to work or running errands — remain as they were before Trump’s inauguration, it is tempting to yield, bit by bit, to a new normal. It is a condition we have seen in China, where most people resign themselves to the corruption of their party leaders and surrender the political forum to focus on what they can control.
Another outgrowth of that fatigue is a seemingly urbane cynicism that masks a deeper fear about political involvement. For decades, the vast majority of Chinese citizens, mindful of the massive personal repercussions of opposing the state, have treated politics as a field to be shunned. The system and its leaders are too rotten to fix, or even to touch, they will say. Dissidents exist, but because their numbers are sparse, it is easier for the government to dismiss them as marginal. Instead, most choose a kind of soft political exit: Taxes go unpaid, ordinances are ignored, government rhetoric is privately mocked. And the system thus devours itself, becoming increasingly remote from its people, and increasingly devoid of the values for which it claims to stand.
In today’s climate, many Americans perceive our own system as broken, too. Some have even stopped imagining a more perfect union. We offer our experience in China to show how bad things can actually get, and as a call to safeguard what we have. China’s tradition of political oppression can feel almost invisible in everyday life, but in reality it means that most citizens must silently forswear certain zones of happiness — such as the power to stir one’s countrymen to imagine a new political reality or to minister to their spiritual needs. Their country and the communities it contains are inevitably diminished as a result. But that fate is not yet ours. Nor does it ever need to be.