My thoughts keep returning to a meme being posted and reposted on Facebook. It featured a picture of protesters in Hong Kong, waving American Flags. The words are simple on the surface but contain a haunting charge: Be the America Hong Kong thinks you are.
America’s self-image often differs greatly from how those in the rest of the world see us. As the last remaining “super-power,” there’s often a bit of arrogance projected from the domestic front. Here at home, however, we seem to be a bit insecure about our system of government.
It’s now an accepted truism that we are “a divided nation.” A large number of partisans refuse to accept the validity of a duly-elected President. This is a bipartisan exercise, as the statement applied for the eight years prior to our last election, with different shoes on different feet.
Americans, by our electoral and economic systems, are notorious for a focus on the short term. The side losing an election decides their best strategy is to gum up the works and stop all “progress” until the next election, where too many believe they will then sweep and have unfettered abilities to enact all of their policies without opposition.
Our economic policies are too often dictated by short-term metrics. Managers of publicly traded companies manage for quarterly earnings reports. Many individual investors look at their investment accounts with similar short-term vision. Too many more are living paycheck to paycheck, with little long-term planning for the eventual unplanned emergency or downturn.
China plays the long game. Americans attitudes toward longer planning time horizons was summed up by the economist John Maynard Keynes with “In the long run we are all dead.”
While we have mostly remained uninvolved in the China-Hong Kong situation, America is having a very public negotiation with China over trade practices. Some are even likening it to an economic cold war.
Too many are lining up with support or against America’s strategy based on support of the current occupant of the White House. They should note that we’re negotiating with a country that worked out the treaty with Great Britain over control of Hong Kong in the 1980s, began the transfer of power in 1997, and pledged to maintain most independence of Hong Kong until 2047.
On the American side, we have too many looking at the standoff as if it were about tariffs, and the short term ramifications of them – most of which are negative. In an ideal world, we would have “free trade.” It is tariffs, however, that have brought the Chinese to the table.
It would be helpful if more people viewed China as a monopoly corporation with respect to trade policies rather than a sovereign nation. It is virtually impossible to distinguish between China the country and their state-owned enterprises.
The chorus of economists singing tariffs are always bad would never support unfettered monopoly power in a capitalist system. Yet China continues to use predatory pricing, theft of intellectual property, and a general disregard for environmental and labor regulation. No capitalist enterprise can compete fairly in these conditions. In the long run, all of these companies would be dead.
Anyone following US-China trade negotiations needs to think beyond this President, and even the next one. We need to think in a very un-American way and understand the long game here. We need to decide if we want to preserve capitalism, or let a totalitarian communist regime usurp an entire generation of technological advancement and economic power for the price of cheap electronics and textiles now.
Which brings us back to the Hong Kong protesters. They’re aware of the negotiations. They’re also aware of America’s history and our heart strings. They know our President wants a deal, but American popular opinion is easily swayed with graphic and striking images. They want us on their side, reminding us of the virtues we hold at our core.
They’re asking us to choose. We’ll have to support our national interest, or align with those seeking freedom in a remote part of the globe.
It’s a haunting choice. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is not an easy answer.