It may sound prosperous that President-Elect Donald J. Trump could learn anything from leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which rules a country he has accused of stealing American jobs and concocting the hoax of climate change. But a country that has transformed itself from an impoverished communist society into a thriving capitalist one in four decades may have a thing or two to teach the former television show host of The Apprentice.
Even a casual look at how a regime dominated by fanatical communist ideologues could be converted into one led by consummate pragmatists should be especially useful for Trump. As he basks in the afterglow of his surprise victory, Trump obviously knows that his presidency — and his chances of re-election in 2020 — will depend on his economic report card in the next four years.
But based on appointments of ideological hardliners such as Tom Price (a staunch foe of Obamacare nominated to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services), Michael Flynn (Trump’s national security adviser with a dim view of Islam) and Mike Pompeo (the incoming CIA Director who has fiercely opposed the Iran nuclear agreement) and many of his campaign pledges, the chances are high that Trump could squander his limited political capital on divisive ideological issues and neglect his most important priority – getting the American economy out of its low-growth rut.
Although Chinese rulers do not have to face voters to stay in office, as Trump will likely do in four years, they have a far more intuitive sense that it is their ability to deliver economic prosperity rather than their ideological purity that will keep them in power. The transition from a radical regime guided by a utopian ideology to a pragmatic one with a laser-like focus on maintaining power by delivering superior economic performance is one of the main drivers for how China has managed to engineer an economic revolution since the late 1970s.
But the shift from an ideologically driven regime to a developmental party-state was not easy. It required Chinese leaders to be disciplined and focused on nothing else but pro-growth policies even when such policies were denounced or opposed by ideologues inside the regime. In the early years of China’s economic reform, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader, exemplified this pragmatist philosophy. In spite of the resistance from conservatives, Deng supported policies that attracted foreign investment, privatized agriculture, and boosted private entrepreneurship. Of course, Deng was no democrat and would side with conservatives when the CCP’s political monopoly was under attack. But on most social and cultural issues, Deng had a hands-off policy because he did not have time for such distractions.
On the international stage, Deng also pursued a pragmatic foreign policy that served only one objective: supporting China’s economic growth. Again, he knew that China needed a peaceful international environment and good relations with the world’s richest countries. During his reign, except for a brief border war with Vietnam in 1979, Deng withdrew Chinese support for leftist insurgency forces around the world, ended aid for communist regimes, and strengthened ties with the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
In retrospect, Deng’s pragmatism, which has guided the CCP’s policy for most of the post-Mao era, has saved the one-party rule.
What, if anything, can Trump learn from Deng?
To start, he should avoid becoming a prisoner of his own campaign rhetoric. For example, waging a war over the abortion issue makes no sense. It will not only polarize society but also distract Trump from other pressing economic issues. Similarly, conducting mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will hurt the economy while producing hear-rending images of families torn apart. As for picking constant fights with the media and calling for taking away the citizenship of flag-burning protesters, such acts serve only to dilute Trump’s economic message.
On the foreign policy front, Trump will need to rethink the economic consequences of his positions as well. Starting a trade war with your most important trading partners (China and Mexico, for instance) is pure folly since the certain outcome of such a confrontation is a net loss of American jobs and growth. Hectoring your long-term allies in Europe and East Asia to pony up more money for common defense may, under the best circumstances, shave a small amount off the Pentagon’s budget, but at the expense of long-term trust.
Tearing up international agreements such as the Paris Accord and the Iran nuclear deal could be disastrous, too. Except for projecting a fleeting image of a strongman, such gratuitous acts bring no economic benefits. Indeed, they are almost certain to cost Trump dearly in terms of international goodwill.
Of course, we could be wrong if Trump believes that he can win another term by running the same populist campaign in 2020. This is wishful thinking. By that time he would be part of the establishment and those who put him in office last November will not support him again unless he produces tangible economic improvements in their lives.
If the so-called communists in China have long understood the elementary lesson of performance legitimacy, the next occupant of the White House who prides himself as a savvy and successful capitalist surely knows it, too.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of China’s Crony Capitalism.