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Red Lantern, White House

Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern, depicts the lives of four women, concubines of a wealthy man in China’s warlord era. Each day, they struggle, roiled in the politics of the domestic household, attempting to gain the favor of their master by beautifying themselves and attempting to catch his attention. He is one who gives lavishly but with a fickle heart, and with a host of unsaid, dangerously ambiguous conditions attached. Every evening, the favored concubine has the honor of having the master’s red lantern hung from the doorframe of her room.

The film is set in the 1920s, but the picture it paints could be one of contemporary China. Its overtures in Central and South Asia in the One Belt One Road project, widespread conditional lending for infrastructure development in Africa (where it also has a military base, in Djibouti), and creeping influence in Eastern Europe have all proven that China has no shortage of suitors hoping to net a favorable patron that is generous with its money and has few scruples about democratic niceties. The power it gains, and, some critics say, the neo-colonialism it espouses with these gestures, are thoughts for a later day. At the moment, China’s suitors are enthusiastic for its goodwill.

The United States is not among them. In one of the first acts as president-elect, Donald Trump telephoned Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, which marked the first such contact in 37 years. One could say that this set the tone for the rest of Mr Trump’s presidency – but that is not necessarily true, considering that his view on China had already been hardline in his campaign, to the point that the Huffington Post has created a three-minute compilation of him mentioning the country with incredible frequency during his presidential runs.

A law enacted early in Mr. Trump’s presidency has allowed American warships to dock at Taiwanese ports, although China’s pugnacious response, threatening to ‘unite China’ should any American vessel attempt to call on Taiwan, may convince the U.S. to refrain from such action, at least for now. Of course, most infamously, there is the trade war that began between the two countries earlier this year, involving a constant cycle of punitive tariffs to be slapped by one country on key imports from the other.

It is easy to understand why the U.S. feels aggrieved by China’s behavior. It is oftentimes an aggressor, a consistently blatant violator of human rights. It has based its entire economy on a system that is grossly—to borrow a favorite word of Mr Trump—unfair, supported as it is by state-run capitalism that guarantees the solvency of favored firms, and there is no doubt that its foreign trade policy puts itself at a great advantage when trading with most countries—certainly so with the U.S. A trade war is not the correct response, and it has been condemned by most experts as mostly harming the Midwestern farmers Mr. Trump seeks to protect. The larger problem is the general incoherence that has characterized the foreign policy of this administration, but America must take a hard line on China if it is to defend its own interests. The administration’s tactics on Taiwan are foolhardy if seen as one-off actions, but done as part of a broader pressure strategy, they may prove effective. Economically, if trade can be open but fair, that is what must be strived for, while avoiding retaliatory tariffs that provoke economic misery for ordinary people. Whichever way America and China choose to play their respective strategies, it is apparent that the red lantern will not be hanging from the White House anytime soon. Perhaps it is better that way.


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