Is The White House Beginning to Resemble Zhongnanhai?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Since Donald Trump was sworn into office on January 20, he has lied repeatedly about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, embraced xenophobic policies, and declared a “running war with the media.” The White House has frozen out the news network CNN—it hasn’t sent an administration official to the network since January 8, and the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he refused to “engage with people who have no desire to actually get something right.” Is the White House beginning to resemble Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Chinese Communist Party and the government that rules China? Or are these just superficial similarities? —The Editors


As a reporter who had a bumpy relationship with the Chinese government that eventually led to my expulsion from the country in 2012, I recognize a hostile administration when I see one. America has entered a post-truth, “alternative facts,” and “fake news” age—one that China has lived in for decades. Trump and his coterie, whether deliberately or instinctively, are employing strategies straight out of the Communist propaganda and authoritarian playbook. The main difference is that the Chinese Communist Party uses formal mechanisms, while Trump has not yet institutionalized his tactics.

From my private conversations, to the public hand-wringing we can all see on social media, it’s clear that reporters in America are worried and afraid. Most are responding by doubling down on speaking truth to power. This mixture of fear, courage, and having a common enemy is troubling because it reminds me of the same esprit de corps we had as embattled foreign correspondents in China.

During my years there, China systematically blasted journalists, accusing us of lying and driving an anti-China agenda. While discerning news consumers recognized it as propaganda, the accusations left enough doubt for some people to wonder whether we were exaggerating our stories. We waged a battle against an organization determined to go to great lengths to discredit us.

Trump has pointedly and repeatedly accused journalists of lying, always while proffering his preferred version of any story. Steve Bannon’s comment that the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile” reminds me of the kind of admonishment spokespeople of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs would deliver. Kellyanne Conway has suggested newsrooms fire reporters who “talked smack all day long about Donald Trump.”

Of course, the brouhaha between the White House and frazzled American journalists is just one component of the illiberal machinery that has arrived in Washington. In other ways, the Trump presidency bears little resemblance to Zhongnanhai. For one, the United States does not currently appear to have a foreign policy strategy. The same cannot be said of Xi Jinping. I will leave those structural comparisons to others.

But on the media, the similarities keep me up at night. It’s unclear how long Americans can handle Trump’s misinformation campaign. As absurd as Chinese propaganda appears to outsiders, the remarkable thing I learned while there was how successful it generally was. A few Chinese citizens might have the street smarts and cynicism to parse fact from fiction, but hundreds of millions more don’t. In the United States, enough people believed Trump’s original lie—the one about former President Obama’s birthplace. Now, just as many if not more believe Trump’s lie about the existence of millions of illegal voters. It is exhausting to deal with cognitive dissonance. Life is more convenient believing in your political leaders than fighting them. Trying to figure out the real story in a climate of misinformation and competing versions of reality can frankly be too much. Often, people are lazy. People end up not believing anything anymore, or simply stop caring. That’s the danger America faces, too.

In the past, I have only written about the differences between the U.S. and China, but Trump’s first two weeks in office invokes an ominous sense of similarity with Beijing. My intuition is that the U.S. might slip into authoritarianism, and the slip might occur quicker than most people imagine. In this comparison, we should not only label what has already happened but also what Trump must do in order to transition into Beijing-style authoritarianism. The following is a brief thought exercise.

Trump and Bannon’s attack on the media, as well as labeling it as the “opposition,” seems aggressive enough, but discrediting the media roughly equals to counting fingers in first grade in the authoritarian playbook. To turn the White House into Zhongnanhai, Trump must destroy the liberal media establishment as we know it today. The destruction can involve a creative flair, of course, just like the demise of Yanhuang Chunqiu—purging the staff without officially shutting down the publication. A new censorship apparatus will silence The Onion, jail Andy Borowitz, deport Trevor Noah, and replace the staff of all the “failing” newspapers with those of the thriving Breitbart.

However, monopoly on information, already a tedious task, is only less than half of the battle over public opinion. I don’t think the majority of people in authoritarian regimes willingly believe in government propaganda. Even in the most repressive regimes, such as North Korea’s, people are still able to find stark incongruity between the government’s alternative facts and the reality they confront. The main element prevent people’s discontent from materializing intdod political action is fear—the disappearing, the show trials, the torture, the intimidation, and the violence.

The White House, having supported authoritarian regimes that constantly employ fear as tool of repression, is no stranger to those dirty tactics. The challenge for Trump and his running dogs, however, is pointing the muzzle at the American people. Revoking visas and banning refugees seem almost irrelevant, and even rolling back the rights of minorities won’t be enough for their quest for total control of society. Ultimately, they will have to battle a portion of their white voters who may finally realize that a little something is wrong about this country. Only then will the White House match the intensity of Zhongnanhai or the Kremlin.

The U.S. right now is still too much of a rule-of-law state for authoritarianism. Trump will have to collude with Congress and the Supreme Court to dismantle the legal barriers between the White House and Zhongnanhai. Maybe one can argue this collusion has already kicked off with the confirmations of cabinet members, but we can still hope that this process of destruction won’t be finished in four years, or before it’s irreversible.

Or maybe we are in for eight years of Trump, eight years of Tillerson and twenty-four years of Steve Bannon. Trump’s inner circle has already succumbed to the easy choice of siding with authoritarian tendencies, and more people are likely to follow when exception becomes the rule. In a few years, we might be talking about whether the U.S. President resembles Kim Jong Un or Assad. And I’m sure some parts, if not all, of our conversation will be censored according to official U.S. laws and regulations.