Award-winning author John Pomfret discussed the effects of the Trump presidency on relations between the United States and China to a packed room in the School of Social Work Tuesday afternoon.
Pomfret, who spent 20 years living in China, likened President Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward the country to that of Denis Kearney — a prominent U.S. politician in the 1870s and 1880s — in an event as part of the University of Michigan Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies Noon Lecture Series.
Kearney was the head of the Workingmen’s Party in California, and was known for his often racist and anti-Chinese views.
“Kearney took this populist anger or fear of Chinese industriousness and turned it into a political movement,” Pomfret said.
Pomfret also compared Trump to Chairman Mao Zedong, a comparison that drew laughs from the crowd. He said Trump’s tendency to call for a “government for the people” is just one similarity to Mao’s leadership.
“In Trump’s maddening unpredictability, (Maoists) saw Chairman Mao’s most favorite aphorism, which is ‘there is chaos under heaven, the situation is excellent,’ ” Pomfret said.
Pomfret said he believes under the Trump presidency, the United States is back on the track of facilitating China’s rise, explaining how U.S. wallets have funded China in their wars and education.
“Over the course of the last decade, perhaps longer, the Chinese system has been better at enabling China to benefit from the United States than the American system has been at allowing America to benefit from China,” Pomfret said.
He also expressed concern for the upcoming summit between current Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump, fearing Trump has no strategy for the meeting. Debunking many of the problems Trump has with China, such as currency manipulation and the Chinese cheating the United States on trade, he reasoned these are not the real problems the United States should be focusing on.
At the end of his talk, Pomfret characterized the current Chinese government as one of the future, and Trump’s United States as one of the past.
“If you look at China right now, it’s a country that is clearly focused on creating the industries of the future,” Pomfret said. “You look at biopharma, aerospace, industrial advanced engineering. They’re devoting huge amounts of money to these areas, whereas Trump is trying to reopen coal mines, pushing back EPA regulations, changing mile per gallon statistics so we’ll be able to help out factories in the heartland. So his priorities, in a way, are priorities that basically focus on the economy that the United States had in the 1950s, whereas China wants to create a 21st-century economy.”
An hour at the end of the lecture was reserved for questions, and many audience members were curious about the upcoming elections in South Korea and the effect the current animosity toward immigrants could have on the education of Chinese immigrants in America.
This last point follows the Detroit News op-ed from the presidents of three Michigan Universities, including University President Mark Schlissel. The letter emphasized the importance of standing by our international students.
“Students from different places also help our campuses better reflect the global diversity our graduates are expected to understand, and they enhance the quality of our teaching and research,” they wrote.
Pomfret shared a similar sentiment, and found the potential of growing animosity toward immigrants to be detrimental to the United States.
“As the anti-immigration policy builds up, if that is successful, obviously it’s going to smack all foreigners in the United States who are getting their education here,” Pomfret said.
Pomfret said with Trump as president, the United States is moving toward a dangerous position of isolation.
“By becoming America first, we turn around and we’ve got nobody behind us,” Pomfret said. “The United States became a superpower because we had friends, but now we’re actually increasingly like China. China doesn’t have many friends either.”