Beijing’s Man in Jakarta

Hard as it may be for Westerners to think that today’s People’s Republic of China, with all of its glaring repressions and slavishness over Covid, could be still a draw for emerging nations…it is. As this latest op-ed in the New York Times from an Australian think tank argues, China is actually gaining ground in much of Asia. A key element in its foreign-policy push is giant Indonesia.  Despite a tense history between the country’s native peoples and its sizable Chinese ethnic population, Beijing has remained a political lodestar for Jakarta. In recent years, as the Times op-ed alludes to, marine minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan has been a key conduit to the PRC. The Chinese foreign ministry keeps touting each engagement with him.  With each of the smaller Southeast Asian states under China’s sway to varying degrees, Indonesia’s lead in this regard is likely as important as any efforts by the Quad (Japan, India and Australia, plus the U.S.) to head off the Asian waters becoming a Chinese sea.

Big Media’s Mere Cameo in a Tale of Conservatism’s Shift

Matthew Continetti’s book, “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism,” is getting much respectful attention from mainstream media. It is deservedly praised for an encyclopedic narrative of what has evolved into a greatly populist—disparaged as Trumpian–force in American politics. My beef with the work is that it largely misses a key element in that evolution: the Right’s alienation from and animus toward that very mainstream media.

Continetti’s omission can be understood in terms of his perspective: He is a product of the thought industry that has grown up around policy tanks and the political journals that wholesale ideas in intellectual circles. (His seminal experience was at the late Weekly Standard in Washington.) He does not come out of the broader journalism world where notions and images are retailed to the American audience. He writes, “My focus is on the writers who set in motion the interplay of ideas and institutions, of ideology and politics…about the ways in which [intellectual] arguments responded and related to events.” So he looks at the significant tributaries but only passingly at the rivers that carry the waters to the electorate. I think this is an oversight. It matters enormously that Fox News and the New York Times are ideological poles in the increasingly cultural clash that Continetti describes—much more, arguably, than do many of the individual pointy-heads on whom he devotes most of his attention.

Of course, he knows the reach of the retailers—there are many citations of Fox, the Times and others in the national mix. But in nearly all cases they are momentary appearances, where others’ ideas surfaced or blared. Perhaps, from a pointy-head environment himself, Continetti would see these entities as just transoms to clear. But in the political maelstrom he is describing, they have become touchstones themselves, whether in digital text (forget print) or over what used to be called the airwaves. The people shaping that mass content deserve a deeper dive if the idea wars of our time are to be fully appreciated.

And that’s a fact going back decades, just as this book does. In some sense the Right’s distance from the elite media traces to the battle that “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft (on many pages here) had with the Eastern Establishment after World War II. Continetti usefully links Robert Welch—later the founder of the John Birch Society—to that fight, but skirts the significance of the Taft wing’s failure to gain acceptance from prestige press.  Conservatives long had a hold on most American publishers, but not in those precincts where the anointing of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 took place. There, a new breed of press and punditry lord was forming.

In the 1960s there was the personal pique of Richard Nixon toward reporters and editors, ultimately channeled through Spiro Agnew, but it was during the Barry Goldwater campaign that the deep-seated antagonism toward “the networks” and the biggest dailies began to set in. By 1969, Reed Irvine (not cited in the book) had founded Accuracy in Media to target CBS and the Washington Post, and Allan Drury (also no cite) was turning his political novels into attacks on the very media milieu from which he emerged to win the Pulitzer Prize for “Advise and Consent.” Watergate, naturally, had its polarizing effects, but when the Reagan Administration came to Washington in 1981, the gloves really came off. Combat between the Right’s cultural crowd and the journalism universe has not ceased since.  Roger Ailes sensed the opening thus created for Fox News, and the other side has responded in kind, both via cable and social media. No political or policy idea really has an open field anymore—it will be framed in one mass partisan context or the other.

So yes, I’d argue the grievance against “media bias” deserves more than occasional mention in at least a half century of Continetti’s “hundred year war.” But I have what is now called a lived experience in this. For 12 years, I was employed by Robert L. Bartley, the head of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages for a generation until his death in 2003. Bartley is mentioned a few times in the book, but in regard to the well-worn story of his staffer Jude Wanniski’s early promotion of supply-side economics, and the appearance of eminent neo-con Irving Kristol’s columns on his pages. Bartley had a much greater place in popularizing conservative beliefs on foreign and domestic policy than that—particularly to American business and finance—and at his own newspaper, was embroiled in an internal conflict with the mostly-liberal newsroom that continues to this day. For the last two decades, Bartley’s mantle has been carried by Paul A. Gigot (no citation, again), who before that had been the editorial pages’ face in Washington. Is something seminal being missed here? A handful of Bartley’s hires over the years are referenced by Continetti, though interestingly most had become strays from his ideological fold.

Now, one could argue—and I suspect the author, based on how he has framed his narrative, would do so—that the WSJ editorial line has lost its grip on a Right that is now hostile to trade, immigration, corporatism, alliances and globalism generally. There’s good reason for thinking that, just as for saying the same of many of the pioneering idea mongers that Continetti spends his chapters on. Maybe carve out another, then? The big-media stage is the Broadway of U.S. politics. It is why Rupert Murdoch held not only the Weekly Standard, but the New York Post, Fox and (after Bartley’s death) the Wall Street Journal. If in the age of Donald Trump a wave has transformed conservatism, the directors and players in the grandest theaters are due more than cameos in the show. Did their long media fray get reshaped and in some respects made more bitter (try giving a Bartley or Gigot their Pulitzers in today’s climate) by the animating—consuming–passions of this new moment? Who will remain standing, on either side?

Matthew Continetti early on credits other histories of the Right and seeks to differentiate his own aims. If he has chosen to leave the retail media aspect of the story for another day, someone should seize it. –May 8, 2022

Show-Offs and Their Big Houses

What primarily intrigues me about people who willingly show themselves and their oversized properties off in places like the Wall Street Journal’s Mansion section is…why? I know we are in the age of oversharing, but these are obviously wealthy people, usually with children–just the sorts you’d expect to want privacy. Of course, if they seek to peddle their supposed dream home, that would explain it, but often, as in this Mansion piece from last week from Montana and Idaho, the profiled households say they’re staying. So then I figure someone involved in the property–the architect, the designer, maybe the Realtor–leans on the homeowner to put their prize on parade. But if that’s the case, at least keep yourselves and especially your kids out of it. Not either of these bunches! Sometimes it must just come down to self-promotion, and this can suffer from embarrassing prose and images. The “feminine” Montana manse here is held by a “sprawling boutique” owner from L.A., now “a single mother of four,” who wanted to escape the Tinseltown glitz and dreads the thought that any trailing rich could invite “Louis Vuitton in downtown Whitefish.” As it happens, however, she herself has opened, just there, the “Boudoir Bar Cafe, a coffee shop and gelateria” (shown in two photographs). So maybe I have my why in her case.

Beijing and the Big Bomb

Polling suggests widespread gloom among younger Americans over climate change, while other surveys pick up foreboding in the older population at the renewed prospect of nuclear war. Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling at the West as he rips up Ukraine has jogged memories from a Cold War era extending through the 1980s when the “Day After” was dreaded in half of America, at least. Unfortunately it is not just a rearmed and seemingly maniacal Kremlin that is stoking fear, but its diplomatic abettor, the Chinese Communist Party. As this piece in the latest Foreign Affairs by one of the U.S. military-strategy gurus lays out, Beijing’s rapid nuclear (as well as conventional) buildup is going to change the macabre calculus that has, over 75 years, kept us from doomsday. Andrew Krepinevich describes how deterrence among three nuclear superpowers is considerably more treacherous than between two. In his view, it’s going to require ever more upgrading of the American arsenal, an outcome that will not sit well with most Democrats (or taxpayers in general). This is one more tragic result of the aggressive nationalism that Xi Jinping has embodied in China, of greater consequence globally than Putin’s extortions in Europe. The U.S., though of course not without its international manipulations at all times, has a century-long record of military slouch during eras of apparent peace. That it is needlessly being called back to the battlements is a sad fact of our present.

Reminder of ‘Our’ Rogue on the Nile

Any roundup of the world’s noxious right-wing authoritarians usually includes stops in Brazil, Hungary, India and take your pick in Africa…Uganda, maybe? Arguably Vladimir Putin fits within the proto-fascist collection, notwithstanding his rhetoric about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. But no gallery would be complete without General al-Sisi of Egypt, as this tale from the latest edition of the Economist shows. Although military intrusions into a domestic economy are a familiar feature of the developing world, the diminutive Sisi doesn’t shrink from tall orders of that vein. And he gets away with nearly any bad behavior. Though a shadow of its onetime might, Egypt, with its generally peaceful stance toward Israel and opposition to fundamentalist Islam, is a difficult straddle for any normal American administration.  But then, so is Saudi Arabia, and under Joe Biden the U.S. has thrown shade on that relationship  (a pet cause of Donald Trump). When it comes to the Egyptian ruler, however, the extraordinary aid levels from Washington (going back to the Begin-Sadat pact of 1979) have been spared much interruption. Yes,  after early indulgence, the Biden White House has stiffened a bit of late, “reprogramming” $130 million of military aid to Cairo, but leaving billions on the table.  Sisi, nevertheless, has cozied up to Russia, although he did join in the U.N. vote objecting to Putin’s “special military operation” before then abstaining as usual in a tally on excluding Russia from the body’s Human Rights Council.  If the basis of much non-arms assistance to Egypt is to restart its crippled economy, the military meddling and other destructive policies from Cairo should be one more mark for pausing America’s decades of liberal largesse.

The Beijing Consensus Meets 2022

 A broad notion that the People’s Republic of China represented an alternative and quite possibly superior model of social and economic organization has held sway in many quarters for two decades. Are we now to be done with that?

 What is sometimes called the Beijing Consensus was the subject—or object—of so many thought pieces and earnest discussions over the period, some as late as last year. The West’s stumbles, such as in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and then the initial (post-Wuhan) stages of the Covid pandemic, contributed to a sense that an authoritarian state, able to mobilize and allocate resources, was better suited to sustained order and prosperity than are clamorous market-based democracies. This outlook required forgetfulness about earlier such martial experiments, going back at least to the 1930s, but never mind those dusty histories.

The preening of the Chinese Communist Party in this intellectual environment gained full flower with the rise of Xi Jinping and his expansive ambitions for global power and influence.  Thanks to years of mercantilist trade policy—and of course to the productivity of an industrious citizenry—Beijing had flush coffers to put behind its new diplomacy. Meanwhile, the U.S., as representative of the opposing camp, was torn internally and consumed with hostilities abroad that served no particular end.

However, in a remarkably few months of 2022, the worm seems to have turned. Most visibly, China is caught up in a public-health fiasco over Covid that is drastically affecting millions of its people in multiple metropolises.   The Russian aggression against Ukraine has exposed, to some in Europe and elsewhere who were in need of such exposure, an essentially rogue alliance that is, in fact, characteristic of Beijing’s foreign policy.  Stifling of civil society in Hong Kong has not been a good look. And the underpinnings of the PRC’s wondrous record of economic growth, including a massive distortion of GDP toward the corporate sector and away from consumer welfare, have begun to weaken noticeably.  While not as terminally fated as the “no Covid” medical strategy, the “no recession” approach to plugging each successive hole in the top-down investment-driven output model is only yielding  a weaker return in each cycle.  Cutting off China from many international sources of capital, as Xi’s nationalistic course has succeeded in doing, can only further gum up the works.

Although these essential weaknesses in China’s supposed armor—not the literal armor, which continues to grow alarmingly, but its case for moral superiority—are now more acute, they did not suddenly become manifest in 2022.  Sophisticated appraisals, even from sincere Sinologists, have long flagged what so many chose to overlook. In her just-published book on Xi’s grand posture, The World According to China, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy notes many contradictions and complications at work. (She has previously detailed the environmental horrors on the Mainland.) Also at the Council, a recent panel examined the PRC’s unfavorable demographics, the ultimate check on its supreme ambitions.

If the exalting of China’s modern reach reflected faddish consciousness as well as innate dislike for the less-bridled capitalism of America, then it may be susceptible to refutation by widely-broadcast events. Yet, Beijing can keep stoking coal into the motherland’s furnace (literally, at times) for a good ways to come. The odds certainly don’t favor an uprising against Xi, let alone the Communist Party, at home.  The looming question is whether the constituency abroad will now be shaken.

College $$$ Backlash? Blackstone Isn’t Sold

Various harbingers appear of an end to the college-cost syndrome, whereby prospective students and their parents reassess the worth of plowing tens of thousands of dollars annually into a degree credential. And surely, on the margins, this revolt against the endless increases in tuition and other bills is evident. But then we see reminders, as in today’s word in the Wall Street Journal of a buyout deal for American Campus Communities, that post-secondary ed remains a hot market. ACC specializes in building housing for such students, and you can sure these are not bare-bones dormitories. Nevertheless, such construction often qualifies for tax-exempt financing, and can turn a nice profit when Dad and/or Mom go looking for a swell (and safe!) place for their academic offspring to decamp. The great real-estate consolidator Blackstone is now putting its stamp on the arrangements. You can be sure its analysts have concluded that no great pullback from the run-up in college costs in the offing.

Americans Return to the Stores

Beware of “trend” stories, but this one from the Wall Street Journal suggests a believable pendulum swing back to brick-and-mortar shopping. Believable, because some buying is best done with tactile or other sensory judgments; because it is sometimes serendipitous, and because it can be part of a natural social experience when the stores are well laid out and managed. Some destination shops such as Trader Joe’s eschewed remote commerce anyway. The warehouse stores have websites that can be useful for certain products but even the staples seem to attract plenty of in-person “members.” Plus, the delivery economy is still sorting out costs and profitability. Amazon, which has unusually mastered the game, continues to raise fees on its now-captive customer base. The others in the bring-it-to-you business are struggling with how they pay for personnel and fuel. Where there are plenty of nearby wallets to pluck–and this may exclude office districts in major cities–I suspect the shopping-aisle lights will stay on for quite awhile.

Xi Jinping Is in the Neighborhood

Much has been made of the Chinese Communist Party’s inroads into Africa, but less noticed is its increasing penetration of the Western Hemisphere, especially South America. This has proceeded apace for years, including during the Trump administration when regional policy hawks were supposedly on guard. This new report from the Council on Foreign Relations sheds light on the extent of economic and “security” ties–all coming with implied diplomatic sway. And it’s not just with leftist regimes on the continent. Take Chile, whose electorate has seesawed ideologically in recent decades. China advances regardless–now accounting for 34% of the nation’s trade. (To be fair, a part of that is just bargain-priced Chilean wine.) The U.S., on the other hand, shot itself in the pie when Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a non-Chinese deal that would have extended American influence to cross-ocean commerce with Asia. Now Communist China is petitioning to join the trade pact that is replacing TPP…one without U.S. participation. So as we see Xi Jinping’s pernicious presence grow on the world stage, we can find part of the explanation surprisingly close to home.

Now on Screens Nationwide: ‘Navalny’ v. Putinism

Theater showings around the U.S. today and tomorrow of this CNN Films production, “Navalny,” will include discussion with that network’s Clarissa Ward. I hope the international correspondent will press the matter of Russia’s internal dissent network, which once fueled Alexei Navalny’s rise as an opposition figure to Vladimir Putin. The quieting of that movement in the months and years now since Navalny was first poisoned, and then imprisoned, for his social media-driven democracy campaign hangs over this film. But that sad situation–which has worsened since Putin’s war against Ukraine began–was not brought out in the panel discussion that followed the preview showing I attended in New York last week. “Navalny” can still be enjoyed as a remarkable fly-on-the-wall view of this brave showman’s attempt to troll Putin politically–at times it is humorous in showing the Kremlin’s clumsiness even as the protagonist meets up with its deadly force–but ultimately one wonders whether the whole exercise was in vain. Maybe it is has planted a seed for a later revival of opposition, so we can hope that bootleg copies of the documentary make their way widely through Mother Russia’s samizdat.