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November 22, 2020 · 10:58 am

There is no denying the damage that the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency have done to our institutions, our civic culture and our well-being as a country. Billions of pixels have been devoted to enumerating the seemingly endless ways that our outgoing president has challenged the norms and principles underlying American democracy. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his electoral loss is the most recent case in point.

Yet from the early days of the Trump presidency, a loose coalition ranging from liberal activists to Republican “Never-Trumpers” joined together under the #Resist hashtag out of a shared sense that democracy must be defended in the face of demagoguery. …

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I was trying to be a responsible teacher for our next generation of civic leaders.

As a professor of political science, I asked my students to watch last Tuesday’s presidential debate so we could later discuss policy contrasts between the candidates. But seconds after moderator Chris Wallace broached the first question, the verbal fireworks erupted. I immediately realized my premise was mistaken: There would be no rational discussion of policy.

We convened class the next morning on Zoom, and I invited students to share a word or phrase that described how the debate made them feel. …

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September 20, 2020 · 10:56 am

If given a Hollywood treatment, the first three decades of former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s deep engagement with China would make for a heartening feel-good movie. Unfortunately, the sequel — Branstad’s more than three-year stint as U.S. Ambassador to China — could only be scripted as a tragedy.

The original movie would begin in 1983 with Branstad’s signing of Iowa’s Sister State/Province agreement with Hebei Province, followed by Branstad’s 1984 visit to China, the first of many trade delegations he would lead in the coming years. …

The transformation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from revolutionary party under Mao Zedong into a Chinese nationalist party beginning in the early nineties has proven a double-edged sword for the CCP and for China. While cementing popular support for the CCP among ordinary Chinese, growing nationalism has also generated resistance along China’s periphery. This stability-instability paradox has driven Beijing to adopt a set of costly and dangerous policies that have sullied China’s international reputation abroad and pushed the dream of a unified China further out of reach.

Chinese nationalism

The concept of nationalism was introduced to China by the West. As traditional China recognized no sovereign equals, the Chinese divided the world into civilized peoples, who observed Chinese culture and tradition under the leadership of the Emperor, and barbarians who could achieve civilization only through assimilation. …

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Two years ago, I led a group of sixteen members of Drake University’s Ray Society — a continuing education program for seniors — on a three-week trip to China. Our last stop was the beautiful and vibrant port city of Hong Kong. A highlight of our tour was a visit to Hong Kong’s new Legislative Council building.

Our escort was former legislator Cyd Ho, a long-time leader of the city’s pro-democracy movement. Cyd spoke eloquently about the challenges facing Hong Kongers as Beijing increasingly narrowed the autonomy promised to the city as part of the 1997 handover from Britain to China. …

Could the Great Pandemic of 2020 and the severe economic downturn it has already spawned serve as a macabre cure for the staggering economic inequalities that have arisen in the United States? After all, Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel, in his 2017 book The Great Leveler, identified pandemics as one of four major types of events that have through history served to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, with the others being mass-mobilization warfare, revolution and state collapse. …

Context matters when it comes to evaluating civility. Civility is a highly valued norm in academic life precisely because the university is a place where the search for truth leads to the airing of diverse and often contentious points of view. Vigorous and reasoned argument is expected, but so too is the willingness to consider alternative ideas in a spirit of openness and respect. Without this common agreement on certain rules of engagement, the underlying purposes of an academic community cannot be realized.

Alas, life beyond the classroom is more complicated. Even in a mature democracy such as the United States, political discourse is often marked by incivility. We are daily bombarded by rude and angry voices via talk radio, cable news shows, political advertisements and social media. Although the normal clash of interests and values that makes up political life stirs up passions, the debasement of public discourse is often a matter of calculation. Personal attacks, appeals to emotion and distortions of fact often work to the advantage of those who employ them. Among the consequences are increased political polarization, stalemate on key issues and general public disaffection from political life. Greater awareness of the cynical uses of incivility can help to inoculate us against such influences. …

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President Donald Trump has pursued a foreign policy path strewn with discarded treaties, alienated allies, broken norms and the tattered remnants of America’s global reputation. Should a Democrat win the White House next November, where can they look for ideas about how to begin repairing the damage done?

Based upon my own research, I submit that a good place to start is with the foreign policy approach President Jimmy Carter pursued for restoring America’s global image and leadership. After all, the circumstances Carter faced bear an uncanny resemblance to those a Democratic president will confront should he or she win office next November. …

Authorities in Hong Kong may have hoped to start 2020 by putting a turbulent period of sustained, often violent protests behind them.

Instead hundreds of thousands of protesters ushered in the new year by taking to the streets. Around 400 were arrested as protesters continued their push for political reform on the densely populated island.

The clash between the government and demonstrators is now seven months long and has served to further erode Hong Kongers’ trust in China’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” formula.

Under that principle, the region was granted a degree of autonomy over its own matters in 1997. But a perception that Beijing is increasingly imposing its authority has led not only to a more militant protest movement, but one that is eyeing separation from the mainland. …

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China’s top leadership have recently begun to tout China’s own development success as an example for others to replicate. Former Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs has claimed that “the success of the ‘Chinese model’ … offers other developing countries an option different from the ‘American model’ for economic development.” In his address to the 19 thChinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi Jinping argued that China’s successful development experience was “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, is commonly viewed as the primary vehicle for promoting a China model of development. Encompassing 123 countries, the BRI commits China to provide $1 trillion in financing over the next decade for hundreds of infrastructure projects — roads, railways, ports, pipelines, electrical grids and energy plants — designed to connect both land and maritime networks stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe.

But will it work? Can other developing countries emulate China’s own economic success by riding the BRI train?

Probably not. This is because the development path promoted through the BRI is fundamentally different from China’s own experience. And where there is overlap, the BRI emulates the most problematic aspects of Chinese political economy by externalizing opaque, crony-like relations among policy banks, large state-owned construction firms and local politicians. …

David Skidmore

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