Mr. Trump Goes to Beijing


A little editorializing here: I just have to chuckle about Donald Trumps’s state visit to Beijing. The poor man is no match for the guanxi that permeates Chinese politics. They are playing him like a fiddle.

Back in May of 2016 while campaigning for the presidency, Trump declared “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what they’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”

Once in the Middle Kingdom, however, Trump changed his tune, saying “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?”

Why the change? Smarminess is hard-wired into Chinese governance, and Trump’s need for ego-stroking makes him especially vulnerable. He’s a sitting duck for the kind of spectacle and puffery that Chinese politicians thrive upon. It’s no secret that Trump wishes HE could be the dictator of adoring masses.

This from the CNN article:

Outside the Great Hall of the People here on Thursday, President Donald Trump watched with an unmistakable air of satisfaction as cordons of Chinese troops marched stiff-legged in his honor, an eight-cannon salute preceding their parade.

It was just the latest display of elaborate pageantry put on by his Chinese hosts, and inside the cavernous state edifice two hours later, the outsized display of flattery appeared to pay off.

Link to full CNN article about Trump’s visit to Beijing


Socialist Art Comes to the 2016 Presidential Election

The day before the presidential election, a friend who had voted for Hillary Clinton displayed this photo of the candidate. “You know that’s styled like a Cultural Revolution poster of Chairman Mao,” I commented.



She answered that she’d bought it from the Hillary store. I was surprised. A favorite attack tactic in races like this is to equate Democrats with communism and Republicans with fascism. Yet here was the presidential candidate’s own organization marketing this image of her to the party faithful.


Critics of candidate Trump have Photoshopped images of him styled to look like Hitler. These would never be sold by the candidate’s campaign. In fact, sympathetic websites have ranted about the comparison as unfair and dangerous.

Was the Clinton camp going for irony? Was there a mole in the graphics department who thought s/he could pull one over on her supporters? Were they clueless? Or is America officially over its fear of socialism?

Under the Dome

I’ve posted this photo before. It was taken in Xi’an on a rather ordinary day in 2005. The sun is a faint orange dot visible above and to the right of the small rectangular building on the horizon. I really enjoyed my return to Xi’an, but after two months I was dying to get home, primarily to breathe some clean air. I saw blue sky about 20-30% of my time there, but mostly it was gray, hazy, and nondescript.

SunnyDayIn Xian

A movie about air pollution in China, “Under the Dome” was released just a few weeks ago. I wanted to link to it because it explores the concerns of ordinary Chinese people about their polluted environment in much greater depth, and from their point of view, not mine as an outsider. has a great summary and short clip of the movie if you don’t have time to watch the whole film:

The Upworthy summary highlights many of the same things my Chinese friends discussed with me. I told them that we used to have prodigious pollution in the U.S. as well, citing big industrial eastern cities like Pittsburgh. They wanted to know how we cleaned up the air.

Technology initially played a big part in it. But now we’ve taken care of much of our pollution problems by outsourcing them, along with our manufacturing jobs, to China—but that’s another issue, and it’s addressed in the full movie. If Upworthy is too radical for your taste, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube—with English subtitles, but not the summary—here:

And the movie gets into topics like alternative fuels, urban planning, and public policy in a very accessible way that anyone can understand.

The Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered the movie removed from Chinese websites after 300 million views. Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote about it here:

Time Travel: Want to Understand China of the early 1980s? Visit Venezuela Today!


Buying Spinach

An article in today’s Business Insider sounded eerily familiar. Venezuelans now have difficulty finding and buying toilet paper. And the article made references to shortages of soap and matches in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

For months in 1981 it drove me nuts that we were unable to find matches even though there was reportedly a factory in our city that made them. The shelves in state-run food stores were bare. People waited years to buy a bicycle. Centralized economic planning combined with corruption was a sure-fire recipe for consumer headaches.

Fast forward three decades. I chafe at income inequality in the United States, our regressive tax structure, and an increased reliance on contract workers who can be let go at a moment’s notice.

Moderation is about as unsexy as it gets, but the big lesson I’ve learned is neither capitalism nor socialism run amok serves its people well. We need to walk the tightrope between market forces and citizen protections.


Dancing Grannies

The Christian Science Monitor just published an article about the culture clash between China’s young, prosperous urban dwellers and the old guard accustomed to collective activities and neighborhood loudspeakers.

In 1981 we were awakened each morning by the rhythmic squawking of the Happy Drill Sergent, who barked out the numbers one through eight while heroic music played in the background. Good citizens were supposed to do calisthenics to this beat, but in fact most ignored it.

Dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005.

Dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard. © Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Middle-aged women dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005. ©Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Middle-aged women dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005. ©Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Television and recorded music were rare luxuries. There were barely any bars in China, let alone karaoke, so local people gathered in parks to dance and sing. In Xi’an this meant Qinqiang, Shaanxi opera. People gathered most afternoons just outside the city wall near Heping gate to sing and play the traditional music. A friend told me that everyone knows the stories and songs the way Americans know nursery rhymes or Christmas carols.

Singing Shaanxi Opera just outside Heping Gate, Xi'an, 2005

Singing Shaanxi Opera just outside Heping Gate, Xi’an, 2005

When I returned to Xi’an after nearly a quarter century, the city looked completely different. Many of the old style homes within the city wall had been replaced by modern mid-rise apartments. I worried that the place had lost its charm, but when I biked to Heping Gate I was gratified to see that the heart of old Xi’an continued to beat in the center of the city: The Qinqiang tradition continued even then.

American teacher Kandace Einbeck and I joined the ladies drumming and dancing.

American teacher Kandace Einbeck and I joined the ladies drumming and dancing.

Visiting the north side of the city, I came upon a group of women dancing and drumming in the courtyard of an apartment. It was midday, so I assumed it was OK to join them and add to the din. Perhaps the neighbors weren’t so happy!