Editor’s note for Friday, May 29, 2020

Dear Access member,

China’s relations with the U.S. took another hit today. That’s a true statement, but I could also have written it nearly any day during the past few months. See story one for the latest news: Donald Trump has moved to change the U.S. treatment of Hong Kong and withdraw from the World Health Organization.

The way events are unfolding has filled me with a sense of foreboding for several weeks already. So I found myself nodding along to a commentary written by Cobus van Staden of the China Africa Project for their excellent newsletter that is republished below with permission.

Cobus and I both grew up in South Africa in the dying years of apartheid, which only lasted as long as it did because the U.S. and U.K. were willing to tolerate racism and human rights abuses as long as the South African government fought communists in neighboring countries. Perhaps we are particularly sensitive to how even a “cold” war has a real body count. But we’re both feeling anxious and powerless, like we used to.

Our word of the day is leave WHO: 退出世卫组织 tuìchū shì wèi zǔzhī

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief

Cold winds from the past

by Cobus van Staden

Last week, I was privileged to sit in on a closed webinar with some of the most prominent think tanks in the world. In the discussion, a superstar analyst said he hasn’t seen the current level of stress in the U.S.-China relationship since its normalization under Richard Nixon.

Whether we’re headed for a new Cold War, whether we’re already in it, whether Cold War talk even makes sense in the 21st century, are all questions occupying foreign policy circles at the moment. I’m wary of weighing in on this issue (in the webinar my microphone stayed anxiously on mute), but I will point out two striking overlaps between the current situation and the “OG Cold War.”

In the first place, there is an eery parallelism between the stream of images emerging from Hong Kong and those coming from Minnesota. They can’t but echo the comparisons that structured Cold War discourse: the pointless arguments comparing Selma to Prague. In that spirit, I hasten to add that I’m not saying the Hong Kong and U.S. crises are the same (each is bad in its special, different, way.)

Rather, there’s a spooky bipolar logic to the optics of the violence, down to the mask-wearing protesters and the security forces in their Robocop cosplay. It reminds me of being a child during the last few years of the actual Cold War, sitting in conversations in Johannesburg listening to adults talking Yankees vs. Commies in Africa.

Let’s be clear here: the Cold War I experienced was also the last days of apartheid in South Africa. Pretoria was a client regime of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations and destroyed large parts of southern Africa in the name of fighting the Soviet Union and China. I didn’t experience a fraction of what black South Africans and the populations of neighboring countries went through, but even for a sheltered kid like me, the cold war was terrifying and close.

This brings me to the second eery parallelism: the way race and Africa are playing into this narrative. I’m of course not saying that Minnesota and Guangzhou are the same (again — each bad in its own way.) I’m simply pointing out that mapping spheres of influence, comparisons between the treatment of black people by two world powers, and bickering over who spies on Africa more, were mainstays of Cold War discourse, and here they are — back again.

These are weird times. Ideas that used to be on the fringes are suddenly being dusted off. And as social media megaphones howl on both sides, for many of us the experience is an all-too-familiar one of listening — anxiously and powerlessly.