China and America’s leaders use similar slogans – by Liz Carter
Tomorrow, Donald Trump lands in Beijing for a state visit, which has sparked vigorous debate among China watchers. There are a lot of articles talking about how Presidents Xi Jinping and Trump may be at odds, but as they are both nationalists with despotic ambitions, it should come as no surprise that they rely on similar linguistic strategies to consolidate support and intimidate their enemies. Trump vows to “Make America Great Again” (MAGA for short), while Xi invokes “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族伟大复兴, Zhōnghuá mínzú wěidà fùxīng).
Let’s compare their parallel slogans in more detail:
Both recall periods of economic danger in which power changed hands
“Make America Great Again” was derived from a 1980 Ronald Reagan campaign slogan and re-popularized by those crappy red hats. Xi’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” dates back to a 1997 political conference and was revived, and redefined, by Xi Jinping in his early years of power.
In 1980, the United States economy was struggling and Reagan called for an “economic revival” by slashing government spending. In 1997, China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping passed away and Jiang Zemin became the dominant political figure, pushing for more centralized state control. The Asian financial crisis struck, threatening to derail China’s growing economy. While Reagan and Jiang utilized different tactics to face their respective economic threats, the sentiment used to stir up support through nationalism was much the same.
Both subtly criticize present circumstances
This is pretty straightforward. You can’t make America great if it’s already great. You can’t rejuvenate the Chinese nation if it’s already juvenated. Or something like that. But instead of saying so directly, these two sayings brush the criticism under the carpet, linguistically speaking, so that current ungreatness/dejuvenation are taken as given.
Both imply the leader has the authority to define the terms in play
These top-down slogans only make sense given the assumption that what “America” or the “Chinese nation” means is already set – by the speaker. Both of these terms are racially and politically limited to the extent that their respective leaders use them.
This is why MAGA is considered by some a dog-whistle for white nationalists – it means a certain kind of America (white) and a certain kind of “great” (more white), presupposing that the America of history (slavery) is one worth making “again.” Trump, who has tweeted the phrase “Make America Great Again” (with varying forms of capitalization) over 400 times, links MAGA to his own abilities, contrasts it with his opponents’, and defines it as encompassing policies such as not granting amnesty to “illegals.”
Technically, the “nation” in “Chinese nation” can be defined as “nationalities” – the 56 officially recognized nationalities of the PRC. But the concept is intentionally abstract because it seeks to exert power over as broad a group as possible, including ethnically Han Chinese living abroad, even those who may never have set foot in the country. The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” asserts what it means to be Chinese, as well as what China’s revitalization will look like.
Both are part of large, nationalist movements marked by human rights abuses
MAGA and TGROTCN (no, it’s not any catchier in Mandarin) are part of greater political movements that require obedience and professions of patriotism. Criticisms are met with “You hate [America/China]!” as the movements are conflated with the identity of the country and its people. Instead of true or false, there is only good or bad, as defined by whoever holds power.
In China, one of the most glaring examples is the systematic persecution of human rights lawyers, activists, and dissidents – those deemed to be standing in the way of revitalization with their spoil-sport criticisms about food safety, pollution, democracy, educational rights, minority rights, feminism and free speech.
In the United States, MAGA is associated with the increasing menace of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, along with more garden variety racists, as well as anti-science measures taken by the government, and a spike in hate crime.
Both scapegoat and persecute others to serve their own ends
The leaders behind both slogans use their language to generate support among their bases by scapegoating. In China, Xi became very popular by targeting many corrupt officials (including purging political rivals), while in the United States Trump drummed up support by denigrating and targeting non-whites, non-Christians, the undocumented, and, to a lesser extent, liberals.
To put it bluntly, both slogans offer respite to the desperate in exchange for obedience and surrender to the mass movement. “Only by integrating individual dreams to the national cause can one finally make great achievement,” Xi reportedly said in a speech in 2013. Trump has infamously encouraged and condoned violence against those who do not support him, drumming up loyalty among his base even as he alienates those who disagree with him.
Both have the exact same number of syllables
OK, maybe it’s low hanging fruit, but this is a column about language:
Short is great when you want to preserve strategic ambiguity and maximize catchiness.
Of course, there are many differences between the leaders of China and the United States. Trump inherited wealth and used it to amass influence, while Xi inherited influence and created wealth. Xi calls for allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, while Trump calls for the Republican Party’s allegiance to him.
But when it comes to slogans, they’re two of a kind: authoritarian, aggressive assholes. ∎