The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, November 20, 2023

It’s Monday, November 20, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Realpolitik of Two World Powers on the World Stage: President Biden’s Meeting with Xi Jinping

Ostensibly, the President of the United States and the President of China were in San Francisco for a meeting. The meeting was known as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, and yet the most important issue that took place wasn’t in that meeting known as the APEC. Rather, it was in a private conversation between the President of the United States and the President of China. Just a matter of a few months ago, it wouldn’t have seemed possible that this meeting would happen, but it did happen, and the context was in the midst of escalating tensions between China and the United States. And yet the two Presidents did meet. They met on American soil in San Francisco because that’s where the summit meeting had been planned in terms of the larger Pacific Group.

But nonetheless, it made a lot of headlines. It didn’t seem to make a lot of progress. However, that doesn’t mean that the meeting will go without historic value because in one sense there was value in world history and in the currency of world politics by having those two leaders together–the President of the United States and the President of China. Why would that be so important? It is because right now increasingly many nations around the world see the global picture as basically bipolar. That is to say there are two big world powers that are struggling for supremacy in whatever will be the new world order. One of them, the United States of America, the other of them, China. There are several areas of friction, most importantly over the nation of Taiwan on the island of Formosa just off of the Chinese mainland. That is where the leaders of the Republic of China fled after the Communists took control of the mainland in 1949 after an extended Communist Revolution.

But China, when it thinks about history, really doesn’t think back to 1949. It thinks in terms of 1,000 year increments. China sees itself as a very, very old civilization, and thus it operates out of that psychology, out of that basis. Other tension points also have to do with the freedom of navigation of vessels in the South China Sea. You could go down a long list and the bigger picture is a struggle for influence in much of the rest of the world where you have China with its Belt and Road Initiative, in essence trying to buy friends and at least to some extent successfully so seeking to alienate some of those nations in the globe away from a primary allegiance to the United States, instead switching to a primary allegiance to China. And it’s not just the United States that China has in its sights. It’s also European nations.

At least part of what’s going on right now in foment in Africa against France is being fueled by China of all things, because if you were to speak just a few years ago about tension between France and China, that wouldn’t really seem likely. Maybe possible, but not likely. But now it’s a reality. But shifting back to the meeting between President Xi and President Biden, President Biden wanted the meeting and he did so in a way that would probably fit just about any American administration. But the big concern on the part of Conservatives is that the President would represent a weak figure who would play a weak hand over against a far stronger leadership model in Xi Jinping of China. But I want us to look at the world situation and the conflict and competition frankly between the United States and the People’s Republic of China under the control of the Communist Party there.

I want us to understand why China and the United States see this conflict in starkly different terms. Central to every single worldview is an understanding of time, and that implicates an understanding of history. If you have an understanding of time, you will eventually define history consistently with that understanding of time. In the Chinese understanding, time is primarily measured by extremely long periods of time. So China’s always playing a long game. Now, that’s not to say that Western nations don’t have a long game. It is to say emphatically that Western nations do not have any game as long as China’s game. And you also have a different understanding of history. That long understanding of history plays into at least what shaped much of China’s civilizational imagination, and that’s a Confucian understanding of time and history. And you also have an even older Chinese understanding of history as a cycle.

In some ways, it’s described as a wheel. It’s a turning. It’s a recurrence. That’s very crucial to Chinese folk philosophy, very crucial to Confucianism. Now, the Communist Revolution in 1949 sought to overthrow the old order, and that meant not only the old Imperial dynasty. It also meant the Confucian worldview. So the project of the Communists in 1949 was explicitly tied to the project of the Communists in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. They both were based in a worldview called scientific or dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism refers to an out folding of history in which communism is the eventual answer and successor to just about any form of government. But it also implies in that very verbiage–materialism–that the only reality that matters is a physical reality. Materialism argues that there is no God. There is no ultimate meaning. There is no transcendent. The material stuff is all that there is.

Now, you put that in terms of the Chinese revolution, and you have a very long view of history, but you have a dialectical understanding of history replacing a Confucian understanding of history. But it’s still a very long game. China sees the time before them as measured in a very long duration. The United States is a very different country based upon a very different understanding of history. The Western conception of history explicitly based in Christianity is not cyclical. It is linear, past, present, and future. We do not believe that history is a circle. It’s a wheel that just keeps repeating itself. We believe that instead, when you read Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And when you turn to the end of Scripture with the coming, the fullness of the Kingdom of Christ, that’s linear history. It is one long line. It’s not an infinite line. It’s a long line.

But you also have the fact that Western civilization, which frankly can claim to be as old as the Chinese civilization, you can also just understand that Western civilization includes many different twists and turns, many different nationalities, and the eventual emergence of, say, constitutional democracy such as is represented under the constitutional government of the United States of America. The Chinese come to a meeting like this meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, and they come with a very, very long game. The American game, not so long. Now, I want to be clear that a long game doesn’t always beat the short game if the short game is played by a more effective competitor. But let’s just think about this for a moment. When you look at Western civilization that leads to the development, the establishment of the United States of America, when you look at the U.S. itself, we are a relatively young nation, and you’re looking at a nation that points to its independence in 1776. And so you could say, well, roughly 250 years of national history. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to China.

But the United States plays a shorter game in a very different way. Just think of our politics. We are not dominated by an Emperor. There is no imperial dynasty that is in place and, furthermore, you do not have the Communist Party and it’s singular hold on politics. So that means that the context of American politics is a competitive political environment, which means one party could be on top this time, another party could be on top the next time, especially in the two party system of the United States. There’s something else. President Joe Biden will not be in office in the year 2030. That’s an assurance. He just won’t be because that is outside even a second term if he were to be elected to it. And so American Presidents have to think in four year terms. There is no other option. Xi Jinping is absolutely certain that the Communist Party will be in authority in 2040. The Communist Party actually has no other plan.

The Communist Party, because it is a one party autocracy, it’s a totalitarian form of government, and thus there is every reason for Xi Jinping to believe that as long as he’s on the top of the heap in his party, his party will be on the top of the heap in the country. There is no competitor. He doesn’t worry about elections. He doesn’t worry about the other party. And so the Chinese understanding of history, the Chinese understanding of international relations is that China can always play a very long hand. As I said on the American side, not a totalitarian form of government, a two party system of competition within a constitutional structure. And that means that Joe Biden may be sitting across the table from Xi Jinping and someone that represents a President of the opposing party could be sitting across the table the next time the Chinese leader meets with an American leader.

So that offers Americans a tremendous incentive towards more short-term relationship, more short-term planning and policy when it comes not only to domestic policy, but also to international relations. And yet when you look at both of those spheres in the United States, there are not only discontinuities, Republicans up this term, Democrats up the next Republican President, Democratic President, Republican majority in Congress or Democratic majority in Congress, or either of the two Houses, it’s not just that there is a certain kind of continuity. That continuity is particularly important in international relations. Though the discontinuity is a new President will have different emphases and frankly will have even different policies when it comes to trade, when it comes to preferred nation status, when it comes to a preference for alliances in this direction or in the other direction. But there are also continuities. There are large scale continuities such as the alliance between the United States and Europe.

There are midterm continuities such as the alliances of the United States and many other nations. And that would include going back to 1948, the state of Israel. It would say going back to the 1970s, a nation like Saudi Arabia. So the United States in terms of the long game is just playing in our longest game, a much shorter game than the Chinese are playing, and we’re playing it in a sense of political competition at home. The Chinese President has no such worry, no such concern. He doesn’t have to go back and answer to Congress. Frankly, he really doesn’t have to go back and answer to anyone.

When the American and Chinese Presidents met in San Francisco last Wednesday, well, here’s how the New York Times summarized the meeting in one paragraph: “The summit was a moment Mr. Xi had been prepared for over the past five months after remaining largely out of sight to American officials save for his one previous meeting with Mr. Biden. This summer, he began receiving a series of American officials starting with Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken.”

Now, it’s vital that Christians keep in mind a principle of what is known as realpolitik. That’s a French construction that means politics grounded in reality, realism. And realpolitik says that nations act in what they see as their best interest always. They always act in what they see as their best interest. They act out of their identity tied to that interest. And so when the Chinese President and the American President meet, it’s not just two world leaders who happen to be in the same place at the same time. Both have a set of interests as well as a political reality and a set of principles. But as you look at this, you recognize that the opening here really wasn’t coming from the American side. The opening was coming from the Chinese side, which is to say the Americans have been ready to meet for a very long time. Indeed, Americans have demanded a meeting.

But remember, there have been incidents such as the overfly of a Chinese satellite balloon camera over the United States. It’s an espionage machine and the United States eventually shot it down when the balloon, which the Chinese at one point had claimed was a weather balloon, had crossed the North American continent and was out over the Atlantic in American waters. That aggravated the Chinese. Frankly, it embarrassed the Chinese. More on that in just a moment. There have been other points of friction, not only in direct incidents between the United States and China, particularly our navies and air forces, but also over other nations in which both China and the United States have a direct interest. Another line that comes out of this New York Times report summarizes exactly what happened: “Behind the scenes, during four hours of talks with Mr. Biden and an array of national security and economic aides, Mr. Xi was typically controlled and careful. They reported he spoke fluently on the topics that have divided Beijing and Washington, but turned to his notes and kept a script when the subject came to Ukraine or the turmoil in the Middle East.”

The next paragraph is this: “None of what the Americans saw fundamentally changed their view of Mr. Xi, a Chinese leader with control over his emotions and an iron grip on his country.” Now, in worldview analysis, every word in that report is important and it’s backed up by a lot of other reports coming from authoritative sources as well. Xi Jinping is a tightly controlled man. His father had been disgraced at one point during the Communist Revolution. Xi Jinping rose in the ranks of the Chinese Communist leadership eventually becoming the major leader and eventually the President and the head of the Communist Party. He has since extended his term in terms of constitutional limits and, frankly, he’s going to be the President of China until either he dies or some unforeseen incident leads the Communist party to depose him. Right now, he knows he’s playing an extremely strong hand.

But China is also facing some massive problems. The most important of them is demographic. China’s birth rate has been falling and the reality is that China’s always faced the challenge of needing to grow rich before it grew old. In demographic terms, China’s losing that battle. It did so, by the way, because of reasons tied to its scientific, its dialectical materialism, and that is the absolute belief that human beings are nothing more than dust for that matter. No human dignity. No image of God. And so, one of the results is that the Chinese totalitarian government actually put into place a Draconian one child only policy that led to forced abortions and even forced infanticide in order to slow what they thought was a dangerous birth rate. But it turns out the big problem in China long-term wasn’t going to be a birth rate that was too high, but a birth rate that was and is far too low.

China’s also having major economic problems. It played its hand on COVID very, very differently than the United States and, quite honestly, it has structural problems in its industry, its economic sectors that are not going to be fixed in any short-term way. Something else to keep in mind is that China, in its recent aggressiveness around the world, has scared off businesses from around the world that had been investing by the hundreds of billions of dollars in China. The shift away from that has cost China dearly. And what you see in terms of the supposed thaw in the relationship, it’s not all of a sudden that Xi Jinping wants to turn a new leaf. It’s not that he has a new attitude. It’s that China has a new set of needs. China is just playing its long game all the way through the meeting with President Biden in San Francisco. It’s playing the same long game, just sometimes with different gestures and a different face.

Part II

Worldviews and History: Xi Jinping, China, and Playing the Long Game

Finally, as we’re speaking about China, and by the way, the bottom line in the meeting is that not much happened, the meeting was mostly important for the fact that it did happen. But nonetheless, I mentioned that China was gravely embarrassed and offended, humiliated even, by the shooting down of what they called a weather balloon that was clearly a spy balloon that had crossed the North American continent. And I mentioned that that was important in worldview analysis, and it is for this reason. Every culture has some kind of balance between shame and honor. And in the West, based in a Christian worldview, this means an understanding of original sin, it means an understanding that all have sin and fall short of the glory of God, it means that we are made in God’s image, which means every single human life is to be accorded dignity and it is to be guarded, valued.

But at the same time, we understand that every single one of us is, well, a creature of both honor and shame. And we can be embarrassed, but when it comes to something that is simply a fact, the reality is that, that embarrassment is something that we understand is to teach us a lesson. At least when we’re caught doing something wrong, the embarrassment should be an incentive to do that which is right. But in an honor culture such as what you have in China, embarrassment makes you more offended at the one who has made you embarrassed. Preserving honor and dignity in a Confucian culture, and even as China’s Communist Party are not Confucians, they have inherited that Confucian understanding of honor, it turns the world on its head where the Chinese are offended that we were offended that they have been caught sending a spy satellite effectively across the United States to gather intelligence. It was as if it was our fault that they had done this.

Another illustration of the difference between an honor culture and the culture of the West is this: American politicians become more endearing when they have a sense of humor about themselves. The same thing’s true of fathers. The same thing’s true of leaders in many different kind of roles. Having a sense of humor about ourselves, our own foibles, our own eccentricities, sometimes our own faux pas, that’s what makes leaders actually more endearing. But the Chinese know nothing of this. There is no self-deprecating humor in their culture. It’s simply a loss of face. I want to underline again the difference between that understanding and the Christian worldview, which simply warns us that we must not take ourselves too seriously, and even as we respect one another, ultimate honor is not due to any of us, but rather to the Creator alone. As for the rest of us, we give honor where honor is due, but, quite frankly, self-deprecating humor goes a long way.

Part III

Why Can Conservatives Not Break the Public School Monopoly? What the Failed Voucher Vote in Texas Teaches About Worldviews, Public School Systems, and Politics

In the United States, a leader that has no sense of humor about himself or herself is not likely to rise very high. Exceptions to the rule are just that, exceptions to the rule. Coming to Texas from which I’m speaking right now, the big news here is that on Friday of last week, the Texas House of Representatives rejected a school voucher proposal that had come from the Texas Governor, Greg Abbott. It had been identified as one of the Governor’s top priorities for this legislative term, and even in his third term as Governor, Greg Abbott was unable to deliver this program. The vote wasn’t really all that close. It was 84 to 63. Later efforts are going to be, by the way, to try to turn this bill into something it was never intended to be. Hold that thought for just a moment. Why did this voucher program fail in Texas?

Well, as a political reality, it failed largely because not of the Democrats, who are always going to basically do what the teachers unions tell them to do, but it was Republicans. A sufficient number of Republicans buckled to that labor union pressure and the pressure from school boards in rural Texas. So even as those districts tend on many social issues to be more Conservative, when it comes to the money represented by what goes to the school board for the schools, even in rural places in Texas, well, that spoke very loudly, and protecting that turned out to be one of the incentives that influenced many Republicans under political pressure. And that just underlines the fact that, state by state, there is a very, very interesting pattern and, frankly, a very difficult pattern that has emerged, and that is that even Republicans, even Conservatives, seem to be unable or unwilling to break the public school monopoly.

Now, my very grave concerns about the public schools almost everywhere in the United States, and even as a project right now in the United States, they’re very clear, but the big issue here is that the public schools, the leadership of the public schools, the teacher’s unions, and increasingly the school boards see any kind of support for parental rights when it comes to choosing an alternative like this voucher system, which was actually a pretty small proposal given the size of Texas and the size of the public school budget. But nonetheless, the public schools won. The big issue I think from a Christian worldview is that, number one, who controls the schools will control the education, and that’s going to shape the children. And that’s why the public school system, which is largely, and by this I mean at the federal level, at the national level, almost exclusively in the hands of the cultural and moral left, you can understand why they don’t want to lose any of that control.

At the same time, much of the financial system and incentive is channeled through local school boards and, frankly, they don’t want a dilution of their power either. There are honestly some difficult questions when it comes to the relationship between public and private schools, the future of public schools in the United States. One of them has to do with students who have learning disabilities, for example, or special needs. It’s not clear that private Christian schools, for example, are absolutely ready to pick up that slack. But that’s not the big issue here. The big issue is control and money. The issues of control and money played out and the entrenched public school interest when it came to power and money won once again in Texas. Governor Abbott says he’s going to bring this back as a personal priority, but it’s another warning that the public school monopoly, the industry of the public schools, and the power political structure of the public schools, it doesn’t want competition.

Now, from a Christian perspective, that’s probably, just to make it blunt, the one thing that the public schools need, and that is genuine competition in order to have to win the support of the actual public. One of the big worldview questions when it comes to representative democracy is just asking whether something like a financial system and public education has become so large, it can’t be significantly undone. That is a legitimate question because we’re looking at the fact that there are so many financial incentives for people to leave things as they are, for instance, in rural Texas, that they’re opposed to any change, even when, if they understood the moral issues at stake, the control issues at stake, the curricular issues at stake, they would demand changes from the public schools, if not the fact that the parents would have an alternative, but right now, it’s primarily about the control and primarily about the money. Thus, the voucher system lost.

As a Christian, I really don’t want a vast infusion of tax money into Christian schools. I, for instance, head a Christian school that would not accept, both the seminary and the college, any kind of federal or state money like this. But I do want to see the public schools have stiff competition. I want to see those educational alternatives have to fight for the allegiance of communities and parents. I want there to be a genuine alternative to the public education monopoly in the United States. I think that’s absolutely necessary. Texans are going to have to wait for it yet again.

One final lesson that you can see here in the situation in Texas, those who were pushing for the voucher system, including the Governor, agreed to sweeten the pot when it came to the public schools by proposing a vast increase in the money that would go to the public schools themselves.

Now, you can see what has happened and you understand where this is headed. Advocates for the public schools, the teachers, unions, and the rest are saying, “Okay, we defeated the voucher plan, but at the same time, we want all that money you promised if the voucher bill had gone through.” That again is a sign of the perversity of politics in our time, but it also underlines the fact that politics is important not only in terms of who sits in the Oval Office, but who sits on the school board, and certainly, in this case, who sits in the Texas House of Representatives. Keep that in mind the next election day.

Part IV

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Austin, Texas, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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