Trump and Xi Jinping have a surprising amount in common

Trump and China: What's at stake?
Trump and China: What's at stake?

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Story highlights

  • On Thursday, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Mar-a-Lago
  • Both leaders mistrust the media, long to restore their nation's glory and maintain conservative views, writes Michel Hockx

Michel Hockx is a Professor of Chinese literature and the Director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)It is tempting to think of Trump and Xi as opposites -- in tweets, trade and otherwise -- but whatever divides these two men, what they share in common is both surprising and instructive: mistrust of the media, a longing to restore a nation's lost glory and conservative social views.

They also share a Zodiac sign. Trump's birthday is June 14 and Xi's is June 15, making them Geminis, or "twins."
    So what twinning might we see in the leadership constellation when the two leaders meet later this week in Mar-a-Lago, and perhaps in the years to come?
    Michel Hockx
    Mistrust of the media: When they meet in a casual setting in Florida, both men can perhaps strike up a conversation about "fake news" on the internet and how they feel it affects them and their countries. Given Trump's position, we are not likely to hear the US President express concern about limited press freedom in China. Xi's policies to prevent "spreading rumors" on the internet have been in place for several years already and, similar to Trump's tweets on the "dishonest" media, they seem to target any negative portrayals of government actions.
    Restoring a nation's glory: Many Western leaders share the Chinese government's desire to control the internet for the sake of national security. In an age of modern terrorism, governments want to be able to track militants across social media platforms, which often means compromising citizens' privacy. Western and Chinese leaders differ in how they implement this control, but it is a difference of degree, not of principle.
    Xi and Trump have both placed national security and national development at the top of their agendas, to the extent that Xi's main stated policy aim, "the Great Revival of the Chinese Nation," directly echoes Trump's promise to "make America great again."
    Xi has promised that this revival will be completed by the year 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Also referred to as "the Chinese Dream," this policy is all about China regaining its status as one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nations and definitively erasing the negative memories of the country's treatment at the hands of Western imperialists from the mid-19th century onward. The policy is meant to inspire national pride and patriotism, and the kind of confident pose toward the outside world that Trump also tries to adopt, whether it's through executive orders or prolonged handshakes.
    Cultural and social conservatism: Xi's policies are similar to Trump's, not only in their appeal to a patriotic spirit and the revival of a glorious past, but also in their reliance on social and cultural conservatism. Trump has taken up conservative positions on a range of social issues, most notably abortion. He has also criticized those taking progressive positions, especially the media, for being un-American.
    For Trump and his followers, restoring America's greatness goes hand-in-hand with restoring traditional values. Under Xi, much state funding has been allocated to policies aimed at restoring traditional Confucian values in Chinese society -- an attempt to counterbalance the impact of globalization.
    Communist Party cadre training schools now devote as much of their curriculum to the study of Confucius as they do to the study of Marx. State propaganda across all media praises traditional Confucian virtues, most of which revolve around the notion of harmonious acceptance of predetermined, unchangeable hierarchies. Here, Marx and his emphasis on struggle and conflict has been left far behind.
    Generally speaking, Chinese people are more comfortable with Confucian than with Marxist values, and a return to "strong family values" lightens the burden on Xi's budget, since much of the cost of child care and elder care is borne directly by families.
    Michael Schuman on Confucius
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    The policy especially emphasizes the Confucian concept of "filial piety," stressing children's responsibility to care for their aging parents, an expedient economic move given China's rapidly aging population. Despite the abolition of the one child policy, the replacement fertility rate is only 1.6, well below the 2.0 rate needed to replace each generation with an equally large new one.
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    Conservative gender policy: But both leaders' conservatism isn't limited to the family structure; it extends to gender issues as well. Unlike his US presidential counterpart, whose denigrating remarks about women were widely aired and discussed throughout the presidential campaign, Xi has not been accused of disrespect toward women or misogyny. However, the cultural conservatism of his policies has had a negative effect on the status of women in Chinese society.
    The harmonious acceptance of predetermined hierarchies in Confucianism clearly favors men over women and husbands over wives, and this, too, has been a major about-turn in comparison with the Marxist past. Women's participation in the workforce in China has gone down from nearly 80% to 64%, although this is still higher than in most Western countries, including the US at 56%.
    The gender pay gap is also huge, according to figures from Catalyst, with Chinese women on average earning only 65% of what men earn for the same work. The US figure is slightly better at 77%.
    And an especially noticeable Chinese trend in recent years has been to discourage women from pursuing higher education, since 50% of higher-educated women are currently unmarried.
    To what extent the shared social and cultural attitudes of these "twins" will help them to find common ground remains to be seen. But we can expect Trump to visit China within the year, and hence the likely lifting, temporary or otherwise, of the Chinese ban on Twitter.