On Memorial Day weekend I attend a forum in Nanjing that drew sinologists from around the world for discussions about the influence of Chinese literature on national literary discourses. The subject interested me, but since I cannot speak Chinese and my translator was unable to render into English much more than the odd phrase or two, my attention in the morning sessions drifted. In other circumstances I might have checked Twitter or Facebook, or read The New York Times, or Googled the writers under discussion. But the “Great Firewall of China” censoring the Internet had grown ever taller in the months since the National People’s Congress had declared Xi Jinping president for life—a development that drew praise from Donald Trump, who said at a fundraising event, “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” Think of China as an authoritarian’s dream—and a nightmare for anyone seeking to discover the truth about, well, anything.
I had traveled to the ancient cultural capital not on a fact-finding mission, strictly speaking, though I intended to use my invitation to the World Historical & Cultural Cities Expo to gauge the viability of Nanjing’s bid to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Literature, but to gain some distance from America to gather my thoughts on the many ways in which Trump daily, even hourly, debases the world’s oldest democracy and threatens to undo not only much of what made this country a beacon to people in every land but the entire post-war liberal international order. (That this order was created largely by American statesmen and has served us well for seven decades—the span of an individual life—is one more truth lost on the president.)
In Nanjing, the shortsightedness of Trump’s isolationism and transactional approach to the presidency struck me with sudden force: his doctrine of America First coincides with China’s determination to be the guarantor of a new international order, the signs of which are everywhere on display: in the construction of bridges, roads, high-rises, museums, and shopping centers; in the strategic thinking of the Belt and Road Initiative (a $1.4 trillion development plan to establish a Silk Road for the future, linking 60 countries via infrastructure corridors from Oceania to Central Europe and Africa); and in the palpable energy animating nearly every encounter. Here is a nation on the rise, in sharp contrast to the Trump administration’s leave-taking from the global stage.
I prefaced my remarks on “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Ezra Pound’s version of a poem by Li Po, with an assertion that from my experience in coordinating Iowa City’s effort to become the third UNESCO City of Literature, and from my work with stakeholders in Baghdad and Durban, who put together successful applications for the Creative Cities Network, it seemed to me that Nanjing met the necessary criteria to become a UNESCO City of Literature—with one critical exception: a commitment to the free flow of information and freedom of expression that are not only central to UNESCO’s mission but also essential to any enduring creative enterprise. This drew an audible gasp from the Chinese members of the audience. But this is the shape of things to come: Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will leave UNESCO at the end of the year, like his decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the UN Human Rights Commission, and other multilateral organizations, reduce his leverage in every forum, not to mention American standing around the world. William Matthews concludes his poem “Wrong” with a question: “who is by himself except in error?” We are just beginning to register what this error in our electoral ways will mean for the future of our country—and the planet.
After the forum, I went for a walk across the Nanjing Eye, a cable-stayed pedestrian bridge erected over the Yangtze River for the Youth Olympic Games in 2014. I stopped under both pylons, which looked like open eyes, to gaze at the twin towers of the Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre, which housed delegates to the Expo. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the complex includes a hotel, concert hall, theater, and shopping plaza. I had circled it a couple of times on my first day in Nanjing to photograph its fluid contour, which in one writer’s words creates “a dynamic transition from straight to curved lines, from plane to cambered surfaces.” Hadid’s futuristic vision for the Cultural Centre was inspired by sailboats, and from my vantage point above the river I had the impression that at this juncture of the maritime and overland routes of the ancient Silk Road, China was embarking on a journey that would leave us far behind. It was quite hot, and I had sweated through my shirt before I made it to the park on the other side. A barge was riding at anchor under the bridge, and in the flowerbeds were signs with English translations that matched my mood: Please do not spit everywhere. Please do not play combat. What did Pound write? “The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.” Call it the music of our time—music fit for memorializing the decline of a Great Power, if not the death of the Republic.