TOTALITARIANISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

Xi Jinping has proved himself the most formidable leader in China after Mao. The first bastion for Xi to topple was pragmatism. Under his watch, all the reins of dictatorship have been tightened. The second bastion to fall was collective leadership. At the Party Congress in October 2017, he had his “thought” inscribed in the Party’s Constitution, lifting himself on to the pedestal previously occupied only by Mao. The Chinese state is now under the control of an ideologically inspired regime with straight lines of command from the Party top and down.

Under Xi’s leadership, the People’s Republic is coming into its own. Xi Jinping is a believer. He believes in the revolution of 1949. He believes in the red aristocracy’s right and duty to rule. He believes in the Leninist state as the right instrument of governance. He believes in the mission of Chinese greatness in the world.  The world looks to China and sees an economic giant. But the China they ought to see is a political giant. Xi Jinping’s political project is audacious. His determination is to make totalitarianism work.

Read the article at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies here.

DICTATORSHIP AND IDEOLOGY

The three big powers in today’s world are America, China and Russia – two autocratic-dictatorial systems and one democracy.

The two dictatorial systems are in some ways different and in some ways similar. Russia maintains a pretence of democracy – Vladimir Putin has just been re-elected president. China has no such pretence – when Xi Jinping was recently re-anointed as party boss and state president there were not even make-believe elections.

They are similar in that both are engaged in aggressive campaigns for domination in their neighbourhoods and the wider world, campaigns that aim to undermine the position of the sole democratic super-power and its allies, such as democratic Europe.

They are different in the way they engage for added domination. China is a power with vast resources and is able to make itself stronger by the day. Russia is without similar resources. Its campaign is therefore one of strategic relativism. Says Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom: “Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.” This difference also makes for campaigns different in character. China is an elegant player on the world stage. Russia is an ugly and thuggish player.

Both engage, in their different ways, with assertive determination. This assertiveness and determination comes from both states being ideological states. In both countries, the leaders have dressed up their systems in similar ideological cloaks. They are now both nationalistic powers.

Putin’s Russia, explains Timothy Snyder, is inspired by a vision of a greater Russian spiritual empire. This explains, for example, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, a country that cannot be democratic and European because it is part of spiritual Russia. China is inspired by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of China’s “great national rejuvenation.” This explains, for example, China’s building of a new global architecture of power in the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the aim of China reclaiming its global position as “the middle kingdom.”

Both nationalistic narratives are also narratives of state and society. In both cases, the unit of purpose is the nation. The core of this thinking is that the nation is one and indivisible and that individuals have their existence as components of the nation. In the Russian case, which Snyder characterizes as no-nonsense neo-fascism, individualism is seen to be the idea of European decadence. European democracy, and the European Union, are therefore the enemies of spiritual Russia, not because of what they do but because of what they are. In the Chinese case, the “Dream” contains not only a vision of national greatness but also the idea, in Xi’s words at the launch of the “Dream,” that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.”

Nationalistic ideology gives both these powers backing for aggressive assertiveness, all the more being ideologies that submerge individuals into the nation. There is then no autonomous good for individuals that stands in the way of the good of the nation, nor of the state that is the custodian of the national good.

Democratic countries are by definition non-ideological. That is their strength in value terms. The idea that the state is the servant of the person is morally superior to the idea that it is the servant of the nation in the meaning that persons do not matter.

In power terms, are non-ideological democratic regimes at a disadvantage vis-à-vis ideological autocratic regimes? That is probably not the experience, but they may be at a disadvantage in some ways. It may be difficult from a democratic vantage point to grasp and understand the nature of ideologically motivated autocratic assertiveness. That seems to be the case today. The West appears unable to make sense of Putin’s Russia and Russian policies of aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, and of destabilization in Europe and America. The West also appears unable to make sense of Xi’s China and China’s audacious design towards no less than a new world order. The West is hopelessly lacking in hard-nosed realism up against very hard-nosed aggression from the autocratic powers.

WARNING – TAIWAN’S DEMOCRACY IN DANGER

With the People’s Republic of China more assertive, it must be prudent to fear that Taiwan is more exposed.

The PRC claims ownership of Taiwan and its stated policy is “reunification” with the motherland. This is part of what the regime sees as its “territorial integrity” and there can be little doubt that “reunification” is a serious intention. Until now, Beijing has let the issue rest, but for how long?

Under Xi Jinping, the regime has been transformed. He inherited a state guided by economic pragmatism. It is now a state dedicated to national greatness. That determination is visible in China’s foreign policy, such as in the Belt and Road Initiative (the building of a global structure of power with China in the center) and in Beijing’s “influence policy” in Europe, America and elsewhere.

It is visible above all in the region. Beijing has de facto turned 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers into its own territorial waters, in contravention of international law and a ruling of the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, and is building bases, some of them military, in other countries’ waters. It has unilaterally established an “air defense zone” over the territory between Taiwan and Japan. It is exploring the establishment of a military base on Vanuatu, off Australia’s east coast. Australia and New Zealand are on the forefront of China’s purchase of influence abroad, in persistent interference in politics, media and universities, described in a recent Australian book as a “silent invasion.”

Beijing’s attitude to democratic values is also visible in the region. It is undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong. It the matter of Taiwan’s “reunification,” the will of the people of a democratic country is to count for nothing.

Beijing claims that Taiwan is historically a part of China, but that is bogus history. The Qing Dynasty declared Taiwan to be annexed in the 17the Century, but this was a pure case of colonization, and mainland China was anyway never in control of the territory. Only in 1887 was Taiwan formalized as a province, before being ceded to Japan in 1895. The four years from 1945 to 1949, following the defeat of Japan in WWII, is the only period in which Taiwan has properly been governed as a part of China.

Taiwan has governed itself since 1949. During that period, it has metamorphosed from a land of mass poverty to a modern and affluent economy, with a standard of living now much ahead of mainland China’s. It has performed the miracle of transitioning peacefully from authoritarianism to a well functioning democracy.

The PRC has emerged from the Party Congress of October 2017 and the People’s Congress of March 2018 (the legislature) as a regime of consolidated totalitarianism. The leader, Xi Jinping, has had himself elevated to a pedestal of one-man rule, complete with undisguised person cult, previously occupied only by Mao. The apparatus of the party-state has been remolded into one of straight-line party command.

The regime is more confident and powerful than ever, and again under the command of a single supremo. It is guided by an ideology of nationalism, under the banner of Xi’s “China Dream.”

Democracies are exposed to two kinds of danger, they can erode from within or they can be crushed from outside. The first danger has recently done its work in for example Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. The second danger has not been at work since the imposition of Soviet regimes in Central Europe following WWII. Taiwan is today the one democracy in the world seriously exposed to the danger of being crushed by a totalitarian state. That danger is greater today than it was half a year ago.

WILL THE REAL CHINA NOW PLEASE STAND UP

The decision by China’s legislature to scrap the term limit of 10 years in the presidency pulls the curtain aside on Xi Jinping’s radical transformation of the regime. He was elevated to party boss in 2012. Since then he has tightened all the reins of dictatorship. Any semblance of opposition has been crushed, even small feminist groups that were organising protest against sexual harassment on public transport. Their sin was not in their cause, but in the act of organising outside of the party system. Human rights lawyers have been detained or put out of business en masse. Censorship and internet control is more penetrating than ever. Internally in the Party, discipline is the mantra, and all potential opinion has been silenced with the help of the anti-corruption campaign. Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim province in the west, has been turned into a surveillance state laboratory, including with the deployment off the most advanced electronic tools of the trade. The political activist Yang Maodong was right when, in his trial in 2014, he defied the court with an eloquent defense statement in which he compared today’s China “blow by blow” to the nightmare state of George Orwell’s 1984. That likeness has since become ever more perfect.

The world looks to China and sees an economic giant. But the China they ought to see is a political giant. Xi Jinping’s project is to make totalitarianism work. For that he needs a strong and growing economy, but in his project the economic is in the service of the political. What always counts is the regime itself and its perpetuation.

Xi inherited a regime of pragmatic authoritarianism under collective leadership. Now pragmatism has been superseded by ideological fervor, Xi’s omnipresent “China Dream” of national rejuvenation and greatness. Collective leadership has been abolished, now formally so with the clearing away of any time limit on the Red Emperor’s reign. With both pragmatism and collective leadership gone, Xi stands on a pedestal of power previously occupied only by Mao.

China is an economic giant and governments and corporations obviously want to do business. But when you do, you should know that you are dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship, inspired by nationalistic ideology, with a confident one-man supremo at the helm. If you think that kind of state is a cuddly teddy of benevolence, you have not learned much from history.

Rather than engaging in balanced collaboration China is pursuing domination. It is undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong. It is threatening Taiwan with annexation, in which matter the will of the people of a democratic country is to count for nothing. It has de facto turned 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers into its own territorial waters, in contravention of international law and a ruling of the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, and is building bases, some of them military, in other countries’ waters. Australia and New Zealand are on the forefront of China’s purchase of influence abroad, in persistent interference in politics, media and universities, described in a recent Australian book as a “silent invasion.”

Beijing may not be imposing its model on others, but it is imposing something else: silence. If you want to collaborate, be you a business, an organization or a government, you are not allowed to say or do what the men in Beijing see to be unfriendly.

Recently, Mercedes-Benz happened to mention the Dalai Lama in promotional material outside of China, met criticism in China, and quick as a flash removed all reference to His Holiness and apologized for “hurting the feelings” of the people of China.

If you were to cross the regime, you will be in danger of retribution, such as exclusion from operations in China. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International are silent on China’s environmental destructions in the South China Sea.

Last year, China and Norway “normalized” relations (which had been cut off for six years after the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo). What Norway had to pay for “normalization” was a promise to undertake no action that could disturb the new harmony between the two governments. Since then, a government whose identity in the world rests on its championship of democracy and human rights, has had not a word to say about human rights abuses in China.

It is not a matter of general concern that power shifts in the world. The west, America, have no God-given right to preeminence. But it is a matter of concern that the rising power is a state that is repressive towards its own population and hostile to others’ liberty. It is a matter of concern that a state that has annexed vast territorial waters and is threatening to annex a neighbouring democracy is able to use its economic clout to buy silence on the part of countries that claim to live by democratic values and international law.

What to do? First, we must understand and acknowledge that in China we are dealing with a totalitarian state with immense powers behind it. We must free ourselves from Western wishful thinking that with economic growth and opening up, China is becoming more like us and more benevolent at home and collaboration abroad. That has not happened. Xi’s regime is exercising totalitarianism with more strategic discretion than any before it – smart totalitarianism, I have called it – but totalitarian it is.

Secondly, we – the democratic governments of the world – need a coherent strategy for meeting the challenge of China. The liberal democracies, says the German sinologist Kai Strittmatter, must find their voice up against assertive autocracy. China deals as much as it can with each country on its own, in which case most countries are small fry next to the giant. We need a collective strategy. Currently, the hope, if distant, is for the European Union to mount such a strategy, since President Trump has placed America on the sideline.

A collective strategy should have three components:

  1. We should engage with China on all levels, politically, economically, in science, in culture and so on. That it inevitable and is also strategic. The more we can pull China into engagement, the more Chinese institutions will be under the influence of international law and standards of collaboration.
  2. We should speak up in clear language, to Chines authorities and in public, against repression and breaches of human rights in China. This we should always do with reference to the Chinese State Constitution and to Chinese law, which are in these respects sound (although ineffective).
  3. We should speak up in clear language against Chinese aggression internationally, notably in its neighbourhood, and against interference in politics and civil society in other countries. This we should always do with reference to the many relevant international treaties and conventions that China has signed up to.

WHO IN THE WORLD WILL DEFEND DEMOCRACY?

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.

THE ENGLISH ILLUSION

British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.

 

WHY DEMOCRACY VIII: PROSPERITY

In today’s world, democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. The established democratic countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania are also the most democratic countries. In Europe, recent democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the countries of Central Europe. In Latin America, the democratic exceptions (until recently) of Costa Rica and Uruguay are also the region’s most prosperous countries. In Africa, Botswana is the most successful country both democratically and economically. In East Asia, it is the democratic countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that have risen to the level of high-income countries.

The significant exception is India. Although economic growth is now very strong, India remains a democracy with widespread and oppressive poverty. It is a country that should have done better in prosperity. But within India, the rule still applies. Kerala is the leading state in both democracy and prosperity.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But except for the bigness of the economy, and its therefore clout in the world, China’s economic performance falls short of the standard in the region set by neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, it could be the other way around. But there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the sequence is in favour of this hypothesis. The new democracies in Europe have grown to prosperity after they became democracies. South Korea and Taiwan took off in development under autocratic regimes but went on to grow economically to the level of high-income after having transformed politically to democracy.

Some of the reasons we should expect democracy to encourage prosperity are the following: Citizens are more likely to feel secure under regimes of protection and predictability and therefore more confident in enterprise. They have free access to information and deliberation and are therefore better positioned to entrepreneurship. They are more likely to have the protection of safety nets to fall back on and therefore more able to take on economic risk. There is rule of law, including property and contract law, and therefore more security in enterprise and occupation and less susceptibility to corruption and gangster rule. Governance is more likely to be effective and therefore more likely to deliver infrastructural and other forms of support. Democratic polities co-exist with market economies and market economies have proved to be more efficient than command or monopolistic economies.

Autocracy with prosperity is not inconceivable. The Chinese party-state defends autocracy with the claim that it is delivering prosperity for the population. There has been impressive economic growth in recent decades. However, what has been delivered so far is elevation to a level of middle-income. The promise of prosperity depends on China escaping the middle-income trap, which is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the party-state promises people prosperity on the condition that they surrender their freedom. Only democracy holds up the audacious promise of both prosperity and freedom.

WHY DEMOCRACY VII: EFFECTIVENESS

In my experience, the most common judgement to democracy’s disadvantage is that autocracies deliver while democracies dither. That, however, is a myth which does not square with experience. Generally, democratic government is not only more fair but also more effective.

One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with it without having to face dissatisfied and possibly organising NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of pandering to the next election. The delivery of, for example, high speed rail and new airports and city subway networks in China in recent years is evidence of that advantage.

But democratic governments have advantages of their own over autocratic ones. Firstly, they have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments might possibly be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Secondly, democratic governments have the advantage of ruling by consent, whereby they may tend to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through reasonably fair process. The experience of effective rule in for example, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is evidence of these advantages.

And they have a third advantage: they are meritocratic. Political position is attained through intense competition. In representative democracies, citizens, in theory, elect representatives who are more qualified than themselves to govern. Political competition works out so that more qualified and motivated candidates prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact.

Of course, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it. But generally, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to granting them. In autocratic systems, political position is attained by selection from above. Here, the most important qualification is usually obedience upwards and trustworthiness in the maintenance of autocracy.

The best evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” with “government effectiveness” a main indicator. The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries including also, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The other main indicators in the project are “voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, regulatory quality, rule of law, control of corruption.” There is a high level of correlation between these indicators and government effectiveness, suggesting that it is the institutional solidity which is a feature of democratic systems, that gives these systems the edge in effectiveness.

We are right today to be concerned about democratic delivery. We are in the aftermath of the most dramatic economic crash since 1929, with extremes of economic inequality and social polarisation in democratic-capitalist countries. Social groups that are on the losing side of globalisation have rather experienced abandonment than protection. However, the lesson from experience and evidence is solidly that more effective government is to be found in better democracy, not less democracy.

WHY DEMOCRACY IV: RULE OF LAW

In democracies, the law prevails. Governments cannot do what is not authorised in law. Retribution cannot be brought down upon citizens that is not sanctioned in law and managed through due process. Basic rights have statutory protection. Private property has legal protection and cannot be expropriated except by due process and with compensation. Contract is regulated by law. Public policy, policing, surveillance, land and property management, punishment – none of these are at the discretion of governments. Citizens have protection and predictability in life and business.

Furthermore, rights and regulations are effective. There are institutional arrangements that secure that the law prevails and that not even governments and ministers are above the law. Primary among these arrangements is an independent judiciary.

In short, there is rule of law.

Autocratic governance can be regulated by law. In China, the most sophisticated autocracy ever invented, both public policy and civil life have in recent years been increasingly regulated by law. That is an improvement for citizens in that there is less unpredictability. But in this and other autocratic systems, what results is at best rule by law, not rule of law. None of the criteria I have listed above apply. Under autocracy, the rulers are above the law, not the law above the rulers. The reason a regime needs to be autocratic is that it cannot prevail with rule of law.

Rule of law is not impossible in political systems that are not democratic, or very imperfectly democratic. Hong Kong is in one meaning a city state which is not governed democratically but which has still (recently) benefitted from a rule of law regime, including with an independent judiciary. This regime has come under stress after Hong Kong was reintegrated into the People’s Republic of China, but continues to prevail reasonably well.

However, while rule of law without democracy is not impossible, it is very unlikely. Democracy without rule of law, on the other hand, is not possible.

WHY DEMOCRACY I: THE AVOIDANCE OF TYRANNY

(I will issue 12 post under this heading over the next days – inspired by a list compiled previously by Professor Robert A. Dahl. Comments and discussion most welcome.)

We humans are a dangerous species. We are dangerous to each other. If we can, we will trample on others, or damage or kill them, for our own good. If they can, those who are stronger will supress or abuse those who are weaker. If they can, majorities will persecute minorities and élites will exploit those lower down the ladder. We need to be governed. We need protection.

Orderly social and economic life depends on governing authority. There must be defence and there must be police. There must be laws, regulations, courts and prisons. There must be infrastructure and public services. There must be taxation. For order, societies need governments with power. Modern societies and economies have governments with vast powers.

All governments are themselves dangerous to the people who live under their rule, the more powerful the more dangerous. Power corrupts. We depend on authorities with power for protection but we must also have protection from their potential excesses. The danger is that the governing we need turns into tyranny. Writes Robert A. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

Under democratic constitutions, the governments that rule over the people are themselves under the control of the people they rule. The people can dismiss those who have the power to govern them, and they can threated the government of the day with being dismissed tomorrow. That counter-power is in the hands not of an aristocracy or some other minority, but of the people themselves. They exercise their counter-power by acting collectively, such as in elections, with equal right of participation by all, rich and poor.

In democracies, then, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. Without democratic checks, that combination is unlikely. Autocracy can provide the protection of stability, as now in China, but it cannot provide the combination with also protection from the protectors.