WHAT’S PUTIN’S GAME?

(Those of us who wish to defend democracy must now look very carefully at the modern dictatorships and their ideologies.)

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. In Britain, one political assassination and one attempted assassination, both with illegal chemical weapons. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain again, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many escaped abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed down to a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control. (Read more about this here.)

Secondly, any hope of democratization was dashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. His court is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas. Read more about this here.)

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the Czar who set the job in motion. His agenda of ideas is for the inspiration of that job and purpose.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moscow, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had accepted German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moscow. (Read more about this here.) The European embrace of Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Finally, why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and public health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the West expected Russia to become a compliant collaborator. What has emerged is an aggressive competitor.

First published in the Los Angeles Times, here.

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.

IDEOLOGY

When in Berlin, go to the German Historical Museum!

I work my way through its present exhibition on the Russian Revolution (the October 1917 one, that is) and its consequences. The terror and death that followed was of horrendous proportions. It’s a display of the destructive power of ideology. For Lenin and his followers, nothing was not permitted in the name of “the revolution.”

Revolution was possible in Russia because previous regimes had failed to democratise. Once in power, the Bolsheviks tried to export the revolution to the rest of Europe. But it was not wanted and was nowhere taken up where democracy was sufficiently vibrant to prevent it from being imposed from above.

Ideologies are belief systems that give meaning to history and destiny and that take hold with commanding strength. They are manmade, but then take on a force of their own. Leaders think they can use ideology as a tool, but once they have let the genie out of the bottle, they become enslaved by their own creation. It does not matter if the ideology is of the left or the right, it is ideology itself that is the evil force. Where ideology reigns, ends justify means.

Could social destruction under the force of ideology happen today? It is happening! In Venezuela, before our eyes, a rich economy is being destroyed, a democracy disestablished, and a civilised society torn apart. A regime is clinging to power for the sake of another “revolution.” It does not matter that the revolution is bringing devastation on to the country whose well-being is its purpose.

TOTALITARIANISM CLOSING IN ON CHINA

The only drama in the recent “two sessions” jamboree in Beijing is that there was no drama at all. Each year the Chinese political élite, 5000 men and a few women strong, congregate in the capital for a week of meetings of the legislature, the National People’s Congress, and its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This year the choreography was faultless. Even reporters who were assigned to provide their editors at least some copy, could find next to nothing to write about. In Beijing, all is steady and all is under control.

The gathering was the dress rehearsal for the Communist Party’s National Congress in the autumn, the once every five year event where real power is at play. We can expect that meeting to be equally orchestrated with no irregularities to suggest confusion in the leadership. The “core” leader, Xi Jinping (as he is now officially designated), will be anointed for another five years, more of his cronies will take positions in the leadership reshuffle, and ways will be found for his ally, Wang Qishan, now in charge of Party discipline and anti-corruption, to stay on in a top post although he by age-rules should be obliged to retire. Again, there will be no drama.

So what is the nature of the regime that holds the grip on national politics that no ripples are allowed to disturb the harmony? We know enough to give a reasonably clear answer to that question, although there are also remaining unknowns on which we can only speculate.

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the almost universal expectation was that he would be the dynamic moderniser to reform the economy off its dependency on state driven debt-infused over-investment. But that hope has been confounded. Xi’s priority has been political restitution. In his first five years he has reshaped the Chinese state so radically that he has taken the People’s Republic into the third phase in its historic march, after the ideological madness of Mao and the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping and his followers.

He has acted with great determination but also shrewdness, working steadily step-by-step and drip-by-drip, never allowing the boat to rock out of balance. By the time the Party meets itself later this year, he will have changed the facts on the ground in two ways. First, there has been a relentless concentration of power, in the country to Beijing, in Beijing to the Party and in the Party to the boss himself. Second, there has been an equally relentless tightening of repression, followed by intensification of Party discipline, political education, mass campaigns, propaganda, thought-work, and crack-downs on political, ethnic and religious activists. Ideology is back with a vengeance, in Xi Jinping’s narrative of national greatness in his slogan of “the China Dream.”

Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao, not quite taking the system back to one-man rule but leaning it in that direction. On coming to power, he immediately occupied all decisive leadership posts, including the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and soon created new “leading groups” with himself as chair, such as for national and internet security. Deviants, real or imagined, from outside of his own circle have been purged in the anti-corruption campaign. He has cloaked himself in an aura of person cult, being hailed for exceptional virtue and dedication throughout the state-controlled media. It is now enough for him to stand before the faithful, immaculate in dress and demeanour, a mild smile generously on the ready, not a straw of hair out of place in his jet-black coif, his little pot-belly just right, not big so as to suggest indulgence but enough to make him fatherly, to be rewarded with waves of adulation. This year’s report by the premier, Li Keqiang, to the National People’s Congress was extraordinary for its lavish praise on the Party and its leader, culminating in a pledge for all to “rally ever closer around the Party Central Committee with comrade Xi Jinping at its core.”

Controls and repressions have narrowed the space for human rights lawyers to protect the persecuted, think-tanks and NGO’s to operate independently, journalists to report honestly, feminists to advance their causes, academics and teachers to instruct and research objectively, the religious to worship freely. Authors and artists have been told, in an echo of Stalinism, that their work must “serve the people.” Censorship is ever tighter in literature and media. Contrary to expectations, the internet has not become a lever for opening up from below but rather another instrument of control from above.

The Chinese dictatorship is like nothing the world has ever known, so smooth that it in some respects does not even look dictatorial, relying extensively on people’s self-control. But also brute and raw where needs be. The western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang, have been turned into garrison states. Most Chinese now have many freedoms in their daily lives which no one interferes with, as long as they do not take their freedoms into the domain of Party affairs or to organising outside of the Party apparatus. It is of a new kind, controlling everything but not dictating what does not need to be dictated. I call it a “controlocracy.”

The regime is equally sophisticated in propaganda. There is much of old-fashioned boasting by the regime, but the real work is done more softly. School children are taught to love the Party but the more effective influence is through careful editing of teaching material in history and other subjects to promote the national truth. Two million “internet opinion analysts” are on the job not only of keeping undesirable material outside of the “great firewall” but also shaping what goes in, which is done subtly so that even much of the criticism that circulates on the web, appearing to be from private citizens, is under control to be of the right kind.

The concentration of power and the tightening of dictatorial controls we know enough about to present as fact. It is also logical. The party-state needs legitimacy. The state has its legitimacy from the Party, but the Party needs to get it from somewhere else. Since Deng’s reform and opening up, it has relied extensively on economic growth and the spreading of rewards in the population. Now, with expectations inflated, mega-growth is over. The leaders know the danger. They can rely less on their ability to purchase the people’s gratitude. Always weary of their grip on power, they turn, pre-emptively, to tighter controls and nationalistic ideology.

Xi’s China Dream, now omnipresent wherever the Party and its affiliates speak, is more than the usual slogan of hot air. The Party that claims the right to control everything must be able to justify itself. Revolution has no traction in a keptocracy in which officials enrich themselves by looting the state and income inequality is more extreme than in most capitalist countries. The available narrative is that of national glory.

What we do not know is just who Xi Jinping is and where he will take the party-state in his next five years (at least) in the lead. Here, we enter the realm of speculation, but nevertheless with some evidence to build on.

One view, by some of his friendlier observers, is that Xi is in fact the hoped for moderniser, that he has used his first years to consolidate power, and that he in his next period will take that power to the job of reforming the economy. Perhaps so – but this is more likely hope over experience. Xi laid out an ambitious agenda of economic reform early on, in the “third plenum” in 2013. (A “plenum” is a meeting of the Party’s Central Committee, about 370 members, usually twice a year.) But not much has been followed up. That is not for want of power. Had reform been a priority, it would long since have been rolled out. It must be safer to speculate from what the leader has in fact done than out of theoretical hope.

The Chinese system is extraordinarily dependent on the leadership, and now on the leader himself. It therefore matters for our understanding of that system what kind of man Xi is, what he thinks, what he believes, what his values are.

We of course cannon know, but for my part I am coming around, hesitantly, to thinking of Xi Jinping as a true believer. He looks to me like a man who really believes in his mission, in the reds aristocracy’s right and duty to rule, and in the purity of the Communist Party.

The imperative is to secure the perpetuation of the Party regime. Xi sees himself as the man who can impose the necessary discipline within the Party and controls throughout society to avoid Soviet-style disintegration. For him and other “princelings” (the children and grandchildren of revolutionary and early PRC grandees), the people are children who need the intimate guidance of their betters. He and his fellow aristocrats allow them the prospect of having property and possibly getting rich, but demand their loyalty. To that end, they control media, information and history. They take propaganda and thought-work very seriously. They use the anti-corruption campaign to make people believe the party-state is being cleaned up. (A remarkable propagandistic skill of the regime is to have itself given credit for allowing people to extricate themselves from the miseries it has itself imposed on them.) As other exposed leaders, they turn to nationalism and co-opt good people into a nasty fairy tale of “national rejuvenation.”

Is this a regime that is able not only to control people’s behaviour but also their minds? Chinese people are not more gullible than others but are more than others subjected to aggressive thought-work from above. When I speak about China in Europe and the US, I can count on a young Chinese in the audience to tell me that his/her parents at home tell him/her that they are happy in their new-found affluence party-state order. Perhaps they are. But then the young Chinese abroad are not from the peasant population, whose young are the internal migrants who fuel the state’s investment machine with cheap labour, and whom visitors, if they put on sun glasses so as not to be blinded by shine from the skyscrapers, will see as the wretched of the earth slaving away in the city gutters, and whose children again are not in comfort abroad but in sub-standard schools at home, an estimated 60 million of them “left-behinds” in the countryside.

If it is possible that the dictators are making the people believers, could it be that they are persuading themselves likewise? Why not? The top brass live elevated lives in their Zhongnonhai enclosed compound, with their own protected food supply and behind the safety of air filtering systems. The state may be a kleptocracy, but it is not more farfetched that those who float on the top there see themselves as righteous than that, for example, European nineteenth century aristocrats, who sat on societies rotten with corruption and vice, saw themselves as the custodians of ordained orders of virtue. If the mission is now national greatness, the Party is again the instrument of a noble cause. If they are cleaning up the corruption, are they not reviving classical values, austerity and honesty? People who tell stories, and repeat them and have them repeated back, are exposed to believing what they say and hear.

What then for the regime in Xi’s next period? In five years he has reshaped both its practice and its narrative. On the continuum from mild autocracy to all-out totalitarianism, he has shifted in the totalitarian direction. Is that now enough or will the shift continue?

A prudent Xi would rest on his laurels, be content with the control he has obtained and consolidate by continuing his various moral crusades. But he has brewed for himself a dangerous cocktail of one-man rule (near to), ideology, propaganda and though-work. When has any leader, dizzy with power and success, able to bend history, experiencing love and admiration, been able to say to himself: enough?

The economic miracle is over and China is getting stuck in the middle-income trap. The socialist market economy’s many problems and contradictions can no longer be smoothed over by having money from mega-growth thrown at them. Such contentment as there may be in the population is not to be trusted. There is nowhere else for the regime to go than to controls justified by mythology. The leader who has reaped success and gratitude for his efforts, will continue. He is in control, but control is not yet total. He has said to his people that “each person’s future and destiny is linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation” (in his launch of the China Dream), but his teachings are not yet clear enough and not yet absorbed.

Critical observers tend to think that a regime with as many built-in contradictions as the People’s Republic cannot endure and that some kind of collapse is in the making. The likely scenario in my reading is different. The red aristocracy will hold on by perfecting the controlocracy, step-by-step and drip-by-drip, towards tighter controls and all-out totalitarianism. Can it thereby endure? Elsewhere (except possibly in North Korea) totalitarianism has failed. The Chinese leaders have studied those failures and are carving out their own way, not soft but smart totalitarianism. The People’s Republic has for decades survived the persistent predictions of its own demise.

CHINA AND THE EMBARRASSMENT OF WESTERN DEMOCRACY

It is an uncomfortable truth, as we leave 2016, the year of reaction, that democracy is in trouble. But the trouble for democracy does not come from Beijing, or from globalisation, or from abroad, or, in Britain, from Europe. It resides at home. The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.

The Chinese regime has had a good 2016 because it was a bad year for democracy. Official Chinese media and various commentators have made fun of the Brexit referendum in Britain and the Trump victory in the United States as being what you get if you are careless enough to let the people decide. The Chinese system is being held up as a model of stability. The leader, Xi Jinping, has exploited uncertainty and vacuum in the West, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru in November 2016 and then at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, to brazenly offer China up to the world as the guarantor of economic openness and free trade.

The awkward thing for the democracy side is that the Chinese dictators have been given a godsend of democratic weakness, so much so that Western democracy is widely seen to be in “crisis.” Both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were perverse. In Britain, there is a majority in the population and in Parliament in favour of continued membership in the European Union, but because of low voter participation among the young, that majority did not prevail in the referendum. In America, the losing candidate won the majority of the popular vote. In both countries, ugly campaigns embraced and encouraged sundry voices of xenophobia, fear of the other, racism and divisiveness which we until the fateful year of 2016 had thought had been marginalised to the dark and dusty corners of the house of modernity.

The turmoils of democracy in the West represent a shift in the balance of soft power in the world. Europe and America, in confusion and uncertainty, today look unimpressive. It is easy for Beijing to present the Chinese model as safe, stable and predictable. It is this shift in the power of esteem that Xi Jinping has been able to play on, successfully, in his travels to the West.

But there is more to Beijing’s interpretation of the misfortunes of democracy. The Chinese leaders have perfected a model which has proved itself functional for the perpetuation of their own regime. It is for that purpose above all that they are determined to retain dictatorial control and not risk democratic reforms. However, there is also a view, both among regime insiders and some commentators, such as the political scientist Daniel A. Bell in his The China Model, that the Chinese political system is genuinely superior to any democratic system, both in delivering effective governance and also morally.

We cannot know if the Chinese leaders really believe that their model is superior, or if their claim to superiority is only window dressing for the maintenance of the dictatorship they depend on. But if there is a temptation on their part to believe their own propaganda, that temptation will now have been stimulated. In my own analysis of the Chinese system, in my book The Perfect Dictatorship, I see the Chinese regime as a dangerous one in the world, or at least potentially dangerous. Its propensity to aggression is most visible in the South China Sea. The Chinese state is powerful. What may make it dangerous is a conviction in the minds of the leaders in Beijing that they are the custodians of a unique virtue. That conviction they are themselves cultivating with the revival of ideology in the form of the nationalistic and chauvinistic rhetoric of “the China Dream.” It has now been given the additional stimulus that their model has suddenly come to look better compared to the alternative. When democracy performs poorly, it is logical that those who have advocated autocracy feel that history is proving them right. It is logical that the leaders of a powerful state, who believe to be seeing that history is on their side, will make their state a more assertive one vis-à-vis neighbours and others.

There is a competition in the world between Western democracy and Chinese-style autocracy. For the West to stand tall in that competition, democratic governments must see to it that their democratic systems perform, deliver and command respect. The way to do that is through constant reform. Democracies are imperfect. They are strong not by being perfect – only dictatorships can be perfect – but by imperfections being recognised and worked on.

The systems the Chinese leaders and others are now able to make fun of, have neglected the imperative of constant reform. In America, the main problem is that the power of money has been allowed to prevail so that ordinary citizens rightly feel that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and that they themselves have no say. In Britain, the main problem is an excessively centralised system of political power with a wide gulf of distance between the rulers in London and the people throughout the land. In both countries, income and wealth has been redistributed to the rich and ultra-rich, leaving the middle class, not to mention the poor, behind in neglect and humiliation. The foundations of the democratic architecture has been allowed to crumble.

(First published in openDemocracy)