BRITAIN’S ABUSIVE ELECTION

Another election in Britain now is unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister says the country needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations. But what we need is not stronger leadership but better leadership.

The government has had all the mandate it needs and all the parliamentary majority it needs. But the Prime Minister does not want to work in collaboration with Parliament. She wants to govern without a Parliament she has to pay attention to. That, however, is the kind of strong leadership that invariable leads a government astray. We know that in this country. It is the way of political decision making that leads to, for example, invasion of Iraq.

A reasonably balanced hand between government and Parliament is to the country’s advantage. It makes for deliberate compromise governing, which is the spirit of democracy. In the case of Brexit, the population is divided down the middle. There will be Brexit but it should be on terms that heed both sides of popular opinion. With a setting in which the government had to pay attention to a, at least somewhat, assertive Parliament, we could have had a practical Brexit.

The government has invented a straw man called “the will of the people.” The people have spoken in a referendum and its “will” is a hard Brexit. But that is an abuse of public opinion. There is no such “will of the people,” the population is divided. The referendum was not about the terms of Brexit. The government has hijacked the referendum for a design of its own making. It is setting itself up to impose an ideological Brexit on the country.

It will be able to do that. But it will be the kind of mistake that is typical of its vision of strong leadership. The country will remain divided. We will get a costly Brexit. Britain will cause further damage to European friends.

Parliament had to decide the snap election with two thirds majority. It should have said “no” to an unnecessary election and told the government to get on with its business. Instead, the House of Commons voted to make itself irrelevant, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It happens while this is going on that I am reading Machiavelli. A constant in his writing is about the risk to rulers that they make mistakes and cause detriment to both the people and themselves. That risk is particularly high when rulers have unrestrained power. But another constant is this: there is a price to be paid for the abuse of power. The strong leader may get his way today, but history will take revenge and deny him a good reputation. Mrs. May might look over her shoulder to the reputations of her predecessors who also wanted strong leadership: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blair.

 

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.

THE INEVITABLE UGLINESS OF DICTATORSHIP

China is the most sophisticated dictatorship ever known, so smooth in its operations that it often does not even look dictatorial. The leaders present themselves to the world as statesmen, immaculate in comportment, custodians of inscrutable wisdom.

But under the façade, their regime – however reformed, however much an admired model – is one that still rules, ultimately, by fear, intimidation, violence and death.

In researching my book, The Perfect Dictatorship, I followed many cases of repression. An ugly regularity emerged. On the meeting ground between the regime’s agents and those who stand up to it, the little guys get beaten up by thugs – physically, systematically, at home, in the streets, in detention. Often badly, often to suffer grave injury. The statesmen, how suave they may appear on stage, behind the curtains are still the masters of mafia-style raw brutality.

Scott Savitt is an American who came to China in 1983 as an exchange students and stayed on as a journalist until 2000, when he was deported. He was then publishing an English language newspaper, Beijing Scene, with official Chinese backers, which however fell out of favour. His beautiful memoir of his colourful years in China has just been published as Crashing the Party.

He spent his last month in China in the Paoju Prison in central Beijing, next to the Lama Temple, known to innumerable tourists, who have streamed by it, as I have done, unaware that the shabby brick building was Beijing’s most notorious jail and torture chamber.

Here some bits of his experience:

“The cell is six-by-eight feet, windowless. The humidity is suffocating.”

Matong (shit bucket), the officer barks. I hear the officer empty it. Then he kicks it back inside, splashing drops of urine on me.”

“Time for the day’s only meal. Cold rice and dirty wilted cabbage. Flies swarm over the food. Several drown in the rancid oil.”

“Still not eating, eh? Starve yourself to death. See if we give a shit.”

“I steal glances into the crowded cells lining the hallway, packed with prisoners squatting with their hands clasped behind their heads, the painful position they’re required to maintain all day.”

“Blood oozes from the gash left by his steel-toed boot. He’s kicked and punched me regularly since my arrival. Sergeant Wang asks, Did you have an accident? Then he makes eye contact with the guard and cackles.”

“We have all the time in the world, Sergeant Wang says. Nobody knows where you are, and we can keep you here as long as we want.”

That was in 2000. Is that a long time ago? Since then, the screws of dictatorship have been ever tightened.

Democracy’s standing in the world is now so poor that it is standard in polite company to dismiss it as a mess of inefficiency, and to hold up orderly and effective autocracy as a better way. China is often the example.

The trouble with autocracy, however (in addition to usually being less effective in practice than in theory), is that if you allow it you are not likely to get benevolence. Order depends on state power, but uncontrolled power is dangerous to human dignity and freedom.

 

A PRESIDENT SPEAKS

As the transfer approaches from a president who has graced the White House to one who is getting there by the basest of means, it is the time to remember, and celebrate, the former’s final State of the Union Address, delivered on the 12th of January 2016. Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” This, he said, was “the most important thing I want to say tonight.” He was delivering one of the most forthright presidential speeches ever, in hindsight one loaded with prophetic foreboding.

The last time a president warned the country in such stark terms was when Eisenhower, in his farewell speech in 1961, raised the specter of the military-industrial complex whose “economic, political, even spiritual” influence was “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” More than fifty year on, another outgoing president warns that democracy needs to be salvaged.

In Washington, explained the president, elected representatives are “trapped” by “imperatives” and “rancor” which they dislike but cannot get out of.

The imperative is that of raising money, “dark money” he had called it in his 2015 Address. That pulls everyone into the rancor of having to outshout each other.

When Washington is unable to act and turns into a shouting match, the next bastion to fall is trust. “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

The reason trust breaks down is that “those with money and power gain greater control over the decisions” that are made in Washington. “And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes.”

And further: “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

The rejection of politics as usual in 2016 was a reaction against corruption and gridlock in Washington. Since Eisenhower’s warning, corporate America has added organisational power to its already formidable economic power. Through a vast network of partisan PACs, think-tanks, media organisations and lobbying groups, it has won control over the setting of political agendas. In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When big money is allowed to transgress into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once in office – that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big money and politics.

In the recent campaign, Mr. Trump could rightly call for the “swamp to be drained.” Those flocking to his side were the bearers of righteous anger. But it was Mr. Obama who had explained why. The holders of office in Washington, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good.

Again, the president was direct and radical. Since their representatives in Washington are trapped, “it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”

In this election, it was perhaps the best funded candidate who lost, but both sides were bankrolled by outside interests, as were most of the other contests across the land. American elections are getting more expensive for every turn.

It ought to be possible for Congress to extricate itself from the trap it has fallen into. The members hate it: the never ending campaigning, the absence of civility, the constant raising of money, the kowtowing to richness, the looking over their shoulders to the moneymen when they vote. The people despise it, as they have now shown decisively. Democracy does not need mega-expensive campaigning. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money, it is money that chases politicians.

Again, in his remarkable speech, the president called it correctly. Appealing beyond Congress to all Americans: “Changes in our political process will only happen when the American people demand it.” Well, the election now over, it is to be hoped that it is understood in Washington that that is exactly what has been demanded.

In this speech, which, his usual eloquence notwithstanding, was raw with naked honesty about the state of democracy in America, Mr. Obama promised “that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen.” Americans ignored Eisenhower. Be it that they now accepts Obama’s warning – and also his offer to continue working to “fix our politics.”