[SCMP Column] A Democratic Challenge

October 28, 2017

If much of the western media have it right, China under Xi Jinping is headed towards dictatorial rule the country has not seen since Mao in the 1950s.

For these, the script for the 19th National People’s Congress, which closed on Wednesday, has been set for months: Xi is surrounding himself with stooges, setting himself up on a pedestal alongside Mao and Deng, concentrating Communist Party power, focusing on eliminating all possible challengers ahead of an eventual pitch for power beyond 2022, and laying the foundations for China to become an assertive and potentially aggressive global military power.

Many are defining these developments as an existential threat to all western democracies. Note Thursday’s Financial Times editorial: “The world must not forget that Mr Xi is promoting a governance model internationally that is anathema to the democracy America and the west have championed since before the second world war.”

But from my vantage point, in Hong Kong in the direct shadow of the newly minted Great Helmsman, methinks such a script is myopic and paranoid. Even if Mr Xi does indeed constitute a grave and existential threat – which I do not believe is so – then the response is not stereotypically to demonise “Xi Jinping Thought”, but to look to our own governance model and to examine why in recent decades it has served us so poorly. The threat comes not from Beijing or its political system preferences, but from our failure to ensure democratic systems deliver the superior outcomes that that they are supposed to deliver.

We have all had powerful recent reminders of the shortcomings of democratic systems – and we are not just talking about the eccentric outcomes in the US elections and on the Brexit vote in the UK. The almost-infinite variety of versions of democratic politics makes it particularly hard to define in any comprehensive way what we democrats are defending. As a Brit, I have always found it difficult to define what superior moral ground we occupy when our democracy has never allowed us to choose our own Prime Minister or his or her ministerial team.

But most awkward of all, I am finding it increasingly difficult to defend democratic politics in terms of delivering superior economic or social progress for our democratic citizens. It has become clear over the decade since the global financial crash in 2008 that in the absence of economic growth, democratic systems perform very eccentrically. It seems candidates for political office in a democracy need to be able to promise superior performance to their rivals, in terms of stronger economic growth, more spending power, well-paid employment, better security and care for our elderly, and so on. Recession and contraction, which involves spending cuts, unemployment, or insecure, ill-paid employment, sells very badly. A politician cannot easily win voter support on the basis of selling “less pain” than a rival.

China’s leaders, looking at the general political mess our democracies are in, have become increasingly self-assured of their own model, even those that acknowledge its shortcomings. Not only do they point to enviable economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty over the past three decades, but they point to a Chinese “exceptionalism”. They say China is too big and too politically brittle to be able to cope with the uncertainties and volatilities that democracies are capable of delivering.

I can hear many readers scoffing, and saying “They would say that wouldn’t they!” But history has dealt China many painful memories of Machaevellian chaos and warlordism. China’s communist leaders may be wrong. The country might be more robust and institutionally stable than they think. But are they wrong if they don’t want to take the risk? Whatever its ugly shortcomings, their model of centralised communist party rule has performed well by most objective measures. I wonder how many Chinese citizens go to bed each night, immeasureably better off than they were 30 years ago, saying “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t…”?

Anyone doing business inside China who has brushed up against the corrupt activity that is alive and well in and around provincial and municipal governments can have a passing empathy with Beijing’s efforts to centralize power, and to empower Wang Qishan’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which has over the past five years arrested or punished over 1.4m officials for corruption. Is this the weapon of a dictatorial Xi who is bent on purging political opposition within the Communist Party? The absence of transparent legal processes leaves us all squirming, but on balance I think I am in a majority who believe its purpose is truly to purge corruption. Let’s see if Zhao Leji can perform with the integrity of Wang when he takes over in March next year.

Those depicting Xi as a megalomanic dictator-in-the-making had predicted that he would keep the ageing Wang Qishan in office for a further five years, to set the precedent for Xi to pitch for a third five year term of office in 2022. But Wang is not staying in office. So no precedent has been set. The other six members of the Politbureau Standing Committee are all ineligible for age reasons to be candidates to succeed him, so at present no successor is in plain view. Does this mean Xi is paving the way for an extended grab at power? Or are there other reasons why no successor has formally been anointed. Who can yet tell?

All we can see now is an increasingly confident Beijing leadership that is proud of its track record, more confident of its (prominent) place in the world, more interested to engage in international affairs, and internationally more assertive. It may not yet believe it has developed a political model that can or should be exported to other countries, but for sure it is not persuaded that democracy should be imported. And I suspect whatever Trump discusses with Xi when he visits Beijing shortly, he is unlikely to change many minds.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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