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Xi Jinping

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Dictators and Elections

Why do they bother?

Last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, got himself ‘re-elected’ to his fourth six-year term by a 76 percent majority on a 76 percent turn-out. This week (26-28 March) the Egytian dictator, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be ‘re-elected’ with close to 100 percent support, although probably on a very low turn-out. A quarter-billion people are being inconvenienced in order to wield what amounts to giant rubber stamps.

So why do they bother? Both dictators control the mass media in their countries, so they can be reasonably confident that most people will not be exposed to much criticism of their actions. They both can and do have people who oppose them arrested or killed (and Sisi’s enforcers also torture people). Yet they feel the need to go through these fake democratic elections in order to validate their rule.

The charade goes even further in many African countries. At some point in the past, often after popular protests or even a revolution, term limits were imposed on the presidency, but later the man in power (it’s always a man) realises that he actually wants to rule the country for life. Once again, however, abolishing the term limits is done with due ‘democratic’ decorum, generally involving a state-managed referendum.

China is the latest dictatorship to end term limits, making Xi Jinping in effect president-for-life, although it skipped the referendum part. Indeed, even China pretends to be a democracy, more or less, although the Communist Party must always be in the ‘leading role’ and there are no direct national elections. Why do they go through all this rigmarole, when the outcome is invariably a foregone conclusion?

Egypt’s pharohs felt no need to ask the people’s opinions on their performance as rulers. The kings of 18th-century Europe ruled by ‘divine right’, not by the popular will (and they didn’t actually ask God’s opinion on their performance either). But at some point in the past century, democracy has won the argument world-wide.

It has not won all the power struggles, and many dictators survive in practice, but they are all obliged to pretend to have popular support. This is a very big change from the past, when tyrannical power was generally based on a combination of religious authority and brutal armed force. Why, and in particular why now?

The anthropologists may have an answer. It is now pretty widely agreed in their profession that pre-civilised human beings almost all lived in bands where all adult men, at least, were treated as equals, and all had an equal right to share in decision-making. They even had well-established methods for making sure that nobody got too big for his boots.

These primitive ‘democracies’ all collapsed in the early stages of civilisation, when the huge rise in population (from dozens to millions in a thousand years) made it physically impossible for everybody to take part in the discussion about means and ends any more.

At the same time all the traditional social controls that kept ambitious people from seizing power failed too. You can’t shame people into respecting the opinions and personal freedoms of other people if the numbers get so big that you don’t even know them personally. Result: five thousand years of tyranny.

But give these mass societies mass media, and they regain the ability to communicate with one another. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that they want to be treated as equals again. The first successful democratic revolution happened in the American colonies in 1776 because printing presses were everywhere, and over half the population was literate.

Now mass media are everywhere, and even the dictators have to pretend that they are in power by the will of the people. It will be a long time before they actually disappear (if they ever do), but they already rule less than half of the world’s people, and they all have to go through a charade of democracy to legitimise their rule.

When the first results of the Russian election were coming in last week, a reporter asked Vladimir Putin if he would run again in six years’ time. “What you are saying is a bit funny,” Putin replied. “Do you think that I will stay here until I’m 100 years old? No.” But that’s what Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former ruler, would also have said when he had been in power for only eighteen years.

In the end Mugabe stayed in power for 37 years, and he was 93 and planning to run for another term when he was finally overthrown last year. Putin would be a mere 85 years old when he broke Mugabe’s record, although China’s Xi Jinping would have to live until he was 97 to do the same. I’ll bet neither one makes it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The charade…conclusion”)

Changing the Guard in China

31 October 2012

Changing the Guard in China

By Gwynne Dyer

By the end of November 6, we will know who will be the president of the United States for the next four years. We already know who will be the leader of China for the next ten years, although Xi Jinping will not be officially installed in power until a few days later. But some would argue that that is the more important event.

The United States, after all, is a rich country with a stable and democratic political system. American politics has suffered a severe case of gridlock in recent years, but nobody believes that it should be solved by radical changes in the US constitution. Any changes that result from the outcome of next Tuesday’s election will be marginal, because that’s the way that most Americans want it.

China, by contrast, has had thirty years of high-speed economic growth that has created huge inequality.There are a million Chinese millionaires, most of them closely linked to the ruling party, while most people get by on around $250 a month. Yet there has been no perceptible change in the Chinese political system in all these years, and the new guy’s family is stinking rich.

Bloomberg revealed last June that Xi Jinping’s elder sister, his brother-in-law, and their daughter had property and investments worth at least $300 million. There is no evidence that Xi himself, who gets a ministerial salary of about $1,000 a month, is directly involved in these enterprises, but his family’s rise to great wealth is typical of what has been happening in the senior cadres of the Chinese Communist Party.

Indeed, the outgoing prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has an even bigger family problem. Wikipedia published a US diplomatic cable dated 2007 that quoted a business executive in Shanghai who said: “Wen is disgusted with his family’s activities, but is either unable or unwilling to curtail them.” A New York Times investigation published this month estimated the Wen family’s wealth at $2.7 billion.

Both of these men’s wealth problems were dwarfed by those of the now-disgraced Bo Xilai, until recently the Communist Party chief in the city of Chongqing. The family’s wealth was only in the low hundreds of millions, but when Bo’s wife Gu Kailai fell out with a British businessman who helped them to transfer money abroad, she had him killed.

Even among the Chinese elite, this is seen as excessive, and Gu is on trial for murder. Bo has been stripped of his offices and expelled from the Party. But everybody knows that the families of senior officials mysteriously often end up very rich.

Not all of the 2,987 members of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, are rich – but the richest seventy of them, according to the Hurun Report, a magazine best known for its “China Rich List”, have a combined net worth of $85 billion.

Virtually nobody believes in the old Communist ideology any more: “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is only another way of saying “capitalism plus authoritarianism.” The Party’s power survives because it has been able to deliver steadily rising living standards for most people, and because it has been fairly successful in persuading them that the only alternative to its rule is chaos.

This is not a stable situation. No capitalist economy can avoid an occasional recession, but that kind of cyclical decline in jobs and incomes is dangerous for a system whose credibility depends on providing continuous growth. The Chinese regime has been very good at postponing the inevitable – it escaped the 2008 recession by massive public spending – but at some point in the relatively near future, there will be a major recession in China.

The resemblance between the current Chinese economic bubble and the great Japanese bubble of the 1980s is close enough to suggest that the hangover may be just as great in China when the bubble finally bursts. Two decades later Japan is still unable to get its economy growing again, but its political system has survived because it is democratic, and because the level of corruption is relatively low.

The Chinese regime’s lack of democratic legitimacy and its manifest corruption make it very vulnerable in such a situation. The economic misery would be compounded by massive civil unrest, and it might even bring the end of Communist rule.

Most of the senior people in the Party will be well aware of this, but they seem incapable of doing anything about it. Part of the problem is that they remember all too clearly what happened to the old Soviet Communist Party when it started trying to reform itself under Mikhail Gorbachev. It disintegrated instead.

An even bigger obstacle to change is the degree to which the economic interests of the elite are linked to the present, deeply corrupt system. If apparently honest men like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping are unable to control the reckless greed of their own relatives, what hope is there that the Party can change its behaviour in time to avert disaster?

The coronation of Xi Jinping probably won’t make any difference at all. You might as well watch the American election. At least there is some uncertainty about the outcome.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“Both…rich”; and “The resemblance…low”)