x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

In a year of looming change, it's China's turn to adjust

If China once had the magic formula of combining undemocratic rule with strong economic growth, it is now in danger of losing it.

This is the year of elections, with the leaders of the US, Russia, France and China all set to be replaced or receive a new mandate. Arguably it is the transition to a new generation of Chinese leadership, following the expected retirement of Hu Jintao in October as party leader, which is likely to have the greatest effect on the world.

Chinese politics still takes place largely behind closed doors within the confines of the one-party state. But if a Chinese person wanted to see if other countries organise these things better, now is the ideal time.

To start with the US, our Chinese observer could not fail to be puzzled by the spectacle of the Republican primaries, where the opposition party chooses a candidate to stand against President Barack Obama in November. The candidates seem to live in a virtual reality world, where issues of personal morality and belief trump any meaningful ideas of rescuing the country from its myriad challenges.

Rick Santorum, the former senator and second-placed challenger, famously denies that there are any Palestinians in the West Bank. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives and an outside challenger, insists that the Palestinians are an "invented" people. Mr Santorum's electoral pull is his extreme social conservatism: he home-schools his children. A choice which would seem weird in other countries is electoral gold for the Republicans.

As the editor of Slate, Jacob Weisberg, puts it, the Republican party, at a time when it ought to be able to unseat Mr Obama with the greatest of ease, is "dominated by its activist extreme ... and deaf to reason about the country's fiscal choices".

No less puzzling is the European Union, supposed home of democracy, where Germany and France have deposed the elected governments of Greece and Italy and replaced them with technocrats acceptable to the international financial community. What would the people of France, who have a presidential election this spring, think if the man they chose was swept aside? European Democracy these days is a fig leaf for the old principle of the rule of the powerful.

But there is worse. Democracy in Europe has proved to be a flower-strewn path to hell. With every election, the winning party promises to raise the standard of living, which can only be done by getting deeper into debt. In the past this was done by governments borrowing, more recently by encouraging people to borrow on their own account, leading to the crisis that could blow apart the euro zone.

Surveying the Arabs, our Chinese observer, with fresh memories of his country's weakness and exploitation by foreign powers in the 19th century, would shudder. The republican dynasties of Egypt and Syria simply ran out of energy and ideas, leading to revolution and impoverishment in the former, and what looks like civil war in the latter.

As for Russia, the problems of Vladimir Putin, who is presenting himself for a third time as president of Russia in March, our Chinese observer might mutter a brief: "I told you so."

China has always argued that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union made a historic error in 1991 by dissolving itself and opening the way for "democracy", which meant inviting carpet-baggers to rob the country. In the Chinese view, if a country needs to move to a market economy, then there is no better group of people to oversee this process than the communists.

Mr Putin once enjoyed high levels of popular support, but in December he had to rig elections to fill the Duma, or parliament, with his party, United Russia. In a rare sign of political boldness, United Russia is memorably eulogised on cars and graffiti as "the party of crooks and thieves". Now that there is a camera phone in every pocket, Mr Putin's men have been caught red-handed in falsifying the vote.

So even Mr Putin's "sovereign democracy" - that is, democracy as a safety valve rather than a means to change the ruling elite - has crashed into the new spirit of people power.

Looking at all of this, our Chinese observer might conclude that his country is safest with the old ways of choosing leaders behind closed doors, avoiding populism and unrealistic promises. But the picture is not so simple.

Look at events in the Chinese village of Wukan, where residents drove out the police and put up barricades in protest at a corrupt property deal in which local officials profited. In the past, the police would have dealt with the insurgent village in short order. But with the country and the whole world looking, provincial officials went to negotiate. So even China is getting harder to rule in the modern, wired world.

To sum up what has changed is not easy, but one thing is clear: all over the world, the balance of power between protesters and authority has changed in favour of the protester.

With modern communications, people have gained the power of a network that is now as strong as, or stronger than, a hierarchy like a state. They have phones to counter the propaganda of the state, and can transmit pictures and videos to rouse the emotions of like-minded people. In the words of BBC journalist Paul Mason, in a forthcoming book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, "a network can usually defeat a hierarchy".

This does not mean we will see revolutions everywhere, for even networked protests are often leaderless and lack clear goals. They can fizzle out, as in the case of the Occupy movements in Europe and the US, or be hijacked by more single-minded groups, as in the case of Egypt.

But it does mean that no government, except perhaps North Korea, can take its people for granted.

If China once had the magic formula of combining undemocratic rule with strong economic growth, it is in danger of losing it. Its leaders cannot just guide the country to prosperity, but have to take note of networked anger in every village. That is why the choice of the next generation of Chinese leaders will be something that everyone has to pay attention to.



Follow him on Twitter: @aphilps