Ideas

China, Deconstructing Xi Jinping's Imperial Temptation

By becoming president for life, Xi Jinping is bringing China back to its imperial history, taking advantage of the exceptional development of his country but also of America's mistakes. But Chinese coming fortunes are still very much up in the air.

Xi dynasty
Dominique Moisi

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton's famous remark comes quickly to mind after China's decision to remove term limits for its president. From now on Xi Jinping can be considered "president for life."

In a democracy, the more personalized a regime is, the more fragile it tends to become. But does this warning also apply to authoritarian regimes? Isn't China's "institutional revolution" simply the product of an inevitable evolution that reinforces — as the Chinese would say — a harmonious mix of centralization, and thus of additional rationality?

It's clear that contrary to the hopes, or rather the illusions, of many Westerners, capitalist China is not progressing towards "our" model of liberal democracy. It perceives this model as structurally dysfunctional. China now presents itself as an almost perfect form of the absolutist counter-model that draws from its past, now more than ever, to find the keys to its future. It sees no contradictions between digital revolution and imperial restoration, quite the opposite. Since China reached greatness through its Empire, it is by returning to a form of imperial system that it will regain its rightful place in the international system — the first place, of course.

This spectacular return of China to the world's economic, strategic, political and henceforth ideological stage is at least as much the product of our involuntary assistance as it is the result of positive efforts made by the Chinese themselves. On four occasions over the past 15 years, the Western world — and especially the United States — has done everything in its power to propel China to its current position.

First, there was the massive strategic error in 2003 of invading of Iraq by the United States and some of its allies, most notably Britain. Then came financial and economic recklessness and blindness from 2007 onwards, followed by the return of populisms in our democratic systems. And now, the spectre of a trade war, which divides and weakens the Western world more than it actually threatens China. Everything is happening as if we were rushing to pass on the torch of history, from our uncertain and wavering hands straight into China's.

Longevity is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, even in autocratic regimes.

To understand the dramatic change in the course of history — for China, as well as for the world — we must go back to the late 1970s. In the aftermath of Mao Zedong"s death, the establishment of a collective power at China's helm, at the instigation of Deng Xiaoping, was intended to protect the country from the downward slide of power when it's held by a single man. The bloody excesses of the Cultural Revolution were dominating the minds of the new leaders.

In 2018, on the contrary, everything is happening as if the priority is to protect the new emperor from the risks of revenge from all those — and there are many of them — who have been the victims of the anti-corruption struggle, which Xi Jinping has led with determination, if not brutality. But by moving away from Deng Xiaoping, and getting closer to Vladimir Putin (the new czar), is Xi (the new emperor) really giving himself the means to consolidate the Party's power and China's influence in the world? Or should we fear the negative long-term impact of this revolution on the future of the Chinese Communist Party and China as a whole?

Even though the great China has absolutely nothing to do with little Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's recent example is a resounding demonstration that longevity is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, even in autocratic regimes.

Xi Jinping painting — Source: Surian Soosay

As the accumulation of his powers and the mass of his flatterers gradually isolate him from reality, doesn't any despot inevitably become less and less enlightened over the years — provided he ever was enlightened?

The experience of having all powers concentrated around one man is probably less the product of a Leninist, centralizing vision than the consequence of China's deliberate return to its history.

Beijing is convinced — and rightly so — that, in human history, democracy is the exception and authoritarianism, more or less absolute, the norm. There is no more sense of progress based on a mixture of hope and universalism. The democratic model isn't universal and it demonstrates its own limitations: "What's good for you isn't good for me; and, by the way, is it even really good for you?"

Can a people humiliated by the West during the 19th and early 20th centuries fully recover its identity through the sole path of returning to its past and what is the most essential part of Chinese History, its imperial tradition?

Democracy is the exception and authoritarianism, the norm.

The problem is that this fascination with the greatness of absolute power is full of contradictions. Of the 282 emperors who led China in its long history, fewer than half died of natural causes.

Today, largely thanks to Donald Trump, China's image prevails in many countries, including democratic ones, over that of the United States. But will China's soft power be strengthened by this institutional revolution? By becoming commonplace and becoming the Chinese equivalent of what Putin and Erdogan are in Russia and Turkey, doesn't Xi risk calling into question the Chinese exception at a time when he intends to protect it?

The challenge posed by China is not only economic and strategic, but also political. It must lead us to "reinvent democracy," first and foremost for ourselves.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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