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With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen

“Thirty years ago, with what Xi did, with what Erdogan has done, there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path,’ and so on,” said Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist and diplomat who, before serving as the American ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, wrote extensively on building democracies.

“Nobody is making that argument today,” he added, “certainly not Trump.”

Almost no one would have described China as genuinely democratic before the latest move, which was announced without fanfare on Sunday; the country remains a one-party state with extensive control over political, social and economic life.


Mr. Xi joins Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, all of whom have abandoned all but the flimsiest pretenses that they rule according to the people’s will. Credit Carlos Barria/Reuters

Even so, Mr. Xi’s gambit ended a period of collective and term-limited leadership begun by Jiang Zemin, who held the same post as Mr. Xi from 1993 to 2003, that many had hoped was leading China toward greater rule of law and openness. Sunday’s move confirms a growing view that those expectations were probably naïve, some say.

“We’re deluded in our conviction that everybody is going to become a democracy like us,” Merriden Varrall, the director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said.

Mr. Xi, who will be 69 when his second five-year term ends in 2023, is not simply following the example set by Mr. Putin or other leaders, she and other experts said. His motivations are unique to Chinese history and politics. Yet, they were deeply shaped by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

Those historical milestones ushered in an era of expanding political and economic freedoms. Mr. McFaul said that for nearly a quarter of a century autocratic leaders “had to play defense” against the democratizing trend that seized the post-Cold War order.

Strongman on the Rise

Even the Russia that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union adopted a democratic constitution and instituted free elections. Whatever the chaos of Boris N. Yeltsin’s era in 1990s, democracy was taking root when Mr. Putin came to power — in a relatively free and fair election, no less.

The rumination of Francis Fukuyama, the scholar, has come up repeatedly. In a famous essay titled “The End of History?” (note the question mark), he argued that Western liberal democracy had become recognized as “the final form of human government.”

“The end of history is no more,” Brad W. Setser, a Treasury official during the Obama administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a message after news emerged of Mr. Xi’s move.

In hindsight, Mr. Putin was the vanguard of what Mr. McFaul called the “illiberal international,” a new version of the Communist International founded by Lenin to spread communism around the world.


Mr. Xi has ended a period of collective leadership begun by Jiang Zemin two decades earlier that many had hoped was leading China closer to rule of law and democracy. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Authoritarian leaders now act with greater impunity — or at least less worry about international isolation. Aspiring authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary in turn seem enticed by the kind power Mr. Putin or Mr. Xi wield, untroubled by the need to compromise or consult or, in the case of corruption and cronyism, to answer for evidence of misrule and malfeasance.

President Trump’s critics say that while he may not yet have eroded democracy in the United States, his populist appeals and nativist policies, his palpable aversion to the media and traditional checks on power, and his stated admiration for some of the strongest of strongmen are cut from the same cloth.

The trend toward authoritarianism, while specific to each country’s history, is rooted in insecurities and fears afflicting the world today: globalization and rising inequality, the stunning and scary advances in technology, the disorienting chaos and extreme violence of civil wars like Syria’s, separatism and terror.

The institutions of the post-Cold War — which reflected the bedrock values of Western liberalism — no longer seem able to cope. Countries that once were beacons for others are consumed by the same anxiety and weakness, and internal strife.


The trend toward authoritarianism is rooted in insecurities and fears afflicting the world today: globalization and rising inequality, disruptive advances in technology, extreme violence, separatism and terror. Credit Roman Pilipey/European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Putin has long cited such flaws to shore up his power at home; the campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States seemed intended, in the first place, to discredit American democracy still more.

“Liberal democracies in the United States and even in Europe no longer look like such an inspiring model for others to follow,” said Mr. McFaul, whose book on his experience shepherding Russian policy in the Obama administration, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” will be published in May.

From China’s perspective, the end of the Cold War was hardly an inspiration, having led to the toppling of one-party dictatorships. The “contagion” of 1989, which saw popular protesters bring down Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe, infected China, too. A few months before the Berlin Wall came down, Chinese students massing in Tiananmen Square posed what officials in Beijing viewed as an existential threat, a legacy that continues to color everything the government does to this day.

“If anything gives Xi Jinping and the party nightmares, it is perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union,” Ms. Varrall said, referring to the reforms the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, sought before the system unraveled.

Mr. Xi, as a result, believes that only stability can ensure his vision of China’s revival and emergence as the world’s power. “He seems to genuinely believe that he’s the only person who can achieve this vision,” she said. In last fall’s Communist Party congress, Mr. Xi even presented China as a new model for the developing world — a thinly veiled argument that the United States and Europe were no longer as attractive as they once were.

The need for a strong grip appears to be a long-held conviction of Mr. Xi’s. According to a 2009 diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, an old associate told the American ambassador in Beijing at the time, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., that as a son of one of China’s communist revolutionary leaders, Mr. Xi was an elitist who believed deeply in the unwavering authority of the party.

“One cannot entirely escape one’s past,” the associate said. “Xi does not want to.”

Source: NYT > World

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