China and Italy: Now featuring the emperor and the clown


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

This week, the Italian electorate reenergized the populist insurgency spreading across Western democracies that began with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Voters made the Five Star Movement, co-founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the majority party in Italy, with the far-right League party in second place. In China, the National People’s Congress is set to elevate President Xi Jinping on Sunday to the status of emperor by removing the term limits that guaranteed an orderly succession and transfer of power, thereby allowing him to rule indefinitely.

The clown and the emperor mark the polar opposites of sweeping political change gripping the world today.

The populists in Italy skillfully exploited a hodgepodge of popular disaffections — joblessness and anti-European Union, anti-elite and anti-immigrant sentiment — to achieve victory at the polls. Yet they have neither a clear program nor a parliamentary majority — thanks to the rejection of a constitutional reform last year — to address the public’s justifiable anger and frustration. It may take months to form a ruling coalition, if that can be accomplished at all. “Ungovernable Italy,” screamed the headline in La Stampa, one of the country’s leading newspapers.

China’s “red emperor” and his one-party system, by contrast, have a 30-year plan already underway. That plan entails the shift from an export-led growth model to one based on household consumption and transformation of industry through the “Internet of Things.” It also includes building out a new Silk Road trading route across Eurasia, leading the global competition in artificial intelligence, tackling climate change and ending poverty while establishing a “moderately prosperous society” — all with a mounting military budget to match.

Strong, decisive and constant leadership is essential for effective governance in turbulent times, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt demonstrated when he was elected for an unprecedented four terms in America’s World War II era. But personalist rule without any restraints, as Xi is being granted, is positively detrimental because there is no corrective mechanism to change course, no off ramp if the chosen path is misguided. Government, whether by dictators or by democrats who win a majority in elections, is the “positive” — the power to act. Constitutional rule is the “negative” — the institutionalized capacity to modify or arrest action.

“The rules that have just been tossed out the window were the result of China’s own painful experience during the Cultural Revolution,” Francis Fukuyama writes in The WorldPost on Xi’s new status. “The weakness of the country’s traditional authoritarian political system has for centuries been called the ‘bad emperor’ problem. A dictatorship with few checks and balances on executive power, like independent courts, a free media or an elected legislature, can do amazing things when the emperor is good: think of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew during the early years of Singapore’s growth. The downfall of earlier Chinese regimes has been the emergence of a bad emperor, who could plunge the country into terrible crisis since there were no effective limits on his or (as in the case of the Tang Dynasty’s ‘Evil Empress Wu’) her power.”

Fukuyama continues: “The last bad emperor that China had was Mao Zedong. Mao liberated the country from foreign occupation but then went on to trigger two enormous catastrophes: the Great Leap Forward starting in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution starting in the late 1960s. The latter set China back a generation and scarred the elites who endured it. Collective leadership emerged as a direct reaction to that experience: Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders of the party vowed that they would never let a single individual accumulate as much charismatic power as Mao.” Until now.

One might add that Xi today is more formidable than Mao ever was. Mao was the all-powerful leader of a weak country just getting up off its knees. Xi is the all-powerful leader of a nation standing tall and on track to become the world’s largest economy.

Those in the West who value freedom and open societies are rightly alarmed at Xi’s personal consolidation of power and its totalitarian potential. Yet, if China’s reform path so far is any indication, they should also grasp that change in the Middle Kingdom cannot be made from the outside; change can only take place and endure if those who make it own it. That expectation as well needs to be tempered in Western minds. As the late Lee Kuan Yew often insisted in our conversations, China will never become a democracy nor an honorary member of the West. The only relevant contribution the West can make to affect China’s course going forward would be to demonstrate through our own institutional innovations that inclusive policies and an effective governing consensus can be achieved by other than authoritarian means.

We have much work to do on that score, which brings us back to Italy’s populist revolt, the latest symptom of the contemporary decay and dysfunction of Western democracy. Former Italian prime minister Mario Monti lays the solid victory of populism at the feet of the political establishment’s corruption, incompetence and weakness. “A largely justified discontent, especially in the south, has erupted in an unprecedented political shake-up,” he writes from Milan.

“Italy’s economy has improved only very modestly and slowly after the 2011-2012 financial crisis, when the overarching priorities were to prevent the default of the state and to avoid ending up like Greece,” Monti continues. “That objective was achieved, but policy priorities in subsequent years were not sufficiently focused on stimulating growth and employment, particularly for young people. Greater efforts should have been deployed to fight tax evasion and corruption and to cut the privileges and rents enjoyed by the myriad of organized interests that amount to a straightjacket for young people, leading many youth to expatriate and others to give up hope.”

Monti also blames the centrist parties for fanning the anti-E.U. animus of voters. “This huge turmoil, which is going to create yet another nightmare for the E.U., cannot be labeled simply as a triumph of Italian euroskeptic populists,” the non-politician who headed Italy’s caretaker technocratic government from 2011 to 2013 points out. “It is also the unintended result of the devious attitude and ambiguous language toward the E.U. used by the leaders of two supposedly non-populist parties … by blaming Europe for nearly everything that went wrong during their respective times in government, Berlusconi and Renzi paved the way for [the League’s Matteo] Salvini and the Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio by instilling into the minds of Italians for years the anti-E.U. reflex.”

Italy and by extension Europe — since Italy is a key E.U. member — will now join the British and the Americans in a protracted period of political chaos and instability. Meanwhile, China moves on, its momentum fueled by the deepening vacuum of global leadership. As the West struggles to get its act together, the arc of history is being sketched out by others. When populism inevitably exhausts its course, the best hope is for a politics aimed at renovating the decaying institutions of democracy so that open societies can once again offer a robust alternative to autocracy.

Satellite help for kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria 

Also this week, former British prime minister Gordon Brown discusses a horrific new kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram and efforts he supports by Nigeria’s president to secure satellites and other means of surveillance, search and rescue to find the girls.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.