Weekend Roundup: American Democracy’s Downside Parallels China’s ‘Bad Emperor’ Problem


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

Donald Trump, a xenophobe and liar with no governing experience, could become the leader of the world’s most powerful nation after next week’s American election. That prospect scares the living daylights out of people around the planet, as these comments from HuffPost’s international editions indicate. 

That the vile campaign Trump waged could carry him so far calls into question even Winston Churchill’s withering assessment that, “democracy is the worst system devised by wit of man, except for all the others.” The hoary contention in basic civics texts that “anyone” can become president of the United States turns out, unfortunately, to be all too true. There has to be a better way for a globally consequential nation to choose its leaders. Something is profoundly wrong if spewing out insulting tweets can pave the way to the doorstep of the White House.

In a provocative essay earlier this year in The WorldPost, Beijing-based philosopher Daniel Bell argued that the meritocratic features of China’s one-party system produce more competent leaders than the United States. No one gets anywhere near the top without first being tested through long years of governing a number of Chinese provinces, he notes, many of which are larger and more populous than most European states.

Following that approach, China’s Communist Party Central Committee convened last week to discuss who to promote up the ranks so they are positioned well ahead of time to take on a future leadership role. As Choi Chi-yuk reports from Hong Kong, the rising star who has emerged as a potential successor to President Xi Jinping is the party chief of Xinjiang region, Chen Quanguo. Apparently, he distinguished himself in the eyes of party elders through his hard-line rule during five years at his previous post in Tibet, Chi-yuk says. This system of selection that assures continuity in governance has enabled the Middle Kingdom to rise out of mass poverty more rapidly than any society in history. On the obvious downside, the stress on maintaining stability also entails suppression of ethnic autonomy and the crackdown on civil society.

The party conclave last week further elevated President Xi Jinping to the status of “core leader,” prompting many to fear that a new Mao-like strongman is in the making. Cheng Li and Zachary Balin caution against this conclusion. Xi remains bound, they insist, by the norms of collective leadership and prohibitions against “adulation” that would foster a cult of personality.

Hopefully they are right. But Xi’s steady accumulation of authority exposes the Achilles’ heel of China’s system: the “bad emperor” problem that could arise from the lack of formally institutionalized checks on the top leader. That American democracy may be producing a calamitous president of its own through the opposite path of popular elections suggests both systems are in need of reform. To take up Churchill’s implicit challenge, the alternative governing arrangement overall would combine elements of meritocratic selection with popular elections. That would place the odds on choosing the best leaders while constraining their power.

HuffPost Reporters Dana Liebelson and Matt Ferner point out that, win or lose, Trump’s campaign has stirred reactionary forces that won’t now easily be contained. “Trump has unleashed forces ― forces much bigger than he is ― that simply can’t be put back into the bottle,”  they quote Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, as saying. Steven Greenhouse doubts that Trump will be able to deliver on his simplistic promises to create new American jobs if he reaches the White House. “There is no miracle policy for creating or bringing back millions of jobs,” he writes. “It’s a long slog that will take innovation, investment, smart policy and hard work, lots of it.” Akbar Ahmed muses over the irony that Trump’s Islamophobia ended up casting a spotlight on the contributions American Muslims have made, helping to normalize their image as citizens instead of only being defined by their religion and the negative stereotypes that have come to be associated with it.

In neighboring Canada, meanwhile, an anti-Islamophobia motion was passed. World Reporter Jesselyn Cook reviews the “anti-Trump” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first year in office and reports that, according to one recent poll, 2 out of 3 Canadians are satisfied with his leadership.

Turning to the world’s hot conflict zones, Christian Borys reports from Marinka, Ukraine that some soldiers on the front lines of the battle against Russian-backed separatists are beginning to doubt their cause. WorldPost Middle East Correspondent Sophia Jones reports from Debaga Camp, Iraq that civilians fleeing the self-proclaimed Islamic State are ending up in prison-like detention while they await security screening. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy gives a dispatch from the front lines of the assault on Mosul, where he has been encamped with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. As the post-coup crackdown tension continues to grow, Turkey’s justice minister tells Ilgin Yorulmaz that the purge in his country is not “100 percent over,” and that he believes America will ultimately extradite exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen because, “the U.S. will not choose a terrorist over Turkey.”

Writing from Sanaa, Yemen, Mercy Corps’ Maia Baldauf describes what it’s like to be an aid worker on the ground amidst relentless bombings and heartbreaking health crises. “The scale of the conflict,” she says, “is staggering.” But even then, she says, there’s moments of warmth and reconciliation that provide hope for a better future ― if the international community lends a greater hand. 

Writing from Manila, Rommel Banlaoi discusses how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is pursuing a deliberate strategy of ambiguity toward both the U.S. and China in order to leverage the benefits of each for his country. 

Looking at the history of kung fu in Africa, Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden explore in their podcast how the Hong Kong-produced films ― and Bruce Lee ― have made an impact on the continent in ways far greater than other Chinese media. 

Peter Katona worries that the “limp global response” to the rapid spread of the Zika virus portends a global health crisis. Last week the United Nations voted to begin negotiations on a global nuclear weapons ban. To remind us of the peril, The Future of Life Institute’s Ariel Conn interviews two experts on the devastating impact of nuclear weapons.

Anthony Pagden reviews philosopher Charles Taylor’s new book, “The Language Animal,” citing Taylor’s argument about how language is an “alive” and “flexible” tool that absorbs, expresses and “enframes” new experience. Taylor will receive the Berggruen Prize on Dec. 1 at the New York Public Library and engage in a conversation there with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Finally, our Singularity series this week projects that when humans finally get to Mars, they may find an environment much like an Antarctic winter.



EDITORS: Nathan Gardels, Co-Founder and Executive Advisor to the Berggruen Institute, is the Editor-in-Chief of The WorldPost. Kathleen Miles is the Executive Editor of The WorldPost. Farah Mohamed is the Managing Editor of The WorldPost. Alex Gardels and Peter Mellgard are the Associate Editors of The WorldPost. Suzanne Gaber is the Editorial Assistant of The WorldPost. Katie Nelson is News Director at The Huffington Post, overseeing The WorldPost and HuffPost’s news coverage. Nick Robins-Early and Jesselyn Cook are World Reporters. Rowaida Abdelaziz is World Social Media Editor.

CORRESPONDENTS: Sophia Jones in Istanbul.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Nicolas Berggruen, Nathan Gardels, Arianna Huffington, Eric Schmidt (Google Inc.), Pierre Omidyar (First Look Media), Juan Luis Cebrian (El Pais/PRISA), Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute/TIME-CNN), John Elkann (Corriere della Sera, La Stampa), Wadah Khanfar (Al Jazeera), Dileep Padgaonkar (Times of India) and Yoichi Funabashi (Asahi Shimbun).


CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Moises Naim (former editor of Foreign Policy), Nayan Chanda (Yale/Global; Far Eastern Economic Review) and Katherine Keating (One-On-One). Sergio Munoz Bata and Parag Khannaare Contributing Editors-At-Large.

The Asia Society and its ChinaFile, edited by Orville Schell, is our primary partner on Asia coverage. Eric X. Li and the Chunqiu Institute/Fudan University in Shanghai and Guancha.cn also provide first person voices from China. We also draw on the content of China Digital Times. Seung-yoon Lee is The WorldPost link in South Korea.

Jared Cohen of Google Ideas provides regular commentary from young thinkers, leaders and activists around the globe. Bruce Mau provides regular columns from MassiveChangeNetwork.com on the “whole mind” way of thinking. Patrick Soon-Shiong is Contributing Editor for Health and Medicine.

ADVISORY COUNCIL: Members of the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council and Council for the Future of Europe serve as theAdvisory Council — as well as regular contributors — to the site. These include, Jacques Attali, Shaukat Aziz, Gordon Brown, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Juan Luis Cebrian, Jack Dorsey, Mohamed El-Erian, Francis Fukuyama, Felipe Gonzalez, John Gray, Reid Hoffman, Fred Hu, Mo Ibrahim, Alexei KudrinPascal Lamy, Kishore Mahbubani, Alain Minc, Dambisa Moyo, Laura Tyson, Elon MuskPierre Omidyar, Raghuram Rajan, Nouriel RoubiniNicolas SarkozyEric Schmidt, Gerhard Schroeder, Peter SchwartzAmartya SenJeff Skoll, Michael Spence, Joe Stiglitz, Larry SummersWu Jianmin, George Yeo, Fareed Zakaria, Ernesto Zedillo, Ahmed Zewail and Zheng Bijian.

From the Europe group, these include: Marek Belka, Tony BlairJacques Delors, Niall Ferguson, Anthony Giddens, Otmar IssingMario MontiRobert Mundell, Peter Sutherland and Guy Verhofstadt.


The WorldPost is a global media bridge that seeks to connect the world and connect the dots. Gathering together top editors and first person contributors from all corners of the planet, we aspire to be the one publication where the whole world meets.

We not only deliver breaking news from the best sources with original reportage on the ground and user-generated content; we bring the best minds and most authoritative as well as fresh and new voices together to make sense of events from a global perspective looking around, not a national perspective looking out.