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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

China turns away from Democracy

While many people have been fixated on the leadership challenge currently going on in the National Party, spare a thought for what has just happened in China where Xi Jinping just became leader for life by removing the two (five year) term limits on his leadership.

While not a democracy in any way shape or form before, the term limits (much in the same vein as those of the US presidency) were at least a brake on attempts at unbridled power by those who would, for all intents and purposes, become the new Emperor of China.

Now, with those gone, Xi Jinping can rule as long as he likes; just like all those other benevolent despots such as Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un, Hun Sen and Vladimir Putin and now China looks a lot more like its crazy neighbor, North Korea.

Of course not everyone in China is down with this move, both the public and possibly other factions in the political elite, are unlikely to be fooled by the propaganda and heavy censorship of criticism of the move.

Many people will look at this and say “who cares” but when a significant portion of the planets population is under the rule of one person and one person only you need only scant recourse to history to see what could possibly go wrong.

And anyone with even the most basic shred of knowledge of China need only look back 50 years to see how things were under Mao Tse Tung to know that China under the rule of one can go rabid and dangerous very quick with no recourse to any limits on what madness can transpire (ie the Cultural Revolution).

And National MPs going into the caucus today may wish to keep this information in the back of their heads when choosing who to vote for as the next leader of the National Party as while NZ is a democracy (with limits on power) there is more than one candidate lining up today who looks and sounds like they would rule for life if given half a chance (Judith Collins I am looking at you).

So the mantra for today is: be thankful you live in a democracy where there are limits on power and your leader today may not be leader tomorrow.

Note - If your wondering why the image of Winnie the Poo, click here.


  1. " when a significant portion of the planets population is under the rule of one person and one person only"

    Is it, though? China is not a personalised dictatorship, there is no significant cult of personality around the leader, and the real locus of power lies in collegial institutions like the Central Military Commission and the Standing Committee, on which Xi is formally just another member. It's possible that informally he is more powerful than this, but we don't know.

    In the past, when the regime has been tested, its decision making has definitely been collegial. (Think Tianamen Square) There hasn't been a serious such test during Xi's years as leader, but it is entirely possible that, for all Xi's swaggering on the world stage, he is more of the public face/first-among-equals of the cadre of party grandees than he is the sole leader and decision making body.

  2. Really? He gets his name inserted into the party legacy docs on the same level as Mao and Deng and you think he is aiming to be first among equals.

    Was Mao first among equals also then?

    The two term limits were a direct response to prevent the power grabbing of Mao's time so if they are being removed by Xi do you really think he is aiming to be first among equals?

    Xi might have to share power now with others but I don't think his aim is to continue to do so given these actions, his anti corruption drive has already caused concern that its targeting not just the corrupt but also potential challengers.

    Also "collegial" is not the word I would use for a situation like Tianamen Square.

  3. I'm not disputing Xi is aiming to increase his personal power, I'm just say, it is questionable whether he's achieved it. It is entirely possible he will go on to be China's formal leader until he dies but never achieve personal rule.

    Even Deng was not really an autocrat - as noted, during Tianamen Square, Deng did not have the final say on what happened.

    I think the word "collegial" is entirely applicable to Chinese government decision making in 1989.

    As an aside, thank you for allowing anonymous comments again. I know I said a lot of harsh things about your policy, but I'm willing to allow bygones to be bygones. I hope you are also.

  4. Granted he is not "emperor" yet but the intent of such move as to remove any restriction on term limits, or getting his "wisdom" enshrined up there with Mao and Deng, has all the intent of such a move.

    Whether he gets there or not is now the question but with the crack down on corruption and the potential side-effects of removing opposition he is taking many of the recommended steps right form the pages of the dictators handbook (centralize power, remove opponents, remove restrictions on length of rule, set your word/opinion up as infallible dogma etc).

    After Mao (and the gang of Four) China took steps to limit the person of the person at the top as a direct response to what Mao did but a) China has a long history of such figures and; b) as a result less/little tolerance or understanding for systems such as democracy or even autocracy.

    China has had kings, emperors, or warlords for much of its long history so its almost par for the course for Xi, but lets see how this plays out, my take is mostly pessimistic (as you can see).

    My issue with "collegial" is not one of practice but that of taste, yes technically the decision could be described as such but given its a massacre of peaceful protesters we are talking about I would want a less euphemistic word.

    I am going to allow anonymous comments again until we start getting more than one person using such a tag (as has been my concern all along) and it becomes impossible to determine who is who. Until that time you get to post under that name with a capital A.

    I don't have issue with you or dissenting opinions but as this thread has demonstrated we can discuss things without having to flames, I prefer it that way so welcome back.

  5. Given that you serve a regime in which the un-elected Head of State Elizabeth Windsor is there for life (having now held the position for 65 years) and there are no limits on the time that one can serve as Head of Government (Richard Seddon and Michael Savage both died in office) I am surprised that you can admonish China for allowing Xi Jin Ping to serve more than two five year terms as head of state. Limits on the time that a particular individual can serve in office are characteristic of an immature and unconfident democracy, as the United States was at the time of writing of its constitution, and the Russian Federation was at the time that it emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. Despite the claims of Kiwifirewalker and the western mass media, Xi Jin Ping has not been made "President for life" in China. The constitution is being amended to allow a President to serve more than two terms. There is a legitimate discussion to be had over whether that is a sign of political maturity or whether it is in fact premature but that discussion is primarily something for the Chinese people themselves to engage upon.

    Instead of throwing stones at China (which will have minimal impact) you could focus on the inconsistencies, flaws and downright iniquities of western democracy in general, and New Zealand democracy in particular. New Zealand could actually lead the world out of its current political malaise if New Zealanders would honestly face up to the failings and inconsistencies of their current system of government, and create a more robust democracy which could not so easily be perverted and degraded by vested interests.

    1. Cummon Geoff, lets not try and compare a regime like China with a figurehead like the Queen or King Dick as its rather superficial.

      I have bagged western democracy many time on this blog and when I was at KP but that does not mean China is in the same ball park, league or even sport as a western democracy.

      And lets not quibble over terms, president for life and removing the term limits on the presidency still end up with the same result if Xi Jinping gets his way.

      On the idea of term limits being the sign of an "immature" democracy I would have to vehemently disagree. Everything I have ever read or learnt about democracy, from Greece to the modern day, has set up Democracy in opposition to the two other main system of government (Oligarchy and Dictatorship) and finding means and limits for the capture of power by groups and individuals is a key component of that, which includes term limits.

      Also I disagree that criticism of China will have no effect, its important to hold any government to scrutiny and account and China is no exception. Just because its a one party state makes it all the more important that they be held to account as it does not have things like a free press or open society. They deserve to have their dirty laundry aired as much as any other.

    2. Are you saying that Richard Seddon was a figure head?
      There was no limit on the time that John Key could have served as Head of Government in New Zealand. He was reputedly popular and solidly in control of the government. Would you say that made him "effectively" Prime Minister for life? What is different about Xi Jinping? John Key had to face re-election at prescribed intervals as does Xi Jinping. Key's career ended in a way that surprised the political pundits, and Xi Jinping's career may also come to an unexpected end. I don't know what lies in store for him, and while you may have enjoyed some success as a forecaster of New Zealand politics, I don't think you really know the answer to that question yourself. The point is that the Chinese constitution does not make him President for life, and popularity tends to be ephemeral in politics.
      Do you believe in term limits or do you not? If you believe that there should be term limits, why should New Zealand be an exception to that rule?
      If Xi Jinping was a figure head ruler, would you think it OK for him to be made China's Head of State "for life" as Elizabeth Windsor is your Head of State "for life"?
      My own view is that in a mature democracy there is little to be gained from term limits, which are an infringement upon the sovereignty of the people, but that no one, whether a "figure head" or one who daily exercises executive power, should be in office "for life" (also an infringement of popular sovereignty). You may say that I am wrong, but at least I am consistent. I do not advocate one set of rules for New Zealand and a different lot for the rest of the world.
      I am not challenging your right to criticise China. I am saying that to be effective and beneficial the criticism should be fair, balanced, objective and unbiased. It would also help if you applied the same standards to your own regime. For example if you have a "free press" in New Zealand how was the content of the "security chiefs" memo on China so successfully kept out of the New Zealand mass media? What have you yourself done to bring that document to public attention in New Zealand?

    3. " John Key had to face re-election at prescribed intervals as does Xi Jinping."

      Elections in New Zealand do work fairly differently to elections in China. Notably, none of these elections have ever resulted in the Chinese communist party losing power, while political parties in New Zealand lose power quite regularly.

      I know you view New Zealand as a dictatorship but presumably you will concede that it operates quite differently to the Chinese dictatorship.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I don't think I have ever described New Zealand as a dictatorship. Of course the New Zealand and Chinese systems differ widely, though there are some intriguing parallels between them.
      The point is that limits on the number of terms that a Head of Government or Head of State may serve are a restriction upon popular sovereignty whereas elections a vehicle for that sovereignty. So the most democratic form of government would be one with no term limits and a system of continuous election. New Zealand never has elections for the office of Head of State, and does not directly elect its Head of Government but it does have triennial legislative elections which indirectly allow the population some influence over who shall become Head of Government. So while technically speaking New Zealand is a monarchy, it has some of the attributes of an indirect democracy.
      If the real objection is to the electoral process in China, then that is a separate issue which needs to be debated apart from the issue of term limits.

    6. "limits on the number of terms that a Head of Government or Head of State may serve are a restriction upon popular sovereignty"

      In theory. However, I'd say that, if we were going to discuss limits on popular sovereignty in China, term limits would not even be in the top ten limits it faces.

    7. I am no expert on the constitution of the PRC but if you were to put up your ten restrictions upon popular sovereignty in China, I might agree with you that the previously existing 2 term limit rule would not come top of the list. So given that, as you seem to be conceding, there is nothing intrinsically undemocratic about the change, I wonder why the western media has made such a bit issue of it. Perhaps just because right now, President Trump is promising a trade war and looking for any stick with which to beat the PRC.

    8. My point is exactly that it is not such a big deal, at least, not in and of itself.

      It's possible that if EA turns out to be right and Xi does become a personalist ruler, in retrospect we will look back at this point as an important milestone on his road to personal rule, but even if that is true, even hindsight will not be able to say that the termination of term limits -was- the ascension to personal rule. At most it is a building block, but other blocks remain to be built.

  6. "Limits on the time that a particular individual can serve in office are characteristic of an immature and unconfident democracy, as the United States was at the time of writing of its constitution"

    The US constitution as originally written did not contain presidential term limits. They were introduced in 1951.

    "Instead of throwing stones at China (which will have minimal impact)"...

    Do you think the hypothetical commentary EA were to make on NZ politics would have a greater-than-minimal impact?

    While we're at it, you often comment on US politics - isn't that just as pointless as EA's commentary on Chinese politics?

  7. Anonymous: I did not say that EA's commentary on China was pointless. I believe that it is appropriate and necessary to take note of the political situation in countries which, like China, are major global powers. However I believe EA's comments will have minimal impact in China, and while they may have a greater influence in New Zealand, I stand by the assertion that it is better to concentrate our efforts on constructive change at home.

    I hope that also answers the question relating to the relevance of comments I may have made on US politics (although your memory on that score must be better than mine, as I cannot recall any significant number myself).

    Thanks for pointing out the role of the 22nd amendment in the history of US presidential term limits. Prior to the 22nd amendment there was a convention, established by George Washington, encouraged by Thomas Jefferson, and enshrined in the constitutions of many US states, that limited the number of terms a president or delegate could serve. After F D Roosevelt departed from that convention, it was made mandatory through the federal constitutional amendment. So while you are technically correct, I think my own comment was a fair one, and America's young democracy was very much concerned with "rotation" or term limits.

    I can see the argument in favour of limits as a protection against Bonapartism. On the other hand term limits are in fact a limitation on the sovereignty of the people, and in a mature democracy they should not be necessary.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the existence of the convention.

      I think the difference between a convention that was unevenly observed, and a formal legal restriction, is more than a technical one. Especially since Roosevelt faced no real penalty for breaking the convention, which tends to show its strength was at best uneven - something you couldn't say about the legal prohibition.

    2. The distinction between a convention and a legal imperative or prohibition is important. Even a long standing and broadly accepted convention may be breached, and by definition no penalty penalty can be imposed, and no legal redress obtained. I do not dispute any of that, but simply maintain that the rotation convention in the US held until Roosevelt broke with it. If you are saying that conventions provide no firm assurance of democratic process then I would have to agree, and remark that New Zealand democracy survives on the basis of a set of conventions surrounding the offices of the sovereign, Governor-
      General and Prime Minister. So if you are saying that the distinction between convention and constitutional rule is important in the US, do you concede that it is also important in New Zealand?

    3. " by definition no penalty penalty can be imposed, and no legal redress obtained"

      No legal penalty, but you would expect an intangible (but still significant) penalty in terms of popularity. There's no sign that Roosevelt experienced that, indeed, he was more popular after he broke the convention.

      I would normally talk about the differences in strength between New Zealand's conventions and the USA's pre-1950s conventions. But I can see where this is going, to you trying to get me to concede that New Zealand is actually a monarchist autocracy in thrall to a foreign imperialist overlord, and frankly I have no interest in discussing that with you. I was trying to make a very limited point about term limits in the USA, and I've done that, so, bye!

    4. Politicians may become either popular or infamous when they breach conventions or even violate laws. It all depends upon the political circumstances of the time.
      Your reluctance to discuss constitutional conventions in New Zealand is entirely understandable. It is much safer to discuss the political system in the US or the PRC, and you would be on a hiding to nothing if you were so bold as to try to defend the colonial constitution to the present generation of New Zealanders.

    5. " you would be on a hiding to nothing if you were so bold as to try to defend the colonial constitution to the present generation of New Zealanders."

      Trying to claim somebody else's withdrawal from a discussion equals their conceding the point is a pretty dubious tactic, even by the standards of internet arguments. But since we are debating for an audience of nobody (I am sure E.A. long since checked out of our discussion, if he ever noticed it), please go ahead and award yourself a win.

      I will say, though, that whatever the merits of this constitution, the current generation seem pretty comfortable with it. Maybe they shouldn't be, but they are.