Nothing to learn from America, where demography beats democracy
AT LEAST with the Chinese decadal leadership change, the world will have to learn to spell new names. First Xi Jinping, the new and incoming party leader and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Second Li Keqiang, the incoming deputy party leader and new Chinese Premier. Both replace Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao respectively.
And there is pressure on the top dog – pressure from within, pressure from without – to change China, but without challenging its core, foundational economic tenet: that of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Of course the broke West, foremost indebted America – China’s own HPIC – would want to see, even instigate, fatal changes that would see the break up of China as we know it today, the same way Reagan collapsed the Soviet Union through Gorbachev from 1989 onwards.
America is threatened by China. It is dependent on it. Only in the haughty West do we get debtors telling lenders how to reform and run successful lending economies!
Guns that defeat butter
But the circumstances are different, radically different, and the West knows it. USSR built lots of guns, grew and ate very little butter, which is how its system ended up getting battered from within.
Soviet militarism was unsustainable. There was nothing with which to barter away the long-bottled but furiously hissing social tension, much of it irredentist. It is a lesson Putin has fully grasped, a mistake rising Russia will not repeat in its rise.
Not with China, itself an older civilisation quite alive to the dictum that it is always the belly, never the brain, that triggers social upheavals, that upsets social equilibria. China’s greatness today rests on big butter, not big guns.
In fact, it is only now that China is beginning to look for big guns, all to defend her big butter in a world where the powerful – not even the hungry – often snatch from the small who work so hard to eat, the small who seek no conquest but only to humbly and honestly work within their geographic confines.
Aggression, anodyne for pique
I have been to China, many times too. You are struck by the sheer simplicity of their foreign policy. Shorn of ponderous verbiage, itself the bane of small beings wishing to sound big literally, China’s foreign policy is simply to make the world safer for her rise.
With what America has been doing lately – through Japan, Korea, Vietnam and many other South-east Asians, through Australia in relation to islands in the South China Sea – it must be pretty clear now that making the world safe for China’s rise might eventually need big guns, aggressive global politics and – and that is key – global numbers that help China build a broad coalition of nation-friends strong enough to hold aggressive US in check. Success piques, and bigger nations use war to assuage and settle their piques.
All glitz without glitch
Writing soon after the announcement of the winner of US election, one commentator of a well known website on Zimbabwe challenged me – Nathaniel Manheru – to comment so the world can hear what I have to say now in the aftermath of that “beautiful” American poll.
Ngaachitaura tinzwe, he said, sounding like a stiff defender of America already powerful without him. The expectation is clear: I must be dazed and dumbfounded by the sheer turn of things in the American election. No violence, no glitches. Only glitz! No rancour. Only gracious concession from the loser; statesman-like speech from the winner.
The commentator drew a damning contrast between our own elections – mostly largely fiercely fought, mostly grief-stricken, quite litigious, even inconclusive – and those of impeccable America.
Drumming pharisaical message
We are a few months from our own elections. One perfectly understands the presentiment. I have no doubt this commentator, unlike me, awaits the event with a grim foreboding, unhappily hoping that his premonition, or is it prophecy, may come to pass, inexorably! And I notice this is the dominant line by the local media: using the American poll to self-chastise.
As always, the whiplash falls on Mugabe and Zanu-PF, never on instigators, never on the incendiary media, on a violent opposition and on the voter who is at once the excitable party member given to violent persuasion and expression, and the victim of that same violence when he loses the muscular contest. All too often we forget that when it comes to election violence, the whole of society is indicted, with both the villain and the victim often being violent, only to different outcomes.
And it is human nature to pity the dead, dying or badly injured, to give the dead the righteous benefit of the doubt. We tend not to fasten culpability on wounds borne, on a life lost, even if these may have been the provocateurs. It is very easy to forget that Zimbabwe’s politics have been violent, that all parties to the GPA have owned up to culpability, which is why they projected their contrite side – hopefully a real one this time – through an elaborate agreement on and for peace.
Ironically the media, themselves a significant vector of political violence, are yet to say anything, sign anything at all on election-time peace. Still that doesn’t diminish their pharisaical cast daily so well wept in fawning editorials. This earth my brother!
Where demography beats democracy
I had wondered off, taken away. The West has been making much of the American poll, contrasting that with the Chinese system in which the ballot makes way to a 2 000-plus leadership-change gathering which sits ones in a decade.
Once, I sat in a meeting involving Hu Jintao. Why won’t China go for the ballot, came a question. In typical phlegmatic fashion of a self-assured leadership that China is, Hu noted a simple but routinely overlooked demographic fact about China: “With 1,3bn people, how will the ballot work? By the time we finish counting, we are already due for another election. Who governs China in the meantime?”
The questioner backed off, not even reminding the Chinese president that India, comparably populous, still uses the ballot, which is how it won the oxymoronic accolade as “the great, confused democracy”.
What struck me was not so much the answer; it was the unflappability of the Chinese leader, his total belief in the serviceability of a “democracy with Chinese characteristics”, which meant his unapologetic disregard and dismissal of conventional democracy as designed, developed and inflicted on the rest of us by the West.
We have been driven to a state of mind where we think democracy is above all else, forgetting in all emergencies, including world wars, democracy was suspended by its doyens.
Borrow, bully and still borrow
Nor does the West view democracy in unalloyed terms. Is it not interesting that when broke, the West still knocks on autocratic China’s banks – most if not all of them state-owned – for loans?
How can an undemocratic State create clean loans, clean market instruments with which to bail out Western democracies? And when they eat Chinese money, they do so with happy faces, never with long faces drawn by disgust. If Deng’s vision was copy, study and improve, the West’s stance is borrow, condemn, and still happily borrow!
Oversold soft power
I was talking about western propaganda and American elections. It has been a massive sales effort by the West to the rest of us, a case of Nye’s oversold soft power. The copy has been unvarying: Look at us, we choose every four years, transparently too! Look at the Chinese system: opaque, ossified, caught in a time warp! Ain’t we beautiful?
Don’t you want to be like us? And here in Zimbabwe, we have in our midst gratuitous consumers and admirers of this soft power, this sales effort. What a remarkable contrast with the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies when the world was still sceptical, wary of America’s charmed messages! America needed to spent big money to convince. Today it is paid big time by the cheaply convinced! This earth my brother!
Epochal Chinese changes
I go back to my challenger, and let him tighten his belt. I said the Chinese leadership change has, at the very least, given the world new names to grasp, spell and pronounce. But it is deeper than new names. It could very well pass for a new vocabulary to describe new realities, new arrangements the same way China gave the world capitalism with Chinese characteristics! If Obama gave us a beautiful poll, at least in the eyes of my contestant, changing the world belongs to Xi, Hu’s successor. Going by the iconoclastic speech of Hu, it is clear that between Hu and Xi may not just be letters of the alphabet.
We might as well brace up for two epochs. Hu warned that the Communist Party of China (CPC) needed to transform itself, needed to act on corruption lest the party is toppled, which might itself presage the collapse of the State.
Quite a dire prediction from an accretive system where changes occur at glacial pace. And such uncharacteristic warnings, put across with such candour, always herald a system ready to overhaul itself from above. And when China changes, history moves.
So much for beautiful ballots, beautiful Obamas!
China, the motive force of history
And you need to follow closely the massive changes undergone by China since those changes Deng Xiaoping wrought, changes which have left a deep imprint on the whole Chinese society, and impacted on the rest of the world. Apart from ever growing and deepening urbanisation, China is now a society of a dashing middle class sitting on an ever-bulging working class and rural peasantry.
And the last two are beginning to show signs of acute alienation and anomie, themselves signs of a system seeking to come to terms with unfamiliar class differentials. Whereas the subversive West looked up to breakaway politics (from Taiwan to Tibet) to keep China busy and anxiously self-preoccupied, today the West looks up to class action for investable dissent. Increasingly, China faces a social question, unfortunately under a system whose core tenets of socialism makes radical social analyses and action very easy to come by.
The single largest threat to China today is its social inequities and the class wars which they breed. So inured to glaring inequities, America gets away with disparities which stir trouble in China. Social movements wither away before they even flicker in America. Look at Occupy Wallstreet! But not so in China, until now used to a stable social terrain founded on equality and universal social security.
The tag of class inequality is bound to be felt keenest in China, which is what endangers the whole social structure, which is what makes China a compelling change agent of the world. And the latest issue of the Economist says Alex de Tocqueville’s writings are selling very fast in China, all to suggest a groundswell for a new economics, a new politics, and a desire to found a new society therefore. And Tocqueville tells you social change hardly visits a stable status quo; rather, it stalks those moments when a stable status quo seek voluntary reforms. That is China on the eve of a leadership change, itself the motive force of today’s history. What of America?
The American ballot has given us an Obama. Merely. Again! We shall have an Obama for eight years, two calendar years short of the Chinese decade, but eight years which are many decades longer than a pacific, investing China! And before Obama, we had another eight years of the diminutive George Bush JR, himself a latter day Napoleon. His was a very long eight years the world never thought would set. Time retreated and mankind endured epochal setback.
This is where the little man beat Napoleon: he gave the world wars that never bred any innovations for mankind. An epoch of turmoil whose legacy was a Barack Obama turning America’s predatory prowl onto the African continent. And when you look at the sixteen years America was and shall be under these two men, when you look at how America has behaved in this world, your fascination with its democracy rituals peel off to make way for unstinted anxiety. The so-called clean ballot makes America more overweening abroad, gives it better cause for bellicosity abroad: you must be like us, or we go to war against you.
American first, last, always
But you also wonder whether it really matters who is in White House, whether re-naming the contestants “Obama McCain” or “Obama Romney” is not more appropriate.
Names change, the American threat to the world remains, which is why it is so fatal to hail America’s form of democracy, without grasping the deadly substance beneath, which that form beguiles. Or the Chinese converse: deriding the slow, glacial form, without noticing its world-beneficent substance. In 2008, this column was quite sceptical if Obama would make it to White House.
When all indications then showed he would, the column still wondered what the catch was for white America to endure a black man at White House. Was the House about to be repainted black, it wondered?
Or was the black man all white after all?
It believed the latter proposition, noting that an American public servant, whatever their hue, would be American first, last and always. And it warned then: America was about to unfurl an aggressive policy towards Africa, and needed an African-American with some ancestral claim to the continent, to be able to assault the continent without the retort of white racism. Obama was that strategy, personified it, which is why we saw an aggressive policy towards Africa under his watch, including materialising the resisted Africom, but without opening a single base on African soil. And this new version of Africom started in East Africa, Barack’s ancestral home. Africa got guns, blood and more tears from an America with its loud, refulgent democracy. Now that the recent beautiful poll has lengthened Obama’s shadow, what fate awaits prostrate Africa?
When beauty is so pernicious
And American democracy played particularly directly on Zimbabwe. Under Bush, the assault on Zimbabwe needed a Colin Powell to cleanse and empty it of obvious racial motives. And then a Condoleeza Rice, black and female, not to mention a string of black ambassadors who made false statements on the racial purity of America’s motives here.
Today chances are Barack in his second and final term will compound his blackness by having a black Secretary of State, in the form of Susan Rice, a girl with multiple significance and causes here in Zimbabwe. We still hailed America’s democracy as peaceful and attractive, a real touchstone for mankind, while deprecating Chinese model as communistic, undemocratic, in short a foil, a how-not-to-do-democracy. But look at the figures on Chinese investments in our country. Huge and lonely, amidst universal western revilement and ill-will. Bad form, salutary works from China; beautiful form, vile works from America. Why are beautiful democracies so parsimonious, so pernicious?
Why are red autocrats so humane, so interactive?
Aping Caliban the native
Which takes me a rehearsed counter-argument I often hear from some Zimbabweans, ad nuaseaum. The Chinese are not here for friendship, we are told. They are here for own interests. Correct, no doubt. But what was the expectation? That China would be here for whose interests? As exemplified by which power in our past lives, past histories? Who has been here for any interest other than theirs?
And subduing us militarily, subduing us governmentally, for those interests to be realised? We lose, we die?
We bear scars inflicted by those who came here to mind their own interests in this very peculiar, particularly injurious way. We still say hallelujah to them, wishing for more hurts, fresher round of oppression!
Give us Europeans, they kill us better, oppress us more delectably than these short Chinese, we say, aping Shakespeare’s native archetype, Caliban. How do you compare the Chinese who come in on the basis of joint ventures, to the westerners who came in forcibly, dispoiled, got beaten off and still want to come back forcibly, on the same odious terms in another century? And like the broke borrower they are now, they still dispense lessons on freedoms and on the beauty of ballots! It beats me.
As if a registered voter from Mbare
Sorry mate, there is nothing to learn from America, now and in its elector past. A lot to shun, frown and fear. And fear we must. Our Prime Minister has struck a working relationship with Obama whose electoral skills and financial support shall be brought to bear on our electoral politics. When another country budgets for another country’s polls, picks on a candidate in that poll as of it were itself a registered voter from Mbare, what you have can never be a peaceful election. More fundamental, existential questions are inevitably raised in a way they would never be in American electoral politics ever since the 1776 Boston.
The issue of sovereignty is provoked and made to loom large, larger than the ballot. And asking how beautiful the ballot has been in such circumstances, frankly sounds worse than naive; it is irresponsible. Peace is guaranteed by a free ballot, not an adulterated ballot seeking to subvert sovereignty, seeking to legitimise puppetry. That is why America enjoys a peaceful ballot which even Russia still years for.
Giving the world elective dynasties
Not only does the American ballot hold no lessons for us here. It is far way. We have reason to worry about what goes on in Beijing, than worrying about what goes on in Washington. China has become an economic factor here, and in the greater world, which is why its decisions matter to us. America is not, will not be, except being that meddlesome, self-appointed political schoolmaster who breaks his own rules. If America’s ballot looked non-violent, it is because America purges its violent cast elsewhere. And elsewhere is our home, you and me, Mate!
My eyes look deeper than on mere forms. I search for the substance behind or inside those forms.
The American ballot so admired by some, after all revealed the enormous damage to the American nation wrought by Bush and Obama in succession. America today is deeply fractured, split right in the middle, and the ballot showed a failing nation of warring immigrants, pitted against an exclusionary, supremacist white Volk condemned by an emerging demography. The commentator saw beauty in Obama’s “victory” speech. Well, I saw necessity. He could not have said anything but all he said, and, please let’s not make virtue of necessity. He basically goes back to run a dysfunctional society he wielding presidency, the Republicans wielding the lower House! I looked in vain for a glimpse into America’s dream.
There was none, only a nightmare of foreclosed choice, of unserved possibilities. Instead of big ideas as befits a sole superpower, what loomed large where gay issues, legalising marijuana or some such enormous pettiness.
The real agenda was sidestepped, the much needed change agent was nowhere on offer in that beautiful ballot. Which is why such a beautiful ballot was but a painful blank pause, as confused America waits for another day four long years away.
Sorry mate, nothing to learn from so long a democratic pause. Or is it a hyphen, what with news that the next round might very well be between another Bush and another Clinton?
Nathaniel Manheru is a columnist for the Saturday Herald. E-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org