China ‘prefers democratic transition to its own’

China’s ruling Communist party has not only cracked down on any sign of dissent in the run-up to its leadership transition. The party may have been described as “the world’s most competitive political system,” but it has tried to project its own elite reshuffle as a seamlessly effective alternative to the unpredictable outcome of free and fair elections.

“The problem is that when the Chinese public receives exposure to democratic elections in other countries, it clearly likes what it sees,” writes Keith Richburg, the Beijing correspondent for the Washington Post.

This isn’t just a matter of watching the U.S.; Chinese are also observing the democratic progress in neighboring countries. Burmese voted in parliamentary elections in April….. South Koreans will vote for a new president in December. And Taiwanese…turned out in large numbers in elections last January ……. One weibo user recently wrote: “All the mainstream web sites are focusing on all the speeches by Obama and Romney about how they’d govern the country. But no one talks about 18th Party Congress. Sina [weibo’s host] even censored the three words ‘18th Party Congress ‘in its search engine. It’s so absurd for them to be so secretive about it. Why don’t you dare stand up and walk in the daylight, if you are going to govern the country?”

“It is said that the Chinese Communist party is the world’s most competitive political system,” one analyst notes.

“No country prepares its leaders more diligently,” says an admiring diplomat. “This is the world’s best management school.”

But other accounts indicate that the ruling Communist party is congenitally incapable of innovation and in bodies like the elite political committee, strategic decision-making is paralyzed by inner-party factionalism:

The committee is a group of aging men with dyed hair and dark suits who make all major decisions about the economy, foreign policy and other issues. Their meetings are not publicized in the state news media. The party chief often presides, but they operate by consensus, which means decisions are generally made only when the members reach agreement.

They also must solicit the input of retired members, now more than a dozen, who at times exert considerable influence, most of all Mr. Hu’s 86-year-old predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Mr. Jiang and other elders are deeply engaged in the backstage negotiations to appoint the next generation of leaders.

Members of the committee represent different patronage networks and hold different portfolios — security, propaganda, the economy and so on — which can result in competing interests. Business lobbies are represented informally on the committee, and the members often have longstanding ties to China’s powerful state-owned enterprises; for example, the current chief of domestic security, Zhou Yongkang, once managed a state-owned oil company and is known to be a defender of the oil industry.

“Each of the nine wants to protect his patch,” said a political analyst connected to central party officials.

“There seems to be a trend in policy stagnation,” said Alice L. Miller, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Hoover Institution, “an inability to arrive at decisions collectively within the standing committee that I think shows up in a number of different ways.”  

For China’s dissidents, the forthcoming party congress “has already proved itself to be a slap in the face,” The New York Times reports:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of activists and government critics across the country have been placed under house arrest or forced to take “vacations” far from the capital, often in the company of police minders, according to human rights organizations.

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan blogger, said national security agents forced her to vacate her Beijing apartment this month. “I guess they consider people like us inharmonious,” Ms. Woeser said, speaking by phone from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, where she grew up. “They just want us invisible during their big important meeting.”

Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer in Beijing, said the party’s paranoia served only to fuel public disillusionment. “If the government actually represented the common people, they wouldn’t need to be so strict,” Mr. Pu said. “The party is so cynical they think the people must always be distracted and manipulated in order to maintain stability.”

The party is also riddled with corruption, says a leading analyst, which has created powerful vested interests resistant to change and innovation.

“China is paying a huge price for this kleptocracy,” writes Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California

Corruption has made its economy less efficient and more risky (think of the huge value of bad loans used to finance infrastructure projects that have become gold mines for greedy officials). It has definitely worsened inequality. Even the regime is not spared the ill political consequences of corruption: its legitimacy has plummeted.

“International experience shows that only open economic competition, civil liberties and press freedom can curb corruption,” says Pei.

In the 1980s, a top Party leader brilliantly summarized the dilemma in dealing with corruption. “Corruption will kill the Party,” he supposedly said, “but fighting corruption will kill it, too.”

Three decades later, nothing seems to have changed.

But leading China analyst Andrew Nathan suggests that “runaway corruption may not be the Achilles’ heel that the regime seems to fear and that its critics hope for,” at least judging by the findings of a recent analysis of the issue:

Much of what now goes on in China is not “degenerative corruption,” which eats away at an economy, but “transactive corruption,” which takes place when officials and business people cooperate to promote growth and consider it reasonable to share the proceeds. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, Wedeman contends that the Chinese Communist Party’s anticorruption campaign has been effective enough to keep the party from becoming a predatory institution. He sees the country moving into a U.S.-style “progressive era” of even more effective anticorruption measures.

Nevertheless, China’s status quo is unsustainable, says one of the country’s leading economists.

“Sooner or later there must be a crisis,” says Mao Yushi:

[A]fter three decades of fast growth, the country stands at a crossroads…No economy can productively invest more than half its GDP year after year. One economist calculates that half of all China’s physical assets have been built in the past six years.

The party needs to devise a new social contract for China, observers suggest, otherwise the country will continue to see a hemorrhage of its most talented middle class professionals.

Many such people were “voting with their feet,” said Fang Zhulan, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, calling the exodus “a negative comment by entrepreneurs upon the protection and realization of their rights in the current system.”

China has certainly come a long way from the days when Mao Zedong was “an obedient pupil of the great Stalin,” but the ruling party cannot claim credit for the country’s economic miracle, notes Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

“The Chinese market economy was created not from above, by the state, but from below, by entrepreneurs,” he notes. “The state came in later, to legitimize and regulate the institutions that the economic actors created.”

Whether China will remain a democratic outlier will largely be determined by the new leadership and “despite some optimism from those wishing for reform, no one really knows for sure where they stand,’ writes the Post’s Richburg:

“The question is, how capable are they?” said journalist Li Datong. “Can the Party bear the idea that their power will be weakened, and they might possibility lose their regime? Whether the Communist Party is ready for that or not is a mystery.” But while China’s rulers ponder such questions behind closed doors, the Chinese public will continue advancing the conversation without them.


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Erdogan’s Ambiguous Decade

In the ten years since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored an overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above), has pushed through policies that have transformed the country’s political institutions – for good and ill, write Arch Puddington and Zselyke Csaky. 

The AKP’s triumph represented much more than a normal rotation of power between one traditional party and another. As a party—or, perhaps more accurately, a movement—with roots in moderate Islamism, the AKP stood poles apart from the secularist parties that had dominated Turkish politics for much of the previous century.

Erdogan’s policies have substantially transformed many of the country’s political institutions. Most significantly, he has reduced the military, long regarded as the ultimate source of political power and guarantor of Turkish sovereignty, to a position subservient to civilian authorities. Under the AKP, elections have become more competitive and fair, prison conditions improved, and, for a while at least, rights for Kurds were enhanced.

But there is a darker side to the AKP record. The reformist bent of Erdogan’s early years in office has been replaced by policies that are meant to entrench AKP power. The government has launched mass prosecutions against military officers, journalists, academics, and political figures accused of involvement in a deep-state conspiracy, called Ergenekon, that allegedly sought to bring down the government. AKP loyalists have increasingly come to dominate the judiciary. Erdogan has intimidated the media through legal cases brought against outlets that supported the opposition. Indeed, the highly respected Committee to Protect Journalists has marked the AKP’s 10th anniversary in power with a scathing report on the state of Turkish press freedom.

Perhaps most worrisome is a sense that despite its own history as a target of repressive efforts, the AKP is now embracing methods employed with considerable effectiveness by outright authoritarian regimes.  

This extract is taken from a longer post by Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House, and guest blogger Zselyke Csaky. The post also includes a chronology that highlights Turkey’s record of adherence to democracy and human rights norms during the period of AKP dominance, drawn from reports published in Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.

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Freedom of expression under threat (in democracies too)

Costas Vaxevanis, the Greek investigative journalist who published details of prominent officials’ tax-evading Swiss bank accounts, has been acquitted of violating data protection laws.

“Instead of arresting the tax evaders, the journalist who published their names has been arrested,” said Emilios Avgoleas, an international banking law and finance professor at Edinburgh University. “It’s a reminder that in corrupt regimes around the globe, freedom of speech is repressed in order to serve vested interests.”

But the Vaxevanis case demonstrates that it is not only in authoritarian regimes that “freedom of expression – the bedrock of democracy – is under threat,” says a leading activist.

“Wherever you look, someone with power, somewhere in the world, is trying to prevent the truth from getting out. In dictatorships they often resort to violence. But usually those with power hide behind laws that, while technically legitimate, are designed to chill free speech,” writes John Kampfner, a former chief executive of Index on Censorship:

We think such measures are the preserve of places like China and Russia. And they are. In China the media are severely censored. Dissidents are routinely jailed. Western media are blocked online when they become inconvenient, as the New York Times was recently after revealing details of premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.

In Russia, investigative journalists are killed when they find out too much. The internet is now severely restricted. Members of the punk band Pussy Riot languish in penal colonies for protesting in church.

“But dangers also lurk in so-called democracies,” Kampfner notes.


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Social media empowering China’s citizens, says Ai Weiwei

Social media is empowering Chinese citizens, despite the Communist regime’s efforts to censor and regulate online communication, says a leading dissident.

“Daily, when the event’s happening, people start to make comments on it, which already completely changes the landscape of the political situation,” activist-artist Ai Weiwei says, in a new video (above) posted on the BigThink blog.

“I think those technology platform constantly put the government on trial. And every event, every policy they make, people will laugh about it or make fun about it. This is amazing for younger generation.”

Chinese netizens are using forums like Weibo to hold the authorities accountable, despite the regime’s efforts to curb cyber-activism.

“Free information and communication on the Internet is forbidden in China, so you’re facing a great firewall to block all the major internet services, and within China you have 100,000 internet police just sitting there delete all blogs, whatever information they cannot appreciate…”

Ai, who recently announced that he was returning money donated by supporters after exhausting legal channels to contest a huge tax bill widely considered punishment for his rights activism, believes the authorities are fighting a losing battle against internet freedom.

“I think the internet and technology can lead to more freedom in everywhere, especially in China. A state like China or other authoritarian society,” he said. “To maintain this kind of control is to censor and block the freedom of expression. Once that is not possible, then to maintain this kind of control is impossible.”

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Syria’s Kurds: torn between Irbil, Ankara and Syrian opposition?

The current initiative to restructure and unify Syria’s fractious opposition groups was partly motivated by the Syrian National Council’s failure to engage the country’s Kurds and consider a federal future for a post-Assad Syria. Syria’s Kurds are acutely aware of the complex political dynamics being played out between Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and the domestic opposition, writes Jehad Saleh, an independent Syrian Kurdish journalist.  

The Kurdish issue in Syria has evolved in both regional and international arenas due to several factors. While activity by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PPK) and its Syrian affiliate the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has increased, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) strives to serve as a legitimate representative of the Syrian Kurdish movement in the revolution. The impact of these competing forces has affected the KNC’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Syrian opposition, and has influenced Turkey’s role in the crisis. From the perspective of Kurds supporting the KNC, it is the Kurdish aspiration for federalism within a democratic Syria that suffers at the expense of regional power plays and alliances between Turkey, the KRG, and the PKK.

Turkey and the Kurdish Issue

After a KNC delegation visited Washington to meet with U.S. officials last May, Ankara’s concerns grew with this Kurdish gesture, which demonstrated a potential American rapprochement over the Syrian Kurdish issue, along with the possibility for Washington to adopt the Kurdish cause and support the KNC. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) refuted Kurdish presence in Syria through the media, and even went so far as to deny the historic existence of Kurds in Syria, alleging that they emigrated from Turkey and Iraq. These accusations, coupled with discrimination and distrust toward the Kurds within the Syrian opposition (exposed during the July 2012 conference in Cairo), incited anger among Kurds toward Islamist currents, and thus the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is known to take orders from the MB and Ankara. Such animosity also contributed to the Kurds’ lack of faith in the Syrian opposition as a whole, which maintains an unclear position toward the rights of Kurds and their role in the Syrian Revolution.

Kurdish Militant Control and KRG Mediation

The rift between the Kurdish movement and the Syrian opposition has since widened due to the PYD’s de facto military rule of many Kurdish regions in Syria. The PYD has implemented its policies and agenda after taking up arms, constructing barriers, and patrolling the Kurdish areas, particularly in Kobani [Ain al-Arab] and Afrin. Indirectly aiding the Assad regime through its control, the PYD has reportedly assaulted Kurdish protestors, arrested, kidnapped and threatened activists, and confiscated banners calling for the fall of the regime. Its presence has negatively impacted the relationship between the SNC and KNC, creating a state of distrust and anger on the Kurdish street, and resulting in revolutionary activists accusing the Kurds of disloyalty.

Due to the transgressions of the PYD and followers of PKK leader Öcalan, along with Kurdish apprehensions toward Syria, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s was prompted to contain the crisis. Though the KNC was resistant to cooperating with Öcalan’s followers, doubting their true intentions regarding Kurdish rights and the revolution, and fearing military confrontation and intra-Kurdish fighting (which has been a strategy of all regimes in the region, in order to weaken and fragment the Kurds), President Barzani applied pressure and united the PYD and KNC to form the Kurdish High Council. From the point of view of KNC supporters, this new council has yet to contribute anything positive to the political process or the Kurdish quest for autonomy due to the individualism and opportunism of the PYD, and has demonstrated disrespect for the KNC and Kurdish revolutionaries.

Kurds in Syria are acutely aware of these complex dynamics; however, due to the lack of international support in face of the political and economic power of Turkey and the KRG, they have resorted to waiting in anticipation. Meanwhile, the KNC is purportedly restructuring their council in order to best situate themselves to bring down Assad’s regime and achieve federalism in Syria so that they may partake in the political game and build a democratic state that provides them with power, security and stability. The leaders of the Kurdish movement in Syria are far from a deadlock, pessimistic about the wall of challenges before them. On the contrary, they are trying to improve their relationship with Hawler [Irbil] in order to benefit Kurdish rights in the region, a cause they share facing Tehran and Ankara, who are greatly threatened by Kurdish ambition.

The KNC is steadfast in its refusal to join the SNC, yet it seeks to remain non-violently active in the revolution, and to act as a comprehensive outlet for all Syrian opposition groups to bring about an agreement to form a pluralistic, democratic, de-centralized state.

Jehad Saleh is an independent Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington, DC.

The above extract is from a longer article for the Fikra Forum. RTWT – in Arabic too.

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