by Garrett Dee
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/CC
FOR THOSE seeking to explain the meteoric vault of Donald Trump through the political stratosphere from reality television entertainer to the leader of the entire United States, the answer has been placed firmly and rightfully upon the shoulders of American populism. Populism, and particularly right-wing populism rooted in strong nationalist ideas, has experienced a rising global trend just this past year, as expressed in the election of Trump as well as through the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the Filipino presidency and the British withdrawal from the EU, and is gaining popularity in many European countries and other regions.
Anti-establishmentarianism and a distrust of the central government also strongly accounted for the sentiment which propelled Trump to the upper echelons of Washington, and this sort of public discontent with entrenched political corruption has accelerated in many Asian countries. Duterte’s election in the Philippines came partly as a result of public discontent with his predecessors, and waves of protests taking aim at the central government have gained traction in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea over the past few years. The dramatic impact that the intersection of these two political currents has had on global politics begets the question, could China, the most populated nation in the world and among the most powerful, witness the rise of its own “Donald Trump”?
Populism’s Tainted Legacy in China
POPULISM HAS been a double-edged sword for China throughout its modern history: at times a weapon the state uses to subdue enemies both foreign and domestic, at other times a dangerous social upheaval that must be tamed. The Cultural Revolution, arguably the most well-known incident of Chinese populism, seems to serve as an example to the Chinese state on the dangers of fanning the flames of public discontent too vigorously. The anti-establish sentiment centered around the cult of personality that Mao Zedong had created to re-establish his authority over the Communist Party severely disrupted public order for over a decade, leading to countless deaths and the setback of an entire generation. The legacy of this event caused Beijing’s fear of anti-government populism to linger on for decades afterwards, no doubt influencing the subsequent swift and merciless military repression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests.
In the modern era, it seems that populist energy in China is now, for the most part, directed in support of the state as the embodiment of the nation rather than against the existing power structure, particularly as a rising China comes increasingly into conflict with the existing international system. Recent outbreaks of populism in mainland China (not including Hong Kong) are decidedly directed against the perceived threat of foreign influence and encroachment upon national sovereignty. Examples include the smashing of iPhones and other US-imported products in the wake of the Hague ruling against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as similar destruction of Japanese brand vehicles at the zenith of Sino-Japanese territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Though these movements were certainly orchestrated in part by central government propaganda, they at times became so inflamed that the authorities felt the need to step in to quell the flames a bit in order to restore public order.
Indeed, populism as directed against the state is often looked upon with disdain in China: one needs to look no further than the negative Chinese reaction to the localist movements in Hong Kong to see proof of this. Localism and localist sentiments as expressed in the election of two young localist politicians of the Youngspiration party to the Hong Kong Legislative Council this month and their subsequent attempts to change their oaths to reflect their pro-Hong Kong independence beliefs were so unpalatable to Beijing that it disbarred them after only ten days. Though perhaps hyperbole, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s statement that the Communist Party would be overthrown by the Chinese citizenry if they allowed Taiwan to openly declare independence runs in this same vein of hyper-nationalist sentiment, though whether this is verity or a reflection of the state’s belief that the population is overwhelmingly pro-establishment is highly debatable given state control over the Chinese media.
If the Chinese people do in fact see the state as the embodiment of the nation, however, this does not mean that their ire could not be directed against cases of rampant corruption amongst government officials. Since ascending to the presidency, Xi has undertaken a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that has targeted thousands of party officials, a campaign that is largely considered to be a successful attempt by Xi to rid the party of opposing factions and surround himself with loyalist. Many of these officials have been targeted primarily for petty corruption such as gift giving and nepotism that in the past may not have been considered corruption at all.
The difference between the situation in China and that of the United States, however, seems to lie in the extent to which the public perception turns against the culpability of those at the highest level of government in corruption and abuse of power. Though the Chinese public seems cognizant of the idea that the central government’s true aim in ostensibly weeding out corruption in the ranks of the Party is to consolidate Xi’s political power and rid the government of opposing factions, public outcry has for the most part not turned against the state. Indeed, the general consensus in China seems to be that although this action was undertaken primarily for political purposes and not truly to bring licentious public officials to justice, most of these officials were probably corrupt anyway and therefore deserving of reprimanding in the first place. In this sense, the Chinese public, though perhaps perturbed by some of the more brutal tactics of the campaign, appears to at least tacitly support the idea that the government is working for the collective social good by targeting corrupt officials.
Could Anti-Establishment Outrage Lead to a Chinese Trump?
COULD IT then be possible that China might bring forth its own Donald Trump to disrupt the established political order? And if so, from which direction would this person come?
One of the precipitating factors of the Trump ascent in the United States was white nationalism, and the degree to which the majority race felt threatened by members of minority races. China being a much more ethnically homogenous society than the United States, issues of racial tension do not routinely receive the same level of controversial treatment. Indeed, the Chinese state already utilizes many of the same strategies that Donald Trump touted in his campaign in regards to issues of race, religion, and national security. Towards the stated purpose of safeguarding national security, the Chinese government already undertakes brutal repression campaigns in the the minority-populated regions of Tibet and predominantly Muslim-inhabited Xinjiang. Additionally, through its utilization of the household registration system, the government retains ostensible control over the migration of all its citizens, including minority groups, and despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of these people migrate to the city anyway, they are often denied basic services upon their arrival.
Aside from issues of racial tensions, economic issues (particularly that of healthcare affordability) played heavily into the election of Donald Trump as the American middle-class expressed frustration at what they perceived as slow economic growth and an unduly high tax burden (Joan Williams provides an excellent analysis on the economic ennui that drove working-class Americans to the polls for Trump). To the extent that China has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth over the last several decades, with the majority of the population having seen living standards dramatically rise rather than fall, widespread economic outrage hasn’t yet reached enough of a critical mass to become a tipping point in the political arena. However, recent years have proven that foundational cracks do in fact exist in the Chinese economy, limited not only to a stock market that has recently faced bouts of sudden free fall as well as a looming housing crisis, but also the double threats of a catastrophic environmental health crisis and an aging population on the horizon.
All of this is not to say that Chinese public sentiment is a monolith or that there is unequivocal support for the government throughout the population. The uprising of the citizens in Wukan village against unlawful land grabs by local officials shows the hints of grassroots democracy budding in small communities, where low-level officials are democratically elected. However, even those demonstrating in Wukan were careful to couch their language in patriotism and support of the national government while demanding local government reform and an end to corruption. Furthermore, given that not only do these expressions of public sentiment not have a legitimized outlet through which they can be freely expressed, but also the fact that information accessible to the public is tightly-controlled in China, it is not that anti-establishment populism is completely non-existent, but rather that smatterings of public outrage directed at the state are quickly snuffed out before they can coalesce into a widespread political movement.
Unlike the US system, the Chinese system of government is structured specifically to prevent these kind of sentiments from ever gaining momentum. A Chinese Trump-like figure would have to face serious opposition to their rise through the power stratums, including, but not limited to, the fact that China is not a nation in which national leaders are democratically-elected. The idea that a political neophyte with no previous governmental background and scant support within the party apparatus could suddenly rise to the highest position in the Chinese government is practically inconceivable as, unlike in the United States, these sort of decisions surrounding issues of succession are finalized in private behind closed doors after much negotiation and back room dealing, with candidates for the highest offices having been groomed for years and years before their appointments. Aspiring leaders of the Chinese Communist Party work their way up the ladder for decades, and in the Chinese political machine, spectacular falls like those of disgraced officials Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang are much more common than spectacular ascendancies.
Barring then some sort of tremendous social upheaval which causes a widespread swath of citizens to suddenly lose faith in their government, a wave of populism aimed at the overthrow of the established political order in China seems unlikely. If the UK withdrawal from the EU and the election of Donald Trump as US president are signs of a global trend towards increased nationalism, it would seem that nationalism is already the paradigm through which the Chinese state encourages its citizens to view the international system. Though Xi is no Trump in terms of background, he has certainly benefited from stirring up nationalist fervor in support of the central government.
Certainly, instability as a result of an economic crash or widespread environmental health crisis could, in theory, drive the population to seek radical change within the halls of government, particularly if the central government’s handling of these issues seems inadequate or beleaguered by corruption. However, though radical political change on par with 2016 US presidential election is not a foregone possibility in China, seeing as the odds are overwhelmingly stacked in favor of stability and incremental adjustment, it remains, at least for now, highly unlikely.