Ugly US election race a poor ad for democracy in China

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton debates with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the third US presidential debate on 19 October 2016. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Chinese Communist Party is closely watching the US election campaign

"It's the most entertaining campaign ever and the essence of American politics is entertainment."

The view of one 19-year-old Chinese student watching the US presidential race from Beijing.

He's not the only one laughing. Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins on 8 November, the Chinese Communist Party believes it is already a winner.

For decades it has said that American democracy is a sham, rigged by and for a narrow elite. Now the Republican candidate for the White House says the same.

For decades Beijing has smarted under American disapproval for locking up political enemies. Now Donald Trump says "crooked Hillary" should be in jail.

Political prosecutions are staples of the Chinese Communist Party rule book, but no-one, least of all in China, expects that rule book to provide any guide for the United States. And then there's the trading of personal insults and allegations about Clinton's mishandling of emails and Trump's treatment of women.

"The race to the bottom will make people rethink the value of democracy," commented one Chinese state-owned newspaper. Another said the presidential race had become "an unprecedented joke".

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Media captionChina's Communist Party holds a "Dialogue with the World", but is anyone actually talking?
Image copyright EPA
Image caption China says it has a model of "consultative democracy"

Of course it would be dangerous for Chinese media or public to turn the same candour on their own political system. The only institution they can safely describe as a joke is the national football team. But censorship aside, I sense that there is real damage to the reputation of the American political system as a result of this year's toxic presidential race.

Another Chinese student told me why she was unimpressed.

"I think the competition will just intensify the clashes between different social groups and have a kind of splitting effect instead of a unifying effect. I don't think this system works."

'Patriotic education'

In some ways, this disillusion feels like a long term trend. My own sense is that the highpoint of Chinese admiration for Western democracy came during and just after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. And a quarter of a century ago, with the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union, even many members of the Chinese Communist Party told me their own one-party state could not last.

But then Russian democracy faltered, military adventures and the global financial crisis dented US credibility, and the unravelling of the Arab spring undermined the appeal of electoral democracy among a Chinese public whose experience of civil war makes them fear chaos above almost all else.

In the same quarter century, China's one party state grew enormously richer. And its leaders embarked upon a huge campaign of "patriotic education" to take maximum propaganda advantage from the woes of others and the advances at home.

Since the arrival of President Xi Jinping, this trend has crystallised into an active confidence about China's model of "consultative democracy".

It may be conventional wisdom in political science that mature dictatorships inevitably democratise or stagnate. President Xi insists that China's scale and history make it an exceptional country, not bound by the rules that apply elsewhere.

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Image caption President Xi Jinping says he is determined to root out corruption in the Communist Party

At a conference this month to deepen the Communist Party's so called "dialogue with the world", senior party members explained the benefits of the Party's brand of consultative democracy.

Yang Rui for example, a well-known anchor on China's state television, told me it was a mistake to use the ballot box to decide everything "because you have to suppose every voter is rational and reasonable". He pointed to the American election campaign as an example of debased populism that threatens to entrench division and triviality.

"People seem to forget serious issues. They talk about sex, locker room conversation, men and lousy behaviour. Debates are getting nasty and that undermines the strength of Western democracy."

Fang Xinghai, another senior Party member and vice chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, said the strength of China's consultative system is the intense deliberation which takes place behind closed doors inside the Party itself.

"This has allowed China forty years of uninterrupted growth within a stable system. Quiet deliberation is a more effective form of policy than a public shouting match, because policy making is complicated."

These are people with enormous exposure to western political culture who believe China's one party system can compete on the delivery of public goods.

In an echo of the mandarin class who ruled China for centuries through the imperial civil service, they defend the legitimacy of a policy making elite. And they don't want for ambition.

Image copyright Xinhua
Image caption China has set an ambitious course for itself, including exploration of the solar system

The Party has promised to double its GDP from the year 2010 by 2020. This month it sent astronauts to a Chinese-built space station.

In slogans reminiscent of Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" or JF Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and to do the other things," President Xi is attempting to unite his nation around the themes of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people and the China Dream.

American Dream or China Dream? In my experience, and despite their seven decades of communism, the Chinese public tends to be pragmatic rather than ideological. If their political system delivers, they don't care what it's called and they don't insist on going to the ballot box to vote for one team or another.

This doesn't make them blind to its flaws. Many are viscerally aware that their rulers can be corrupt, infantilising, arbitrary and cruel. But jail cells full of political and religious dissidents, labour organisers and human rights lawyers are proof that attempting to change the system is an act of almost suicidal courage, and is that act really necessary? Over the past four decades the Party has delivered growth, peace and national pride.

Does this amount to affection for the Communist Party? Pride in it? Hardly. More often I meet grudging toleration. Party leaders know this better than anyone.

For years, they have been warning that cleaning up Party corruption is a matter of life and death. Too many comrades have moved from delivery of public goods to the delivery of private ones for family and friends. No longer the Confucian or Communist ideal of elite public servant, they have become the nightmare vision of George Orwell's tyrannical pig on two legs in the novel Animal Farm.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption With support for the leadership partly dependent on economic growth, a slowdown will raise concern

President Xi is trying to change that. This week the Party holds a key meeting in Beijing at which it promises to tackle discipline and conduct. At the same time it is broadcasting a series of lurid documentaries on prime-time TV, charting the rise and fall of the corrupt Party bosses who thought themselves untouchable. And day after day, officials are sent back to the pilgrimage sites of the communist revolution to renew their party vows and their ideological fervour.

But will all of this be enough to keep China clean? In the absence of free media, free courts and a coherent belief system, probably not. In the fast growth years, China could perhaps afford to have a political class with its hand in the till. But not now that growth is slowing.

The cost of fear

Entrenched elites are a problem for the US as much as for China. But China's "consultative democracy" has one glaring challenge of its own: the paranoia of the ruling party.

It never ceases to amaze me how afraid the Chinese Communist Party is of its own people, and how fear clouds its judgment and skews its decision making.

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Media captionBeijing has rounded up not just activists but lawyers representing them, sending a powerful message to the wider public

Fear of street protest ties its hands in tackling pension reform or state-owned enterprises. Fear of a punishing assessment of its mistakes makes it manipulate history in a way that distorts not only the past but also the future. Fear of competing narratives makes it drive some of China's brightest and best into exile or jail. Fear has become a huge overhead and a great brake on China's progress.

Expect another impeccable episode in political choreography at this week's Communist Party plenum in Beijing. And expect China's state media to enjoy the final days of a divisive American presidential campaign. But don't be deceived by the outward serenity of China's "consultative democracy".

All the problems that have been laid bare in the US - the entrenched elites, the generational divide, the bitterness of jobless blue-collar workers - these are all problems in China too. There may be no great ballot box moment, but behind the Party's firmly closed doors, the political fight is just as intense. And in China, the moment when the doors burst open and the debate explodes onto the public stage rarely comes with advance warning.

Update 25 October 2016: This article was amended to remove a quote incorrectly attributed to Donald Trump.

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