The leadership transitions in China and the UK shed an illuminating light on their very different political systems.
Comparisons may be odious, but they can be instructive. The political systems of the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China are not only strikingly dissimilar, but recent events also illustrate just how much the world has changed since Britannia ruled the waves and China endured a century of shame.
Even before the chaotic leadership transition that saw it churn through three prime ministers in two months, not many people were looking to the ‘mother of parliaments’ for lessons in good political or economic management. On the contrary, Britain has become synonymous with decline, dysfunction and delusion, not least about its standing in the world.
Brexit was the quintessential illustration of a collective inability to come to terms with Britain’s diminished international position. Economic self-harm doesn’t get much more egregious or unnecessary – or it didn’t until Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng blew up the British economy, at least. It’s important to recognise that rabid ideologues are not confined to communist countries.
Whether China actually is a communist country is a moot point, of course, but however it’s described there’s little doubt that the national trajectory is still up rather than down. Consequently, the PRC’s leaders are having to adjust to quite a different problem: what to do with its still growing power and influence in a world in which effective leadership is generally noteworthy by its absence.
Whatever you think of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, they do know how to manage a leadership transition. True, it’s not terribly democratic or inclusive, but Xi’s choreographed reinstallation as president and Chairman of the CCP went largely according to script – apart from the still unexplained exit of former president Hu Jintao from the podium.
By contrast, Britain’s transition was comically chaotic and not very democratic, with its shortest serving PM being appointed by a handful of unelected, unaccountable Tory members. It’s a bit difficult to criticise China’s famously non-transparent and non-inclusive processes in such circumstances, especially when ‘the masses’ don’t seem especially upset about the outcome.
True, the PRC leadership may not have a democratic mandate, but they do enjoy a degree of ‘performance legitimacy’ that is conspicuously lacking in the UK, not to mention the United States and a number of other prominent democracies struggling to get to grips with a rapidly changing economic, political and natural environment. In the much discussed contest between democracies and autocracies, in which Australia plays a prominent supporting role, it’s far from clear which side is winning.
To be fair, though, there is one area where the British Conservatives can claim the moral high ground: not only have they had three women leaders, but they’ve now installed a ‘person of colour’ and a practising Hindu to boot. This really is a contrast with China where Han hegemony is coercively imposed throughout the PRC’s internal empire, and women are nowhere to be seen in the CCP’s upper echelons.
Quite how the fabulously wealthy Rishi Sunak will unite the Conservative party, let alone the entire country, remains a mystery, however. He has famously demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of the circumstances in which Britain’s battlers eke out an increasingly uncertain and precarious living. Indeed, while China may have ‘princelings’ among its ruling elite, Britain has the real thing, with its newly installed monarch enjoying inherited and entirely unearned riches beyond imagination.
If there’s one thing Xi really can claim, by contrast, it’s that the CCP has guided a process of national ‘rejuvenation’ that has lifted millions out of poverty and put China back at the centre of regional and global affairs. While observers in places like Australia may fret about the strategic implications of China’s renewed geopolitical importance, it’s hard to argue that rising living standards are a bad thing, even if it’s not clear whether they are compatible with a sustainable environment in the long run.
Somewhat surprisingly, both China and Britain have made a significant effort to respond to the challenge of climate change. Rather more soberingly, however, neither Xi nor Sunak have indicated that saving the planet is their principal policy objective, especially if it clashes with staying in power. It seems that some imperatives are universal, and some problems may be beyond governments of any persuasion.