From last Friday’s protest against the regime/Russian upcoming assault in Maaret al-Numan, Idlib. Credit: Zein Al Rifai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Originally published in the New York Times under the title ‘The Death Blow is Coming for Syrian Democracy’
The Syrian regime is determined to reconquer all of the territory it has lost. Aided by Russian bombers and Iranian troops, and emboldened by its success in terrorizing the populations of Ghouta and Daraa into submission, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now preparing to attack Idlib, the last remaining province outside of his control. Idlib is home to some three million people, about half of them displaced, or forcibly evacuated, to the province from elsewhere. Many are crowded into unsanitary camps or sleeping in the open.
Peng Yu is an assistant professor of Politics at Earlham College. I’ve had the pleasure of taking several classes with Peng, including Contemporary Chinese Politics this semester. Following the Communist Party’s proposal to eliminate presidential term limits, I spoke with Peng about the implications of this shift and other topics related to Chinese politics. You can read more of Peng’s work on the website Sixth Tone. -Schuyler
The Column: On February 25th, the Communist Party Central Committee announced a proposal to eliminate term limits for China’s president and vice-president, opening the door for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. What’s your reaction to the proposal, and what reactions have you heard from friends and family living in China?
Peng Yu: It’s very divided. If you’re talking about the older generation, like my parents and my uncles and older relatives, they are quite supportive of the decision. They are the ones who are saying: “we’re going to benefit most from a more stable regime,” and they see that there is a potential for regime collapse if power gets more dispersed among elites. That’s what they saw back in 1989, when the regime was very much split into liberals and conservatives. If you have terrible infighting within the party, there’s a very good chance that the party will collapse, the regime will break down, and the country will destabilize. They are worried, having lived through the Mao era and the political turmoil in the 1980s. They are the ones who are more supportive of the regime out of concern for social stability. And they are the ones who are retired and completely dependent on the pension system. If the regime breaks down and is no longer able to support these financial and economic resources for their retirement, that’s a huge problem for them.
However, most of my friends, who are from the younger generation, responded with shock and surprise. Many commented that it’s a reversal to the Mao-era kind of politics where the country was caught in chaos and instability. Many young people also feel very constrained because they envision a worsening and deterioration of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and civil society. So, they have grave concerns, especially my friends who are working in universities and colleges or in journalism. They are the ones who are most concerned about this change. They are saying: “If China backpedals to this one-person type of regime, how are we going to deal with the ‘bad emperor’ or ‘bad king’ issue that we struggled with back in the Mao era?” My reaction to this is—I share a lot with my younger friends who have grave concerns about the prospects for China’s democratization. And as a political scientist I care a lot about this because we’ve been through decades of a tumultuous political era in China, and with this level of economic development and social diversity, I think the party should move forward in taking bolder actions to embrace democracy. Unfortunately, this proposal is killing all the hopes that I and other political scientists closely following Chinese politics have. This is disappointing and depressing for us.
TC: In an opinion piece for The New York Times, political scientist Mary Gallagher suggests that unlimited rule for Xi Jinping risks weakening the Communist Party as an institution. Do you agree?
PY: Yeah, I definitely share Gallagher’s concern here. It has at least announced the failure of 30 years’ effort to institutionalize the country’s politics. One of the main reasons why we wrote term limits into the constitution in 1982 is because we still had this horrendous memory of the Cultural Revolution back in the Mao era. We were very concerned about ways to prevent this kind of terrible thing from happening again. The party elites back then under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader after Mao, started to think about political reforms that would cap the power of the chair of the party, the top leader. And they did this intentionally because they wanted to put forward a plan for institutionalization of elite politics. They didn’t want one person controlling the whole agenda but instead the collective decision of a group of political elites within the party. What’s also important is that this decision had to be made in consultation with a wider scope of society so that more people could be involved in decision-making. In the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, the process of deliberation and collective decision-making was still pretty much present. Although it took place behind closed doors, there was still a procedure for the elites to follow. To reach an important decision, such as choosing the next president, leaders would have to consult widely within the party. So, I think Xi Jinping’s proposal announces the failure of institutionalization. We’re reversing back to one individual’s power, influence, and charisma determining the future of the party and the state.
In many ways it also reflects a paradox of authoritarianism, especially this particular type of party-state authoritarianism. Remember we talked about this in [the course] Authoritarian Politics—there are different types of authoritarianism. One paradox and challenge for single-party state authoritarianism is that it dances between an individual elite and the party as an institution. Sometimes the line of demarcation is very blurry—it’s so porous that it leaves room for individual politicians to take advantage of the party. On the one hand, the party wants to institutionalize itself so that there’s more predictability, but on the other hand it relies heavily on individual elites’ effort in putting forward the agenda to get things done. The dilemma is between individual power and charisma and individual worship on the one hand, and on the other hand the demand for institutionalization to avoid the risk of dictatorship. I don’t think that China has done a good job of breaking through this kind of dilemma. The party tries very hard because the higher the level of economic development it achieves, the more complexity there is in terms of elite politics. How are you going to divide up the pie among a group of elites without deliberation, without consulting a wide scope of people? At a critical point such as now, it usually takes a very powerful individual leader to get things done and move forward. Some people even say that back in the Hu Jintao era—Xi Jinping’s predecessor—China’s political and economic reform was trapped. There was no significant progress made during the Hu Jintao era because he was this kind of soft guy who was very reliant on deliberation and mass consultation, but the elites within the party took advantage of his softness and lack of resources to advance their own interests. That led to a very high level of corruption and a very high level of distrust of politicians among society in general. So how can single-party authoritarianism break through this dilemma? Xi Jinping is saying: “I’m going to be the answer.” I feel like it’s not just the ambition of Xi Jinping that pushed forward this proposal. I think it’s the party itself, the state as a whole, that is behind the plan. Of course, Xi Jinping is very ambitious, and he has been thinking about being the third paramount leader. But without the party, without these paradoxes, he wouldn’t be able to do it.
TC: Digging deeper into that question—you said it’s the party itself that has decided to go for one person in charge as an answer to these problems. At this point, does Xi have a degree of hegemony within the party, whereby his decisions are sort of the ultimate decisions, or is this a situation where the party can still rein in the person at the top, but they don’t want to?
PY: I think it’s a combination of both. Xi was the one who took the initiative to bring this proposal to the floor and call people’s attention to the possibility of a constitutional amendment. On the other hand, I think this idea also resonated with a relatively large group of party elites who shared an interest in Xi’s tenure. So, Xi initiated the plan but was also backed up by the party to a certain extent. Of course, there are opponents. Of course, there are ones who disagree. That’s why he didn’t do it at the beginning of his term. He waited five years, after waves of political campaigns against corruption—or a political purge if you want to put it that way. He feels like his power is more consolidated than before, and now he’s brought up this plan and sort of coerced the party into consensus to crack down on opponents and silence disagreements. So, I think it’s a combination of both—Xi designed this and the party has reached a point where they have to rally around his charisma and power to move forward.
TC: What effect do you think eliminating term limits will have on Chinese activists and civil society?
PY: Like I said, there are a lot of connected implications here. On the one hand, you are seeing the continuous encroachment upon civil society and activists—especially civil society—by the state. The state is becoming even more powerful than before in penetrating into society to wield its power and exercise its control. We have already seen this taking place on the internet, for example. In the past few weeks, the government set up the mechanisms and tools of censorship by shutting down the kind of websites and posts and deleting the messages on the internet that sort of challenge or doubt the government’s policy. This has already taken place for a while, and I think the government is going to step up these measures even more. On the other hand, it’s probably also an opportunity for people to share some of the political ideas that they subscribe to. I don’t see the end of term limits as an entirely bad thing—it definitely comes with a lot of negative implications, but I also say that this is a very good opportunity for people to think about their relationship with the state, to think about the value of the constitution, and to think about politics—why it matters and is so important.
As a matter of fact, both inside and outside China last week, we saw many discussions about the possible ramifications of this constitutional amendment in a way that we had not seen before. Previously, many people, especially young people, believed that politics was something very remote from their lives. But this constitutional amendment caught their attention upon national politics. They started to pay attention to politics and they started to talk about politics—that’s very important. They’ve transformed themselves from a subject who is perhaps apolitical to someone who is political. The discussion itself is very interesting and I think in many ways will cultivate another generation of political activism in China. Perhaps it begins with this radical change in the constitution and will come with unpredictable results for China’s civil society. When people look at their favorite posts being deleted and websites no longer accessible, there’s a sense of infuriation instilled in society, and a huge sense of frustration as well. “Why has this happened?” and “how has this happened?” Those are the questions that these people are struggling with. Questioning, thinking, and discussing are the original seeds of political action. You don’t have to necessarily see another Tiananmen protest or something as big as that. Thinking itself is political in this regard; it is an important form of political action. I’m hopeful that the amendment might awaken the younger generation of citizens to something important in their life—that is politics, or democratic politics.
TC: Last question on term limits: many commentators I’ve read have linked the end of term limits to a global trend toward authoritarianism. To what extent do you think Xi and the Communist Party are influenced by this apparent shift?
PY: Could you say more about this question? You’re talking about the international implications of this?
TC: To some extent, but more so to what extent you think that this decision is influenced by a global dynamic that seems to be shifting toward authoritarianism or whether it’s more just influenced by domestic dynamics—if you can meaningfully separate the two.
PY: I think you can argue both ways. On the one hand, you can say it’s domestically evolved, in the sense that, as we just talked about, we have already reached this point where the party feels like maybe one man, one paramount leader is needed more than anything else to make the party more disciplined. Their thinking is that at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat. If the boat of the regime, the boat of the party, sinks, then everybody is going to lose to a certain extent. So, to keep the boat floating, we want to make sure that we stand behind this guy. Even though we disagree here and there—we oppose his authoritarian rule—some of the party elites feel like this is necessary. So, there is a domestic dynamic that drives forward this kind of authoritarianism in China. Internationally speaking, I think China has already bandwagoned with this wave of authoritarianism. It is an important example of this global reversal to authoritarianism that puts President Xi Jinping in line with Putin and Erdoğan.
But the question is why authoritarianism is becoming more appealing in international politics. I think it has something to do with the failure of liberal democracy worldwide. We’re now in an era where new challenges are emerging that cannot be solved by liberal democracy itself. And liberal democracy is trapped in its own inherent flaws—institutionally speaking, culturally speaking, socially speaking—it cannot satisfactorily solve all its problems. So, it’s time for authoritarianism to come up and say, “look, I might be an alternative mode of political life and political governance that will more effectively get you out of trouble.” China, with its miraculous economic success, is pushing forward this model of authoritarianism because it provides the possibility of economic prosperity and very effective political control, or political governance. Many people buy into this because they don’t see any solutions from the side of Western liberal democracy and they look up to China as an alternative mode of political governance and say, “maybe we can borrow this so-called China model.” In the era of globalization, we have seen tons of problems—climate change, international refugees, terrorism, and so on—that cannot be satisfactorily addressed by liberal democracy. That makes this model of authoritarianism more and more appealing.
TC: In his speech to open the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang encouraged delegates to support Xi’s plan for “‘three critical battles’: fighting economic and financial risks, extreme poverty, and pollution” (according to a news report in The Guardian). How well has Xi done so far in addressing these issues and what do you expect for the future?
PY: Xi Jinping has definitely realized the severity of these issues, that’s the first thing. He has already realized that if the party and the state do not act on these issues, it’s going to backfire. First and foremost, they care about the regime’s security, and they have shown stronger will in maintaining the security of the regime compared to other countries that have transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy, such as Taiwan and South Korea, or even the Soviet Union. Toward the later stage of these countries’ development, they started to lose the strong hold, or will, in maintaining regime security. Look at Taiwan: in the 1980s, the Nationalist Party, Kuomintang, already saw this unstoppable change that was going to make Taiwanese society increasingly diverse and increasingly open. They felt like the party was becoming weaker and weaker in maintaining its authoritarian control of society. What they could do was just let this happen: open up the society, open up the media, and open up political contestation and political participation to a larger part of society. But China is very different. China is showing a stronger will in retaining the security of the regime, and with President Xi Jinping’s tenure, that’s going to be even more visible.
These are the three things that the party figured out might threaten the long-term security of the regime: economic development and financial security, extreme poverty, and pollution. All these things have something in common; that is, they are important sources of political legitimacy. If the party does not take care of economic and financial sustainability, if they don’t take care of extreme poverty, and if they don’t care about pollution, the party is going to lose its legitimacy. I think the society has reached the point where sheer material growth and sheer GDP growth are not going to satisfy everybody. As the society becomes more advanced, more diverse, and more open, people will have increasingly different social needs, and most of these needs are related to non-economic things such as diversity, openness, equality, social justice, clean and fresh water for everybody. Those are the important resources that people also care about beyond sheer economic growth. So how are you, in this new era, going to defend your political legitimacy? You have to really think about these things outside economic growth. Back in the 1980s and 90s, the party thought about a new source of legitimacy. Communism was no longer there because after the demise of Mao, Communism was endangered as a political ideology. It no longer attracted a lot of people. They started to think about economic growth and economic benefits as a source of political legitimacy. Now we have reached this level of social development where people have started to think beyond economic growth to find more critical things when they evaluate the country’s politics.
In many ways, Xi Jinping has shown a lot of ambition and determination in these three regards. In terms of economic and financial security, I think he has been trying very hard to make sure that the country’s economic and financial institutions and systems are still vibrant in fending off risks from inside and outside of the country. I think he’s been working on the issue of extreme poverty for quite a long time, but it’s still something that’s dragging the foot of the government. He announced a plan to completely eliminate extreme poverty within three years, so this is definitely something that he’s looking at extremely closely. Environmental pollution—again this is something that the party has been aware of for a long time, and I think it’s struggled with this for a long time because of the contradiction between environmental protection and economic development. The party has not figured out a long-term, systematic plan for management of this issue. But I think pollution is going to sit on top of the agenda for the next decade or so. I think it’s something that the government is working very hard on. The difficulty is that they lack effective instruments or measures to deal with it because of the complicated political issues and interests involved. It’s difficult for the party to say, “Within the next few years, we’re going to completely solve the problem.”
TC: Are larger environmental issues such as climate change part of the focus on pollution? We see sort of a vacuum in leadership on climate issues with the United States wanting to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Do you see Xi as someone who is focused on reducing emissions and doing other things to mitigate climate change?
PY: Xi is looking at this as an opportunity for China to become more active on the international stage, with the United States pulling out from the treaty. China is one of the two major emitters in the world, but I think it’s also political in the sense that it’s not just about promoting your environmental policies, it’s not just about promoting your agenda here; it’s also about how to promote your political influence in this regard. The government is not joining those organizations and treaties for the sake of protecting the world; it’s also for the sake of advancing their political interest and influence around the world. With the environmental agenda always comes the political, the political agendas. It’s a huge thing for Xi Jinping to think about China’s role in international environmental control and environmental protection in the era of a weak United States, globally speaking. What is he going to do? We still need some time to observe, but I think it’s possible that he’s going to take a more active role in filling the vacuum previously occupied by the United States.
TC: This proposal to end extreme poverty in three years—that’s a very ambitious proposal and it’s obviously a very positive proposal, a very positive step. Do you think the party and Xi are really committed to this, and what do you project in three years? Is that a goal that is going to be reached?
PY: The party has the capacity—economic capacity, political capacity, administrative capacity—to implement this policy, and the party cares a lot about numbers. I think this project will do well in terms of numbers. But my worry is the long-term sustainability. It’s easier for the party to reach a certain level in terms of numbers and looking good on paper than it is to fight a continuous battle against extreme poverty. It’s likely that the party will say by 2022 perhaps, or 2021, that they accomplished the mission of eliminating extreme poverty, but what’s going to happen next? We have already seen these kinds of things happen in China during the Great Leap Forward, where the party projected a very ambitious plan to catch up with the United States, the United Kingdom, and so on, but the consequences were very, very dire. What worries me are the potential social and cultural consequences of this. Yes, you lift people out of extreme poverty, but at what price? Is extreme poverty going to come back in the near future? That’s also something to think about. The party is very good at achieving short-term goals, but it has a very bad reputation in achieving long-term, sustainable goals. In this sense, it will take time to see how far and how well this plan will take place.
TC: What characterizes Xi’s approach to Tibet and Xinjiang, regions where government authorities have cracked down on movements for independence or meaningful autonomy?
PY: He has taken a very iron-fisted approach to both regions. Compared to his predecessors like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he’s even more iron-fisted. There’s a smaller and smaller space for political dissidents from the ethnic groups of Tibet and the Uighurs to oppose his policy. Over the past few years, China has stepped up its security measures in both regions to the extent that both regions have already been militarized. They deployed a considerable number of military personnel, troops, soldiers. We’re not just talking about police; we’re talking about the military deployed in both regions—they say in order to deter independence-oriented political activists. What I’m seeing here is the government using both regions as examples to show the rest of the country that if you are going to challenge the party’s authority, here’s the example. Today it’s happening in Xinjiang, tomorrow it’s going to take place in Shanghai and Beijing. It’s very likely that the party is using both Xinjiang and Tibet as a field for experiments for an even more militarized authoritarian politics. Like I mentioned in class, the Chinese say, “kill the chicken in front of the monkey to scare the monkey.” In this regard, Xinjiang and Tibet are very much like the chicken that is being slaughtered to scare the monkey, the rest of the country. Because of the strategic value and political sensitivity of those regions, I think the government down the road is going to tighten up its control even more in Xinjiang and Tibet to secure and advance its authoritarian politics in the country as a whole.
TC: You mentioned in class the different social programs and social safety nets for people in rural and urban areas. That’s something I didn’t know about, and I think a lot of people in the U.S. and the West, people outside China, don’t know about. Can you explain this dynamic?
PY: There’s always been this dualistic, dichotomous division between rural and urban. One of the reasons is that they assume different political roles in the development of the country. Back in the Mao era, the major role for the urban area was industrialization and the role for the rural area was to help secure the success of urban industrialization. Mao used this price scissors to sort of exploit the rural areas to feed the growth of industrialization in urban areas. Now in the post-Mao era, there is still a divide between rural and urban, but the role they play has changed. For the urban area, the political and social role is very economy-oriented. It’s about how to boost the country’s economy and how to integrate the country’s economy into the global economy. Along the east coast, you see factories and companies that are open and run businesses in cooperation with the global economy. They are the ones who provide this export-oriented economy to help China engage in deeper relations with the global economy. And in this era, the role for the rural is to provide cheap labor by sending a huge group of workers to urban, coastal areas in order to sustain this export-oriented economy. The social and political roles have changed on both sides, but there is still a divide.
In terms of social security, back in the Mao era, the government set up this very well-functioning social security net, mainly in the urban areas because the cost was very high, and the country was not economically ready to extend it to rural areas. What they did was set up the hukou system. This served to bind peasants to the countryside. That means that the farmers, the peasants, were not allowed to live in the city and compete against urban residents for benefits. In the post-Mao era, the hukou system was still there as a very good example of the social division between rural and urban. Now the system allows a certain kind of social mobility among the peasants. In other words, the hukou system has loosened up a little bit, especially in the smaller cities. They allow peasants to move to the city and live there, buy a house, buy property, and work in the city. Yet, on the other hand, they still block access to the social welfare system because they see those peasants as a burden and as a potential threat to the system. They are now using the peasants as a source of cheap labor and as a driving force for mass consumption. They want these peasants to come to the city, spend their money, and also make money for the city, yet they don’t want the peasants to live there and enjoy the benefits that urbanites are enjoying. I think that’s a very important division, but depending on the specific era, the Mao era versus the post-Mao era, the social roles and the function of this division changed. Previously, it was about industrialization, and now it’s about China’s capitalist economy. What is common to the two eras is that cities are not willing to give benefits to the other major part of the country’s citizens.
I’m excited about Chelsea Manning’s Senate campaign. Manning, a former soldier who leaked information about U.S. military attacks on civilians and top-secret diplomatic cables, among other information, to Wikileaks, was released from prison last May. To enter politics less than a year later is courageous. Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act for the leaks and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her imprisonment was condemned by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which noted in a 2014 statement that “[b]y disseminating classified information via Wikileaks she revealed to the world abuses perpetrated by the US army, military contractors and Iraqi and Afghan troops operating alongside US forces… [n]otable amongst the information revealed by Private Manning was previously unseen footage of journalists and other civilians being killed in US helicopter attacks.” On January 17 of last year, Manning’s sentence was commuted by president Obama.
Manning’s bravery in blowing the whistle on human rights abuses and enduring subsequent imprisonment, including “three years in pre-trial detention, including 11 months in conditions which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture described as cruel and inhumane,” according to the statement by Amnesty International, is quite sufficient. But Manning also exhibited bravery by coming out as a transgender woman in a 2013 public statement immediately following her conviction in court. Since her release, Manning has become a symbol of pride for the LGBTQ community.
In a column for The Guardian published last January, Manning argued that the key lesson from the Obama presidency was that progressives should never “start off with a compromise.” Citing conservative resistance to all elements of Obama’s progressive program, Manning concluded, “[o]ur opponents will not support us nor will they stop thwarting the march toward a just system that gives people a fighting chance to live.” She also added that it was time “to actually take the reins of government and fix our institutions.” Now Manning is setting out to do just that.
On January 14, Manning published a video on YouTube declaring her candidacy for U.S. Senate as a Democrat, challenging incumbent Ben Cardin in the Maryland Democratic primary on June 26. In the video, Manning maintains a no compromise stance:
We need to stop asking them to give us our rights.
They won’t support us.
They won’t compromise.
We need to stop expecting that our systems will somehow fix themselves.
We need to actually take the reins of power from them.
(as transcribed in the YouTube video description)
One reason I’m excited for Manning’s Senate run is because we badly need more elected representatives who care about protecting civilians and supporting human rights. A senator Chelsea Manning would be a powerful advocate for the principles of justice and human rights in Trump’s retrograde America. But theoretical and political traps lie in waiting. Manning’s commitment to take on the U.S. military is necessary, but what will her position be on human rights abuses and civilian killings committed by other countries?
What Manning’s approach to Syria will be is a key question. I focus on Syria in part because of the magnitude of the crisis. From March 2011 to March 2017, over 200,000 civilians were killed in the country, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The Syrian government is responsible for 94% of civilian deaths during that time, utilizing barrel bombs, chemical attacks, and starvation sieges, among other weapons and methods of killing. Syrian civil society and medical relief organizations have repeatedly called for action from the international community, including military action if necessary, to stop the bloodshed (sources: 1, 2, 3). There has been no global response even remotely sufficient. Since 2013, 400,000 people in the Eastern Ghouta area outside of Damascus, which is rebel-controlled, have been under siege by the Syrian government’s military. Both Eastern Ghouta and the province of Idlib were declared “de-escalation zones” in a deal between Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and agreed to by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But on January 14, the White Helmets, a medical rescue group, reported that 177 civilians had been killed in Eastern Ghouta since December 29, when Syrian and Russian military forces began a campaign to retake the area. The Syrian regime has also begun an offensive to retake the province of Idlib, where 2.6 million people live. Mustafa al-Haj Youssef, of the White Helmets in Idlib, said “[t]he bombing is constant. It’s not daily but hourly, on the whole region, and it seems to be completely random.”
I also focus on Syria because I have little doubt that Manning will take the right stance on crises in places like Palestine and Yemen, where the U.S. is directly complicit in perpetrating human rights abuses through support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, with the U.S. at the center of analysis, others on the left have come up short in demonstrating solidarity with Syrian revolutionaries and civilians under attack. Academic and journalist Danny Postel argues that
[t]he Left’s responses fall into three main categories:
explicit support for the Assad regime
monochrome opposition to Western intervention, end of discussion (with either implicit or explicit neutrality on the conflict itself)
general silence caused by deep confusion
It’s likely that many of Manning’s supporters in the U.S. fall into one of these three categories. Postel writes that the second position listed “represents an (ironically) Eurocentric/US-centric stance (it’s all about the West, not the Syrian people) — a total abandonment of internationalism.”
Manning can avoid falling into the same trap by putting solidarity first and echoing the demands of Syrian activists. One imperative is stopping Syrian and Russian government attacks on civilians from the air. By taking up this issue, Manning could help stop atrocities like Collateral Murder (committed by the U.S. in Iraq) from continuing to happen in Syria (committed by the Assad government and Russia). As a whistleblower, Manning brought to light civilian casualties and other abuses of human rights. As a candidate for office, she can call for measures to prevent these atrocities from happening.
Tuesday was a good night for progressives. Nearly across the board, Democrats made gains and progressive ballot measures were approved by voters (the defeat of an Ohio initiative to cap prescription drug costs is a notable exception). These are some of the big stories:
Off-year elections are strange things. The media doesn’t pay much attention to them ahead of time, but as the results roll in you realize how much is at stake. It’s impossible to separate Tuesday’s results from the backlash against Donald Trump. Although the seats in play this year favored Democrats, the electorate’s shift to the left is still a rejection of the White House’s hateful policies. Aside from a few special elections, this was the first opportunity for voters to express an opinion on the president’s job performance. It wasn’t a favorable verdict. Now activists can return to organizing and lay the groundwork for future progress.
Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, you’ve probably noticed the media attention devoted to his possible (is it confirmed now? I’ve lost track!) collusion with Russia during the campaign, and Russia’s efforts to swing public opinion in his favor ahead of the election. Chances are you also know that Trump strongly dislikes it. In large part, this antipathy probably stems from a sense that the focus on Russian interference tarnishes his (electoral college) victory. But there are other implications, such as that Trump is in some sense a puppet of Putin. Critics of Trump have told the story in various ways, emphasizing different elements to make several distinct points. Trump himself has tried to bat away the story by calling it “fake news,” but as the Mueller investigation continues, it won’t go away.
While most left-wing critics of Trump have been among the most vocal in sounding the alarm on Russian influence, some on the left have criticized the media’s focus on this topic. An internal debate among writers for The Nation, a left-wing magazine, has taken place about their coverage of the Russia story. I’ve heard the case that focus on the Trump-Russia connection, and the broader story about Russia’s use of propaganda to influence global public opinion, is a distraction from Trump’s devastating policies. The American media undoubtedly prefers an exciting story about Russian influence to dry articles about policy, but the Russia story is much more than a distraction. Left commentators who entirely dismiss this multifaceted story are either missing or willfully ignorant of some of its most important aspects.
I’ll start with one of the most often mentioned points: Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin says a lot about the kind of leader he is. Praise for authoritarian leaders elsewhere means that Trump will continue to stretch the limits of what an American president can say and do. And of course if there are tangible ties between Trump and the Russian state, that’s deeply concerning. Less discussed are the effects of Russia’s propaganda.
Russia-supported propaganda bolsters the racist right. A Politico Magazine story about a dashboard monitoring Russia-backed Twitter accounts notes that “[f]or three consecutive days in August, the most retweeted Russia Today stories recorded by the dashboard involved scaremongering videos appearing to show refugees swarming into Spain, as well as a story alleging that the German government is suppressing news of refugee crimes.” The alt-right’s authoritarian ideology meshes well with Putin’s attack on the usefulness and efficacy of democracy. Russian state media has also offered support for racist movements throughout Europe, such as the French National Front.
Crucially, Russia’s misinformation supports its geopolitical agenda. Russian government news outlets and Russia-promoted content attempts to mold opinion on international issues, especially Syria and Ukraine, in line with its interests. According to the Politico Magazine piece,
One of the most prevalent themes pushed by RIOT [Russian Influence Operations on Twitter] is the promotion of conspiracy theories that muddy the waters regarding any wrongdoing by Russia or its allies, particularly the Syrian regime. This material is significantly promoted over social media, with occasional help from the attributed outlets. Examples over the past year include conspiracy theories seeking to discreditBana al-Abed, a young girl in Syria who tweeted about the civil war with assistance from her mother, and reports of chemical attacks by the Syria regime…
Some writers on the left have participated in this conspiracy commentary. It is unclear whether there is a connection between a group of left-wing pro-Assad bloggers and Russian state media, but there clearly is a symbiosis. Russian state media and commentators from other platforms are spreading lies in real time, with the practical effect of discouraging international action to protect civilians under attack by the Syrian and Russian governments. The consequence of a post-truth, “alternative facts” politics is that the global public is cross-pressured between reading calls for solidarity from survivors of war crimes and seeing propaganda outlets deny that the crimes ever happened. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes about denialism and “moral atrophy” here.
In the U.S., the biggest counter to propaganda is political education and news literacy. If Russia wishes to discredit democracy, the U.S. needs to respond by deepening democracy and making it more participatory and inclusive. And the left needs to develop an internationalism that emphasizes solidarity with people, not states, to flip Sam Hamad’s summary of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance.
The Russia story, and Russian propaganda, should be taken seriously. While Trump-Russia ties are being investigated, we should recommit to seeking the truth and educate each other on how to ignore propaganda.
United States president Donald Trump made his first appearance at the United Nations this week, delivering an address to the General Assembly on September 19th. It went about as well as most analysts expected. Trump’s first significant foray into policy was about North Korea, and he took the opportunity to make the abhorrent threat “to totally destroy” the country if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” If taken literally, that would of course be a war crime.
The second Trump target was Iran, and the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of the U.S. president trashing a diplomatic agreement—the Iran nuclear deal—that was brokered in large part by the United States itself and remains in effect. But that inconsistency is not what was most problematic. Aside from the danger in and of itself of America abandoning the Iran deal, Trump’s rhetoric has implications for North Korea. In an article for The New York Times, David E. Sanger writes:
Presumably, the United States would have to make some concessions to North Korea in return for limits on its nuclear program. But why negotiate with the United States if this president or the next one can just throw out any agreement?
Taken on its own, Trump is correct in criticizing Iran for using its resources to “shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship” and “fuel Yemen’s civil war.” But with regard to Yemen, Trump reaches the depths of cynical hypocrisy by ignoring the devastating bloodshed and suffering caused by Saudi Arabia in that country. Slate’s Fred Kaplan emphasizes this discrepancy:
[Trump] said nothing about the similarly dreadful records of Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In fact, he praised Saudi Arabia—where, he noted, he was “greatly honored” to speak earlier this year—for its agreement to stop “radical Islamic terrorism,” ignoring the Saudis’ longtime support for certain terrorist movements and the country’s cruel bombing of civilians in Yemen, with our own shameful abetting.
The following is Trump’s brief discussion of Syria and the crimes of the Assad regime:
We seek the de-escalation of the Syrian conflict, and a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. The actions of the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens — even innocent children — shock the conscience of every decent person. No society can be safe if banned chemical weapons are allowed to spread. That is why the United States carried out a missile strike on the airbase that launched the attack.
Trump clearly condemned Assad and touted the U.S. missile strike this spring, but he indicated no plan going forward, such as the creation of a no-fly zone or further strikes on Syrian government air bases. In fact, he justified the spring missile strike as an attempt to stop the spread of chemical weapons. But by focusing on stopping the use of chemical weapons, Trump gives Assad leeway to kill by other means, such as devastating barrel bombs.
Missing from the speech entirely was condemnation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and any mention of climate change.
The address was not without overarching themes, but they were not particularly consistent with Trump’s actual policy positions. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor looks at Trump’s selective support for the principle of sovereignty. Tharoor also unpacks Trump’s supposed “principled realism:”
The irony is that Trump’s international agenda is neither principled nor pragmatic, and has always been guided by ideology first. Both Trump and [adviser Stephen] Miller care chiefly about the narrow domestic base that catapulted Trump to power. So, in the most august chamber of international diplomacy, Trump stuck to his ultranationalist guns, extolling the “nation-state” as “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” while saying little about democracy, human rights and the rule of law elsewhere.
An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest.
Comparing Trump’s speech with the address by UN secretary-general António Guterres is a study in contrast. Guterres’ remarks addressed seven key issues, including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and violations of humanitarian law. Perhaps most striking were his comments on immigration and refugees:
we will not end the tragedies on the Mediterranean, the Andaman Sea and elsewhere without creating more opportunities for regular migration. This will benefit migrants and countries alike.
I myself am a migrant, as are many of you in this room. But no one expected me to risk my life on a leaky boat or to cross a desert in the back of a truck to find employment outside my country of birth.
Safe migration cannot be limited to the global elite.
That last line won a lot of applause. Summarizing his position on immigration and migration, Guterres asserted, “we do not only face a refugee crisis; we also face a crisis of solidarity.”
That crisis of solidarity is the failure of nations to provide safe haven to people fleeing violence, as well as the rhetoric of politicians who blame immigrants for society’s ills. A good example of that rhetoric was a section of Trump’s address where he pits migrants against struggling native-born citizens:
For the receiving countries, the substantial costs of uncontrolled migration are borne overwhelmingly by low-income citizens whose concerns are often ignored by both media and government.
Trump’s zero-sum approach to both global politics and migration is challenged by global solidarity, a concept that represents the best impulses of the UN. Although I don’t wish to present Guterres’ speech as perfect, his “crisis of solidarity” concept is a useful lens to view many global crises. It can shed light on climate change as well as global inaction in the face of violence and humanitarian disasters.
It’s important to consider how this crisis of solidarity can be solved. How can international bonds be strengthened, not only between countries but also between peoples, many of whom are in conflict with their own governments and local power structures? Rather than a retreat to nationalism and strong nation-states, how can we move toward global cooperation and achieve not only peace but also justice? These are the complex open questions that will remain after the General Assembly concludes and all the heads of state head home.
8 or 9 years ago, before I had much of a political consciousness, I somehow became aware that the Earth was getting warmer. Due to humans burning fossil fuels and the level of CO2 ratcheting up in the atmosphere, we had created an environmental crisis that risked spiraling out of control. Despite not having the political or historical context to understand how something like climate change could become a reality, I realized that this was a crucial problem. I suddenly experienced an urgency that is easy to lose later in life. On some level, I knew that the climate crisis would define my life and the lives of my generation (along with others). Since, the magnitude of the crisis has only grown.
If there’s anything September 11th, 2001 taught us, it’s that we should not give in to fear or succumb to terror. Instead in cases of emergency, we turn to our greatest strength: love. As this 9/11 anniversary is marked by the emergencies that are these hurricanes, we are called collectively to a greater love than many of us have ever known.
Around the world, there are climate and community activists reaching deep into their hearts and drawing on the powerful source of revolutionary love. Climate leaders now include the heads of major faiths, such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. And yet entrenched economic interests have slowed urgent climate action to a crawl. Political figures, such as Trump, McConnell, and Ryan still minimize this crisis or deny that humans have caused climate change at all. Extreme weather puts the lie to this denial‑–hurricanes Harvey and Irma are only the latest domestic examples of disasters likely exacerbated by climate change. Globally, from flooding to drought, the cost of climate change is measured in human lives and the devastation of natural ecosystems. That’s happening right now. In addition, because of the nature of climate tipping points, action or inaction on climate change in the present will determine whether there will still be a hospitable planet to live on in the future.
Whether we will collectively meet this challenge depends on the efforts of those reaching into the activist toolbox and holding economic and political leaders to account. Rev. Lewis’ petition continues with a call to action:
We need leadership. You and I need to lead! We need a revolution, a love revolution. In cases of emergency, we know how to pull together. We rescue each other from burning buildings and from rising waters. We pull down moldy plaster and rebuild. We board up windows together, or fly each other out of danger. We open our doors and our hearts.
We stand up, we march, we sit in, we die in. We change the law. We change the tide. We make it better. We take care of each other. We have each other’s backs. Why? Because we are one human family, inextricably connected to each other. We need each other to live! We remember the emergency of 9/11. We helped each other on that terrible day. In this time of emergency, we must begin a love revolution, one that takes seriously climate change.
You can read the full petition text and sign on here.