Solidarity with Whom? Venezuela and the US Left

Disclaimer: These are some provisional thoughts from a U.S. American whose opinions should be given significantly less weight than the opinions of activists and citizens in Venezuela whose futures are at stake.

via Wikimedia Commons


On January 23, massive anti-government demonstrations were held in Venezuela, an outpouring of rage at Nicolás Maduro following years of economic deprivation and increasingly authoritarian rule. While speaking at one of the rallies, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó assumed the title of interim president. I write that line with caution. The New York Times and other news outlets have used the term “self-declared president,” but that’s somewhat misleading. In an appearance on the Al Jazeera English program Inside Story, Christopher Sabatini, editor of the website Global Americans, noted that Guaidó has the backing of the National Assembly, the sole “legitimately elected body today in Venezuela.” In contrast, Maduro is now serving a second term as president by virtue of a 2018 election in which leading opposition parties were barred from competing. Sabatini argues that this election was illegitimate “by any international standard.” This illegitimacy opened the door for Guaidó to invoke Article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which enables the president of the National Assembly (Guaidó) to become interim president of the country in the absence of another president. The interim president then has an obligation to call new elections, which Guaidó has pledged to do. Sabatini makes the case that “this is really the only route right now. It’s not perfect, I’ll admit.”

It’s in this context that the U.S. and many countries in the Americas have declared their support for Guaidó. Asked about whether the involvement of outside countries like the U.S. and Canada was helpful, Sabatini replied:

I don’t know, I must admit. You know, there’s part of me… that says that something had to happen, there was a need for a moment of change… [Maduro] has crippled the country, caused over three million people to leave the country, it’s been a disaster. So, you have to look for that opening. Having said that, this is a bold move. Given the history of U.S. intervention in the hemisphere, which has, say in Guatemala in 1954 declared support for an unconstitutional president in a coup… the U.S.’s position is helped by the support of Canada and at least, at last count about seven to nine countries in Latin America that agree. I think it’s important, I think it’s a bold move, but I think what you’re going to see is a division not just in the region—of course you’ve got Nicaragua and Cuba and Mexico and Uruguay that have not recognized Guaidó as the president—but also globally, you’re going to see China and Russia back Maduro, so this is going to have implications beyond just the region and beyond domestic politics in Venezuela—it’s going to have a global reach. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s a good move, it’s an important move, but I think history will have to be the judge of this, because it’s a bold gambit.”

A joint statement by several human rights organizations in the Americas concluded,

The only solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies in a credible negotiated process that leads to free and fair elections that allow Venezuelans to choose their own leaders. The conditions for such a solution cannot be achieved through international pressure alone; they must be created through careful diplomatic engagement. In this spirit, we applaud recent efforts by the European Union, the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, as well as past statements by the Lima Group, all of which have expressed an interest in advancing a negotiated solution. Pairing pressure with creative diplomacy is the best way to facilitate a return to democracy

Given all this, it’s reasonable for there to be disagreement in the U.S. about whether it was the right decision for our government to recognize Guaidó. In addition, it’s incumbent upon the U.S. left to ensure that U.S. interests are not imposed on Venezuela. But this discussion should be informed by the fact that Maduro has systematically attempted to consolidate power by dismantling democratic institutions even as the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country worsens. And the discussion should take it as a given that Guaidó does indeed have far greater moral and legal legitimacy than Maduro, regardless of whether the U.S. has a right to point that out. Unfortunately, leading figures in the U.S. left have skipped that nuance altogether.

On January 24th, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote on Twitter,

A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.

The tweet was ‘liked’ by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a fellow progressive member of congress elected in last year’s blue wave (Tlaib has not herself written a statement on Venezuela).

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), responded to a call by commentator Rania Khalek for progressive criticism of “the Trump administration’s right wing coup in Venezuela” by writing,

Let me get this straight. The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy. Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.

Khalek has also been retweeted by Rep. Omar.

In response to a statement by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) supporting U.S. recognition of Guaidó, Rep. Khanna wrote,

With respect Senator Durbin, the US should not anoint the leader of the opposition in Venezuela during an internal, polarized conflict. Let us support Uruguay, Mexico, & the Vatican’s efforts for a negotiated settlement & end sanctions that are making the hyperinflation worse.

This was retweeted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Again, it’s not a problem in and of itself that some progressive Democrats disagree with Trump’s recognition of Guaidó as interim Venezuelan president. But there are several things that I do find troubling:

First, the description of a U.S. “coup” ignores the legal and constitutional context of Guaidó’s assumption of the interim presidency and U.S. recognition of him. On the possibility of a coup, Venezuelan journalist Reynaldo Trombetta writes:

Of course, some think this is a coup organised by Donald Trump. That it’s all about oil. It’s impossible to know for sure, though the dissatisfaction on the streets of Venezuela is clearly very real and justified. There are probably some very excited oil executives somewhere fantasising about getting their hands on the largest crude reserves in the world. It will be up to the Venezuelans to stop them. But as things stand, those reserves are right now in the hands of Russia, China and Cuba, and those shouting about Venezuela’s sovereignty don’t seem to mind that at all.

The labelling of the entirety of the Venezuelan opposition as “far right” is clearly unfair. Trombetta notes, “Guaidó is 100% working class” and his “fight is about rebuilding Venezuela, not about giving back power to the politicians who ruled the country between 1958 and 1998.”

Second, Reps. Khanna and Omar have retweeted and borrowed the arguments of commentators who routinely apologize for authoritarians. Omar retweeted an episode of Empire Files, a program on TeleSUR English (which is funded in part by the Venezuelan government) hosted by former RT anchor Abby Martin. Khanna has retweeted Glenn Greenwald, whose misinformation on Syria has been extensively documented (here, for example). And Rania Khalek—who, as mentioned above, both Khanna and Omar have engaged with on Twitter—obfuscates war crimes committed by the Assad regime in Syria. I’d like to think that the small group of writers on the left who are willing to whitewash atrocities have relatively little influence. But it’s become clear that—like the alt-right commentators who have the ear of Donald Trump—Martin, Greenwald, Khalek, and others are able to drive the narrative and influence members of congress.

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, these criticisms of U.S. policy have not, so far as I can tell, been paired with any comments resembling support for Venezuela’s popular movement against Maduro. The statements hint at solidarity with Venezuela as a state (at least against U.S. interference) but not solidarity with Venezuelans themselves. There is no recognition of Venezuelan anti-government activists as people with agency who are determined to change the direction of their country.

My intention here is not simply to attack otherwise progressive members of congress. We’ve seen far too much of that from the right-wing and even mainstream press. Further, I do not wish to discredit everything said in the tweets. I frankly do not know what the impact of U.S. sanctions has been on the Venezuelan economy. A majority of Venezuelans (56% to 32%) oppose U.S. sanctions, according to a December 2017 poll. In a January 2018 article,  Francisco Rodríguez, former head of the Venezuelan Congressional Budget Office, made the case against further sanctions. And the recent statement by human rights organizations in the Americas said:

It is fundamental that the international community ensure that any sanctions that may be imposed against the Maduro regime are coordinated, linked to concrete and clearly-communicated objectives and that they avoid worsening the country’s dire humanitarian emergency. In this context, we are deeply concerned by indications of renewed interest in an embargo on Venezuelan oil or other forms of broad economic sanctions, which would undoubtedly impact everyday Venezuelans and further restrict the ability to pay for imports of already scarce food and medicines.

Finally, the appointment of Elliot Abrams as U.S. special envoy for Venezuela highlights the serious risk of the U.S. opting for a disastrous neoconservative intervention utterly at odds with the spirit of the anti-Maduro uprising. A CNN piece summarizing Abrams’ bloody past is worth quoting at length:

Abrams’ controversial past in the region included his downplaying of human rights abuses by Central American governments close to the United States while serving at the State Department under President Ronald Reagan.

One instance involved the largest mass killing in recent Latin American history: the December 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 men, women and children in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote by US-trained and -equipped military units.

A Human Rights Watch report on the massacre said that Abrams at Senate hearings “artfully distorted several issues in order to discredit the public accounts of the massacre,” insisted the numbers of reported victims were “implausible” and “lavished praise” on the military battalion behind the mass killings.

In 1991, facing a multi-count felony indictment, Abrams agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts for withholding information to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair. He was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service, and later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Progressive politicians have a right and a responsibility to vigorously oppose any neoconservative moves taken by Abrams (Ocasio-Cortez has already taken notice, retweeting this post). But a watchful eye on U.S. policy must be accompanied by solidarity with the popular uprising against Maduro.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, advocacy group The Syria Campaign posted the Dr. King quote,

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.

The demand for more than a “negative peace” has historically animated the left. But in response to suffering in places that we do not have personal ties to, the U.S. left has often been willing to call for peace without justice. In Venezuela, with global solidarity and “creative diplomacy” there is a chance to achieve both. It’s not too late for U.S. activists and politicians to meet that challenge.

Brazil’s Far Right Threat

via Wikimedia Commons

On October 7, far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, came within a few percentage points of becoming Brazil’s next president. In a race with many candidates, Bolsonaro advanced with 46% of the vote, just shy of the majority needed to avoid a second round, two-person runoff. Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party–a last minute stand-in for former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was barred from running–also advanced, with 29% of the vote. (Full first-round election results here)

This election is crucial. Bolsonaro is akin to Donald Trump in his misogyny, racism, and homophobia (see here and here), while his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 suggests that his presidency could see the return of authoritarian government. Bolsonaro’s running mate, ex-general Hamilton Mourão, said of the dictatorship, “[e]xcesses were committed, heroes kill…”

In 2017, the decisive defeats of Marine Le Pen (France) and Geert Wilders (The Netherlands), suggested that the rest of the world might not jump aboard the far right Trump train. But then, presidential term limits were abolished in China, Vladimir Putin ‘won’ another six-year term in Russia, a nationalist government was formed in Italy, and now Brazil is at risk of joining a growing list of newly illiberal states.

While there are global causes for the rise of Bolsonaro, there are also important local factors. Eliane Brum describes his bases of support as those who hope to benefit from development in the Amazon, anti-same-sex marriage evangelicals, and critics of the Workers’ Party (PT):

These people hate the PT for many reasons. Some because under former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff, the party reduced poverty, widened university access to black students, and strengthened rights for housemaids – for a long time, a form of modern slavery in Brazil. Others because they cannot forgive a party that rose to power promising change, only to become corrupted and aloof.

Bolsonaro is a political outsider at a time when the ‘Operation Car Wash’ corruption scandal has tarnished the image of Brazil’s major political parties. Although politicians of both the right and the left are alleged to be corrupt, the Workers’ Party has borne the brunt of the fallout. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and Lula, Rousseff’s predecessor and founder of the Workers’ Party, faces twelve years in prison and was barred from running in this election. Fernando Haddad carries the institutional weight of the Workers’ Party and the endorsement of Lula–both a blessing and a curse–while Bolsonaro joined the minor Social Liberal Party only this year as a vehicle for his presidential run.

A Bolsonaro presidency would have grave environmental impacts. He has pledged to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate agreement, which would make Brazil only the second country, after the U.S., to declare its intent to leave the vital global accord. And Bolsonaro’s proposed domestic policy would accelerate the deforestation of the Amazon, limiting the giant rainforest’s ability to absorb CO2. An article in Grist explains,

As the global fight against catastrophic climate change ramps up, forests are a necessary front of the action. According to a dire, new report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), halting deforestation could play a vital role in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as forests have a significant capacity to absorb and store carbon.

Of course, in addition to the global threats posed by a potential Bolsonaro presidency, there are numerous threats specific to Brazil. Authoritarianism ultimately jeopardizes all Brazilians, while the candidate’s bigotry threatens marginalized communities in much the same way that Trump’s actions and rhetoric threatens marginalized communities in the United States. Bolsonaro’s promise to gut environmental protections also intersects with his disregard for human rights: “[h]e has criticized the Brazilian government’s commitment to preserving vast swaths of the Amazon for Indigenous people, promising that he will ‘not to give the Indians another inch of land.'” (Grist).

Brazilian democracy is in the fight of its life, but it’s worth ending with a positive. A wave of women-led, anti-Bolsonaro resistance has formed, and similarities with the popular opposition to Trump in the U.S. are clear. Brum again:

In August, Ludimilla Teixeira, a black anarchist born in one of the poorest communities of Salvador, Bahia, created a Facebook page: Women United Against Bolsonaro. The page, which accepts only female followers, now has almost 4 million of them. A movement grew out of this group… [on September 30] spurring hundreds of thousands of women – and men – on to the streets of Brazil and around the world. Many carried banners with the slogan and hashtag: #EleNão – #NotHim. It was the biggest demonstration organised by women in Brazil’s history.

The election’s second round will take place on October 28.

What next for Idlib?

Leila Al-Shami, co-author (with Robin Yassin-Kassab) of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, on Idlib and the international community’s dangerous shift toward rehabilitation of the Assad regime.

Leila's blog

merlin_143073099_36e9cf6a-2ee6-442b-85d4-b72fbfe50ec6-superJumboFrom 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.

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After the End of Term Limits, What’s Next for China? A Conversation with Peng Yu

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 

President Xi Jinping. Photo by the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Why the Russia Story is Significant

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 discredit Bana 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.