[Viewpoint] Beijing rejects populism

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[Viewpoint] Beijing rejects populism

He was a star among China’s die-hard socialists. Preaching that communist ideology would be a failure if just a few enjoy the fruits of fast economic growth, he sent thousands of wealthy businessmen to prison for corruption. It was his way of enforcing social justice the Mao Zedong way.

With the wealth he confiscated from so-called social evildoers, he built housing for the working class. Public schools in his jurisdiction provided free milk and eggs to children of poor families. His goal was to weaken capitalist enterprises or nationalize them to enrich public finances. He would then spend more on public welfare: housing, education and health care. Of course, he had enough to spend on himself, to buy loyalty from subordinates and to pamper his son with a red Ferrari.

Before he was abruptly dismissed as the party secretary of Chongqing, a major city in southwest China, his polices were lauded as leftist populism that would ensure a seat among the nine members of the central committee in Beijing’s power transition later in the year. Populism does wonders for careers, and not just in democratic societies.

But the creator of the so-called “Chongqing model,” Bo Xilai, was sacked by reform-minded Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who warned against a possible return to the turbulent period of China’s Cultural Revolution. Wen worried that a replay of the days of the never-ending revolution would destroy the economic reforms China has accomplished over the years.

Bo’s downfall was good news to Chinese businessmen, liberals and foreign investors. It does not mean that Beijing’s leaders are set on democracy. But it does say the country won’t boomerang back to the days of Mao.

The recent turmoil among the Chinese power elite demands that we take a look at ourselves.

We have industrialized and modernized way ahead of China. China learned from the state-driven economic model of Korean strongman Park Chung Hee. But can we take full pride in being a role model? China does not hide that it has nothing more to learn from Korea. It pursues its own socialist-style economic model. It has discovered fallacies and weaknesses in democracy and, so far, wants nothing to do with it.

It may be looking at us. When ill-employed democracy tumbles into the pitfall of populism, which is where we find ourselves today. All political parties are competing with extravagant welfare promises ahead of next month’s elections. They promise everything from free school meals to old-age benefits.

Large companies and rich individuals have become easy scapegoats and targets. Where will this type of democracy lead? We may be looking at a Greek kind of tragedy. What’s the difference between the leftist populism in Chongqing and the campaign populism going on in Korea?

When the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc collapsed, political scientist Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama declared the victory of the Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. But two decades since then, Western-style democracy is under a serious could of doubt. The champions of the democratic system - Europe and the United States - are ridden with deficits and piles of debt due to reckless financing.

Liquidity-short European economies sought help from cash-rich China but received cool advice that they should settle their own problems. Can we still confidently speak of capitalism’s victory? Some are even placing more importance on the consensus-driven model of Beijing than the noisy cynicism found in Washington. Russia benchmarks the Chinese economic model.

Has democracy been overrated and become passe? The sprouts of democracy in the Arab world last spring demonstrates that many still look to democracy as an ideal. China too will not be able to resist the path for long. That is why Wen Jiabao has emphasized political reforms, although it’s unclear how many of the elite in Beijing listen to him.

Beijing will inevitably have to undergo a transition to more democratic governance. But it knows that populism is dangerous in all political systems. We too must avoid the temptation if we want to keep our democratic system intact.

China’s strength lies in leadership. The party elite is bred from a highly competitive system. Wen Jiabao reined in revolutionary fervor and leftist populism by building consensus in the power elite. But we cannot expect similar wisdom from our own elite.

A minority opposition suspected of links to pro-North Korea groups is bidding for legislative seats. We are heading on a path even the Chinese have abandoned. We need a leadership that can steer democracy on the right path. Our future depends on it.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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