Can only Xi go to America?

Bruce Gilley argues in The National Interest that the next leader of China is going to be trouble for the United States:

It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally....

Foreign policy is where new Chinese leaders tend to make their mark quickly, given the small number of people involved compared to domestic policy. Thus it’s also the area where the question of who’s in charge in Beijing really matters, and the fine art of Pekingology remains important. Vice president Joe Biden came away from an August visit praising Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic.” Biden is probably right. But Xi’s strength and pragmatism do not necessarily augur well for those fearful of a rising China.

The first time that Xi’s “strong” dark side emerged publicly was in 2009 when on a visit to Mexico, he told local Chinese, “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do but point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution, we do not export poverty and hunger, and we do not interfere in the affairs of others. So what is there to complain about?”

Xi’s “three did nots,” as they have become known, have won plaudits from the country’s nationalists, including the authors of the vitriolic 1996 book The China That Can Say No. These nationalists express hope that Xi will be the first leader since Mao who is willing to stand up to the West. In early September, Xi told students at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training academy in Beijing, that “two overriding objectives—the struggle for both national independence and popular liberation, which is to say the realization of both state power and popular wealth—have always been closely related. The former has always been the basis of the latter.”

Gilley's hypothesis is certainly plausible, but can I suggest an alternative?  China is in the middle of a leadership transition -- and when politicians are trying to move on up but ain't there yet, they often have the freedom to make all kinds of crazy, out-there, irresponsible foreign policy statements secure in the knowledge that foreign policy statements are not all that binding once politicians assume power

Indeed, one could go even further.  The phrase "only Nixon could go to China" refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People's Republic of China.  Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States? 

I don't know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don't know either.  China is already experiencing some serious foreign policy blowback that has nothing to do with the United States, however.  I'm not sure that Xi will really need the headache of ratcheting up tensions with Washingtgon, unless the global economic downturn is sooooooo bad that scapegoating foreigners is the best option for political survival. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Do networks transform the democratic political process?

Nicholas Kulish has a New York Times front-pager on the rise of networked protest movements in consolidated democracies like India, Israel, and Greece. I hereby officially accuse Anne-Marie Slaughter of hacking into the NYT website and writing these paragraphs:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

As a social scientist, I must acknowledge that this is a powerful prima facie data point in favor of Slaughter.

And yet, it's worth pushing the NYT thesis a bit. What happens when the coalition of like-minded individuals stop being of like mind? These sorts of protests can be very powerful on single-issue questions where a single policy change is desired. Maintaining this level of activism to affect the ongoing quotidian grubbiness of politics, however, is a far more difficult undertaking. Even if people can be mobilized behind the concept of "Policy X is Stupid!" getting the same consensus on "Policy Y is the Answer!" is harder. Over time, these kind of mass movements have an excellent chance of withering away or fracturing from within. See, for example, the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt.

Another thing, and this is important: unless the people in these movements actually vote in elections, then their agenda will be thwarted in the long run. Even if these kinds of networked movements are new, the political imperative to get elected and re-elected is not. If they don't vote, then officials have a pretty powerful incentive to curry favor with the people who do vote, don't take to the streets and don't like these young whippersnappers with their interwebs have different policy preferences.

This gets to a point that I have been fumbling trying to make in the Great and All Powerful Slaughter-Drezner Debate: that at times we might be debating past each other because we have different time horizons. Anne-Marie can point to networked social movements that have an immediate impact on conventional politics. For foreign policymakers, the here and now is what matters. What I want to see is whether these movements can sustain themselves over time. For international relations theorists, the persistence of trends matters too.