(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - From rumours that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was lesbian to coordinated videos and website comments and a show of force with an aircraft carrier, China’s government appeared to be pulling out all the stops when it came to influencing Taiwan’s election early this month. It was, it seems, a complete failure. Taiwanese voters rejected Beijing’s local political allies, reinstalling the current government with a heavily beefed-up mandate.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the result – coming after an equally resounding rejection of pro-Beijing parties in last year’s Hong Kong legislative elections – was a significant defeat. It was also a stark reminder that while authoritarian leaders might not face the kind of electoral dangers faced by counterparts in established democracies, they cannot ignore them altogether.
While Xi faces little in the way of true democratic opposition or accountability within mainland China itself, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not quite so lucky. Such concerns were clearly top of his agenda last week, dismissing effectively the entire government, installing a new prime minister and seemingly paving the way for another nimble piece of constitutional footwork to avoid Russia’s inconvenient limit on presidents serving more than two consecutive terms.
Putin’s reforms – which will ultimately strip back the powers of the presidency while boosting those of the prime minister and head of the state council – appear to open the door for his assuming one of those roles once he leaves the top job in 2024. That he is doing so at all will surprise some, who had expected Russia’s most powerful leader since Stalin to abolish term limits altogether. Kremlin critics condemned the move as another attempt to keep Putin in power, but protests in Moscow this weekend failed to get much traction.
While credible opposition parties have usually found themselves banned from elections and their leaders arrested, Putin has relied on significant voter turnout for his United Russia and allied parties. How he will play this new dynamic is not yet clear – but by dismissing the outgoing government and its leaders, he may hope to make them the scapegoats for perceived economic failures.
In many respects, both Putin and Xi face similar, or at least overlapping, challenges. Aged 67 and 66 respectively, they have both effectively seen off any rivals of their own or, so far, any other generation. But they cannot do so forever. Nor, ultimately, can they ensure their various efforts to avoid a democratic backlash will succeed forever. Indeed, both leaders have already faced them, both inside their borders and around their periphery.
For China, the greatest challenge clearly remains Hong Kong, with months of protest showing no signs of abating and voters showing every sign of being pushed further towards anti-Beijing candidates. The crackdown in the territory, in turn, was arguably the greatest single factor in the Taiwan election result, with Taiwanese looking at events in Hong Kong and concluding they have no desire whatsoever to allow Beijing to grow its influence on the island.
The failure of both repression and aggressive messaging to deliver the desired result in Hong Kong and Taiwan will concern leaders in Beijing, who are essentially betting the farm on their ability to use the same techniques in mainland China. Russia saw similar failures in its inability to prevent so-called “colour revolutions” earlier this century in Georgia and Ukraine, seeing both – as China does – as Western-backed plots to limit Moscow’s influence.
Some in Moscow and Beijing see a broader U.S.-led strategy to damage their domestic economies as well – although in reality, many of these problems stem from their own home turf. U.S. President Donald Trump’s interim trade deal with China may have reduced some of the short-term economic worries for Beijing, but in the long run it faces serious questions over its ability to sustain strong economic growth. As with most countries, both Russia and China have a growing urban-rural divide, while diversification away from fossil fuels will particularly hurt Moscow’s bottom line.
When it comes to tackling discontent at home, both Putin and Xi have used a broadly similar playbook – particularly when it comes to targeting and jailing unpopular but often hugely wealthy oligarchs and other senior officials and business people. Putin’s appointment of former tax service chief Mikhail Mishustin to the premiership may indicate another round of that is in the offing. The largely unknown official has been credited with reforming Russia’s antiquated tax collection system, but has also faced questions over how his family became incredibly wealthy as he did so.
Ultimately, both the Russian and Chinese leaders face the same twin challenges. Neither is immortal, and both will face the choice of whether to hand off power to a successor or cling grimly on until they die in office. In comments this weekend, Putin suggested he did not wish to emulate Soviet leaders in the eighties, Yuri Andropov, Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko who simply stayed. But having ruthlessly eliminated rivals it is far from clear when, where or how he will be able to find a successor.
It is no easier for Xi, with the scaling up of mass surveillance and the internment of more than a million ethnic Muslim Uighurs all unmistakable signs that his government will likely become more repressive. Events in Taiwan in many ways make his position worse. The Chinese leader had set considerable store on pledges to restore direct control to the island within a generation.
The election result suggests the only way to do that might be through military force. In Ukraine, Syria and Georgia, Putin has been able several times to use limited military adventurism to shore up his position, often in the face of economic and political struggles at home. Any Chinese move against Taiwan would be on an entirely different scale, bringing with it a much greater risk of wider conflagration.
Much as they would like to avoid it, pressure on both men will steadily rise, perhaps even as their ability to deal with it diminishes. How they handle that could yet determine the future of the century. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)