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Political change in China and Kenya: Elite musical chairs?

President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto, Nasa leader Raila Odinga and President Kalonzo Musyoka at State House in 2013. President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Deputy William Ruto, Nasa leader Raila Odinga and President Kalonzo Musyoka at State House in 2013.

By (almost) all accounts, the Harambee House meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has produced a major shift in Kenya’s political landscape, even if its ultimate impact is far from clear. But one question it raises is that of short-term, more superficial changes as opposed to those of a fundamental nature, in this case, with regard to the country’s political system. And this notion of “system” refers not only to what is on paper in terms of constitutional and legal provisions, but also how ‘politics’ and governance more broadly (include adherence to the rule-of-law) actually operates.

To go further afield, let us consider the recent and quite momentous change in China: The (nearly unanimous) vote by the National People’s Congress of the Communist Party to remove presidential term limits, allowing its current leader, Xi Xinping, so serve indefinitely after he completes his second, five-year term in 2023. (Indeed, several observers have suggested that the handful of dissenters were also acting on party instructions, in order to occlude such de facto unanimity with a fig-leaf of ‘free choice’.)

Thinking back to the expressed need by Chinese leaders themselves in the wake of the chaos associated with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s final years for term limits to provide for a regular, and thus more orderly, transfer of power, it will be interesting to see in the years ahead just what the consequences of this momentous decision are.

What must be recalled in this context, however, is that whatever has now been done to magnify the power of a single individual at the top of the Chinese state, and notwithstanding the recent (at least partial) withdrawal of the state from certain sections of the economy, and its unprecedented growth — with the concomitant uplifting of living standards for millions of its citizens — there has been not the slightest hint of any willingness of the CCP to surrender its monopoly on political power. In other words, with or without term limits for its most senior leader, the Chinese political system remains the antithesis of Western liberal democracy.

And this reality raises the question:Why is this so? Any attempt to answer this question must begin with the 1949 Communist Revolution itself, which swept away a weak and chaotic, ‘nationalist’ and capitalist system (though with significant remnants of a pre-capitalist, quite feudal, system with regard to the rural land regime and agriculture production — the foundation of that economy).

Looking at its origins and impact a few years after that revolution, the British historian CP Fitzgerald (who had lived in China for nearly 20 years), identified a number of key factors that expose why nothing similar to Western-European democracy could have emerged from it. Most important, in his view, are the following:

( 1 ) The early complete imperial conquest of territory by several Chinese dynasties, thus obviating the need for bargaining with local potentates which could have established a political tradition of give-and-take;

( 2 ) Similarly, the general absence of any neighboring powers with which bargains had to be struck (as opposed to simply walling itself off from them, or seeking to defend territorial integrity in the face of military attacks by hostile ‘barbarians’ (especially to the North), against which internal unity was essential;

( 3 ) The absence of any religious/philosophical tradition that emphasises the individual soul/the equality of souls, and the absence of any ‘church’ (or ‘mosque’) that stood outside the state and could thus counter its appetite for complete mastery of the civil domain;

( 4 ) An overwhelming economic dependence on agriculture as opposed to trade, thus preventing the emergence of ‘money’, as a bargaining tool between sectoral interests and state authority;

( 5 ) The dependence on collective (mainly clan and village) institutions to resolve criminal and civil disputes, likewise obviating the need for the evolution of ‘law’ or any legal sector that the state would be obliged to enforce/protect, regardless of the immediate needs/whims of its leaders;

To summarise, in Fitzgerald’s words: “The fundamental requirements for democracy were thus lacking and to supply them would have required a revolution even more profound than that which has taken place. If the fragmentation of Europe into nation-states after the fall of Rome is the first cause of European ideas of liberty, the main preoccupation of the Chinese reformers, as of the conservatives, was to preserve the Empire.”

Indeed, it may be argued that this is just what a succession of Chinese leaders, under the banner of the all-powerful Communist Party, has continued to do since the revolution.

At the same time, it must also be recognised that no society, including its political system, is completely static, with the absence of overt institutional change at times obscuring major tectonic shifts based on less visible economic and/or cultural change occurring beneath the surface, which may occasionally erupt, sweeping away most if not all of the ‘status quo’, whether by design or by default.

As suggested above, time will tell whether this change in the structure of power in China simply confirms a major shift in power-dynamics that has already taken place, or rather, sets the stage for significant changes to follow.

Likewise, it remains to be seen whether the Harambee House meeting, and, more important, the “way forward” that emerges from it, will constitute a genuine re-configuration of power in the Kenyan system, or rather, (at most) only a re-arrangement of the chairs in the theatre of personalised, elite politics.

The writer is a  research analyst with Ipsos-Kenya, and has written this piece in his personal capacity

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