The Hour of the Strong Man

The Hour of the Strong Man

Monday, 5 March, 2018 - 09:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The belief has been that the age of the strong leaders ended with the past century. Their emergence was linked to extraordinary developments in the fabric of wars of independence or world wars. Observing latest developments demonstrate that the challenges of this century are no less demanding than the previous one, even if the circumstances and factors have changed.

It appears that our time is awaiting a strong man. One who is able to open the windows of hope, garner good will, bridge distances and make initiatives when others hesitate. A man who breaks the paralysis and dares to think outside the box. We need people of vision, decision-makers and those with a strong will to overcome the difficult challenges.

Sometimes the emergence of an extraordinary man prevents a country from falling into the abyss it was headed towards. This man reawakens the dreams of the youth and allows them to take part in deciding a country’s fate. He averts bloody conflicts and fatal collapses.

The West is no longer able to produce a “strong man”. Democracy fears the powerful, who harbor a deep-rooted dream for unlimited power. This is why the West has grown adept at devising formulas that can rein in their dreams. Unforgiving constitutions. The minute he celebrates a victory, he is aware of the date of his departure. Parliament will not hesitate in putting obstacles in his way. The public will not hesitate in pouncing on any slip-up. The traps of the opposition and journalists will bleed the president’s reputation. Blood will be shed on a daily basis on social media. It is clear that democracies are banking on the role of institutions and their continuity, not on an all-powerful leader.

The West, however, despite its advancement and enlightenment, is not the whole world. Wrong are those who believe that the global village will scramble to adopt the example that declared victory after the fall and suicide of the Soviet Union. We are now witnessing the confusion of the global arena at the rise of boxers who are difficult to be labeled as democratic, at least in the western sense.

The situation in the West is well-known. The United States and the world are hanging on the words of a tweeting president. The German chancellor was able to remain in her post, but election results tarnished her image. The honeymoon between the man in the Elysee and the French people is coming to an end. The lady in 10 Downing Street is struggling in leading the divorce from the European Union.

The situation in China is completely different than the one in the global village. We are witnessing the birth of the Mao Zedong of the 21st century. There are some who believe that China is preparing to live under the reign of a new emperor. It is wrong to believe that the development there does not concern us. We are speaking here about a country of 1.4 billion people and the world’s second strongest economy.

A few days ago, the Communist Party of China surprised the world when it removed the two-term limit clause in the constitution. The party also proposed introducing President Xi Jinping’s thought into the constitution. This is an honor that none of Mao’s predecessors enjoyed. This simply means that Xi’s voyage with China will be open-ended. The 2023 end date of his current term is now just a stop in a lifelong presidency that is envied by President Donald Trump, who admires Xi.

It is clear that Xi succeeded in the past five years in paving the way for an open-ended stay on Mao’s throne. He tamed the army generals and barons of war. He led a strict campaign against corruption that toppled major and stubborn figures. Whoever is observing the situation in China realizes the significance of this coup. In 1982, the party forced the leader to leave after he completed two terms. It sought to avoid the emergence of a strong figure. It avoided the emergence of a man, who enjoys freedom to act as he wished, similar to Mao, especially in wake of the cultural revolution that led to major human and economic losses.

The prevalent belief in the West was that Russia, which was rising from the rubble of the Soviet Union, would follow in the footsteps of western countries and be inspired to establish a democracy despite a long stay under single-party rule. This did not happen. Since the beginning of the century, Russia has been ruled by a man who succeeded in forming a Russian version of democracy. A guaranteed parliament and press. An ongoing crackdown on civil society and a lack of independent public opinion that can express opposition and demand accountability.

A strong leader called Vladimir Putin was born. He reshaped the internal scene, his country’s image abroad and its standing among major powers. The man holds all the strings and running in election is a cakewalk for him. He has regained Crimea and destabilized Ukraine. He intervened militarily in Syria and imposed his role on the regional and international scenes.

China is also headed towards unprecedented challenges. Its rise sparks concerns among countries near and far. The Belt and Road initiative is a clear demonstration of its aspiration to play an exceptional role in the global economy, and eventually the political arena. The position of the world’s most powerful economy for decades to come makes it a viable rival in major tussles with the US.

On the internal scene, the challenges are not simple. Preserving a high development rate. Preserving stability in a society that is witnessing demands for improvement among millions of its people, who want to take part in drawing the future of their country. This is not possible however within the current party rules. The process of modernity and catching up with the successive technological revolutions. Dealing with the digital revolution and transforming each citizen into a journalist, publisher and witness.

Given these factors, the Communist Party in China pave the way for the “strong leader” phenomenon. Perhaps it sensed that a permanent leader was necessary on the internal and foreign scenes for the upcoming phase. The need to preserve prosperity and stability combined. The need to advance China towards the position of major player on the international scene. Perhaps this is why some believe that Putin’s latest war speech that was directed to the West was not a stance. The primary competitor to the strong man in the Kremlin is the strong man sitting on Mao’s throne, which is not very far from Russia.

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