The patriot games

Neighbourhoods have been razed, protesters silenced and human rights activists jailed. China will al

Gasping and grimacing, Sun Yining struggled to lift the iron bar above her head. At 12, she is a head and a half taller and twice as sturdy as most Chinese girls her age. A star pupil at the Fushan Sports School in the coastal town of Yantai, she has set herself a goal: to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the next Olympics.

Sun's coach, Zhang Jianmei, proudly showed photographs of an illustrious former student, Tang Gong Hong, who won gold for China in the women's weightlifting at the Athens Games.

"The spirit of sports is all about being higher, faster, better," she said. "We made it."

"I want the same," said Sun. "I want to be a champion."

The Chinese government hopes that hosting the Olympics will enable the whole nation to share such glory. At Athens, the US won 36 gold medals, China 32. In the new sporting Cold War, the Chinese are determined to triumph on their home territory. Seven years ago, the State General Administration of Sport started "Project 119", which identified 119 golds - now 122 - going begging in athletics and swimming and other water sports. The strategy involved concentrating on disciplines with many categories, therefore many medals.

Canoeing, with 16 gold medals in Beijing, was one. The Chinese recruited a German coach, Joseph Capousek, under whose tuition Germany had won 18 Olympic golds for canoeing and kayaking in four Olympics.

In June, Capousek was sacked as Chinese team coach, allegedly because he was not getting good enough results. He believes he fell out with the sports officials partly because he criticised their obsession with winning, saying it was counterproductive, as it put too much pressure on athletes.

"For China, to win gold is political, it's very important," he said. "Everybody talks about gold in China. If you win bronze or silver, you are a loser." After he lost his job, he discovered that while the German version of his contract said he should aim to win gold, the Chinese-language version said he was obliged to do so.

If China beats the US in the medals table, Chinese officials will feel that history has finally vindicated them. "We know people will use the Olympics as an opportunity to humiliate China," said a senior diplomat. "Previously, the western media could humiliate China without Chinese people knowing, but now, because of the internet and TV, they know."

To outsiders, the idea that reporters will be running around Olympic venues seeking out opportunities to humiliate the hosts may seem absurd. But many Chinese share the government view that China was humiliated for centuries, from the Opium Wars when Britain seized Hong Kong, to the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, and on through decades of poverty and isolation. The Olympics marks the moment to prove that those days are over.

"We have to have a good Olympics," said Wang Qishan, then mayor of Beijing, last year. "Otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors." Such hyperbole has become normal. In this atheist nation, the Olympic flame is now routinely described as "sacred". Criticising the Olympics is therefore a form of sacrilege.

Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist who posted on the internet a letter entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics", was jailed earlier this year, along with others who might let foreigners see that China is a land of diverse ideals and competing interests, not a homogeneous society of 1.3 billion automatons, all blindly agreeing with the Communist Party leadership.

Sacred flame

Fang Zheng would love to attend the Olympics, but he knows he would be unwise to try to come to Beijing. In the mid-1980s he dreamed of a career in sport. But on 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, as he dived to save a female student, he was run over by a tank. Both his legs had to be amputated, one above the knee.

Still determined to be active, he learned to throw the discus and won two medals in the 1992 All-China Disabled Athletic Games. When he tried to compete internationally two years later, however, a sports ministry official told him he would not be allowed. The government was afraid that if he won, foreign journalists would ask how he lost his legs, and China would lose face. Now Fang keeps quiet, for fear of bringing more misfortune upon himself and his family.

"Of course, as a sports lover, I always wished that Beijing would host the Olympics," he said, speaking from his wheelchair in Hefei, a charmless town in eastern China. "But now it seems that the Olympics is a question of nationalism. The Chinese government always objects to the politicisation of sport, but they are the ones who politicise it most."

While critics say the government's attitude proves that it should never have been awarded the Games, in practical ways the Chinese system is ideally suited. With no public debate, no budget constraints, no transparent tendering, no citizens' groups challenging government decisions, and a large pool of migrant labour, the authorities have completed, on time, not only the 31 Olympic venues, but also three new subway lines and the largest airport terminal in the world.

"The readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future," said Hein Verbruggen, head of a visiting International Olympic Committee delegation. "What our hosts have achieved is exceptional."

Architecture correspondents write breathlessly about the grandeur of the huge new buildings that dominate the concrete and glass skyline, yet these tell us little about how China has changed. Rather, they represent the latest manifestation of its ability to realise extraordinary infrastructure projects, from the Great Wall to the Three Gorges Dam, and now the Bird's Nest stadium. Most notable is the impact of globalisation: these new buildings are mainly designed by foreigners.

None of which negates the Olympics as an opportunity to celebrate China's undeniable economic success. In 30 years of "reform and opening up", hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Most Chinese are hopeful, because they see their children will have a better life than theirs.

With 80 heads of state expected to attend the opening ceremony, the Olympics also symbolise the country's new diplomatic reach and ability to influence events. China is criticised for vetoing sanctions against Zimbabwe and enabling the leadership of Sudan as it persecutes people in Darfur. According to the World Bank, however, it is also a major force for development, financing desperately needed infrastructure projects in Africa. Western unease is irrelevant - China must now be taken into account as the balance of world power alters.

Many Chinese, especially in Beijing, are excited and proud as they await the great day. The hurdler Liu Xiang and the basketball player Yao Ming are celebrities in the mould of David Beckham - great sportsmen now sought after for product endorsements as much as for their physical prowess. For their fans, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate their idols not just as representatives of China, but also as individuals.

However, as businesses are forced to close for two months because of Olympic anti-pollution traffic measures, and police comb the city checking people's hukou, their residency permits, others are asking if the Olympics are worth it.

A few weeks back, a small crowd gathered outside the home and nut stall of Yu Jinping. Her rickety old courtyard house at the edge of the hutongs, or alleyways, had been condemned as an "eyesore" along the torch relay route and was to be demolished. As a protest, she had festooned it with Communist Party flags and posters of great Communist leaders, past and present. "The district officials cheat and harm the people," she said. "They encourage the people to be against the party and against the central government. Their illegal evictions are destroying the flag of the great party."

Others were less patriotic in their objections.

"Is China the only country that's ever hosted the Olympics?" grumbled a middle-aged man in a grubby white vest. "Other countries have hosted the Olympics, too. Did they all rob their own people?"

"This is all wrong," agreed another.

These are ordinary people who - like "Mrs Brave", about whom Yiyun Li writes on page 28 - are not willing to be used as props in a piece of theatre staged by the government. But propaganda is an integral part of the Chinese system. South of Yu Jinping's house, the historic neighbourhood of Qianmen has been razed, the hutongs to be replaced by shopping malls and expensive residences, newly built to look as if they were old. A wall with an artist's impression of hutongs and flowers blocks the view of rubble. Genuine history is being replaced by a sanitised, safe facade.

As Ma Jian explains (page 24), a similar wall has been erected to shield modern Chinese from the more painful events in their recent past. The opening ceremony for the Olympics, details of which remain secret, will undoubtedly show something of China's epic history, in which dragons and heroic leaders are more likely to figure than tanks and students. The technocrats in charge of the Games stand in an unbroken line of Communist apparatchiks who believe that remembering the party's mistakes will lead to instability, not healing.

Other gaps loom even larger. The Cultural Revolution, during which millions were imprisoned and tortured, is still a taboo subject. In his new book, Tombstone, the 67-year-old journalist Yang Jisheng chronicles in painful detail the Great Famine of 1959-61, which was caused by Mao's agricultural policies during the Great Leap Forward. Using previously unpublished records, he establishes that 35 million people died, considerably more than in the First World War. The book, needless to say, is banned in China.

Afraid that foreigners may raise such sensitive topics, neighbourhood committees and work unit leaders have given Beijing residents "talking points". A taxi driver recently explained that he had been told that if the fare in the back of his cab got chatty, he should stick to "the five goods": Olympics are good, Communist Party is good, government is good, Beijing is good, taxi company is good.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera famously wrote: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." As long as the Chinese central government dictates what people may remember and discuss, it is hard to see these Olympics as a real break with the past.

Lindsey Hilsum is the China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

***


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge