U.S. President Joe Biden says that China leader Xi Jinping is a dictator. New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins disagrees. Domino Theory applies the duck test for a definitive answer.
When is a dictator not a dictator? When you are just about to visit one with a trade delegation. Thus seems the logic of Wellington’s Chris Hipkins, who flatly refused to put the dictator label on Xi Jinping when asked on the topic during an interview ahead of a scheduled trip to Beijing this month. Hipkins also opined that China’s form of government is a “matter for the Chinese people.”
His comments contrast starkly with Washington’s Joe Biden, who managed to crush any nascent feel-good factor from recent U.S.-China diplomatic talks within 24 hours of them closing, when he casually dropped the d-bomb on Xi, characterizing him as a frustrated autocrat befuddled by his own balloons. Foreign offices and ambassadors have subsequently piled in to the melee.
While Biden doubled down on his “dictator” remarks, China asserted that they “contradict basic facts” and infringe on its “political dignity.” It apparently believes that describing its leadership system as one of narrowly concentrated absolute power is “extremely absurd,” a comment that becomes bewildering in itself given that the concept of a people’s democratic dictatorship (人民民主專政) is one of the Four Cardinal Principles of the Chinese Communist Party, which, of course, is China’s present ruling paradigm, with Xi at the helm.
Granted, a breakdown of the Mandarin term for the democratic dictatorship suggests the people wielding sole power through the government, which sounds more benign, but this argument tends to fall apart somewhat: “The people” is narrowly defined to those who agree with and support the Communist Party in the first place, not those who might have other opinions, circular logic that has a habit of becoming tyrannous.
Labyrinthine discussions of political principles, cultural comparisons and etymologies aside, there are other ways to understand whether a given figure is the jealous possessor of dictatorial power or not. To borrow the time-honored duck test, if it looks like a dictator, swims like a dictator and quacks like a dictator, then it probably is a dictator. Xi ticks all three boxes.
Classic dictator hallmarks cling to him: Reconfiguring law to extend rule beyond term limits? Check. Voting patterns on key issues that would stretch credulity for a system with distributed power? Check. Busting up elections when the results look in doubt? Check. Vast publication of egoistic treatises foisted on a captive population? Check. Elaborate cover-ups of failures or repressive policies? Check and double-check. Pyrrhic battles against forces of nature? Check. Shady executions, disappearances, torture accusations and detentions, often preceded by the revelation of information that challenges the leader’s legitimacy or competency to hold power? Check, check, check and check.
From this perspective, Xi certainly looks like a dictator. Bizarrely, he swims like one, too. And, yes, that is a thing. From performative Maoism to tough-boy Putinism, swimming has been a useful platform for autocrats to display their strength and stamina down the years. It holds particular symbolism in China. Naturally, when Xi is not returning reports with comments by the next morning no matter how late he receives them, defusing international tensions in an instant, expounding thoughts of ecological civilization, carrying 100 kilos of wheat for kilometers over mountain roads, reading literature classics from across the world, or chummily munching “baozi” steamed buns at roadside restaurants, he’s maintaining fortitude and fitness by putting in length after length in the swimming pool. It prepares him to deal with the military, according to state media.
That only leaves it to determine whether Xi quacks like a dictator, and the answer is unequivocal. In the same way that a duck’s call is determined by its physiology, so is the soundscape of a dictatorship produced by the hollowing out of civil society, the jailing of journalists and the desperate need to bury uncomfortable facts of the past. In contrast to societies where power is more healthily shared between citizens, it can be identified by the absence of key phrases, citizens talking in tongues, the hobbling of satire, the silence of critical voices, a preponderance of mistruths and a burgeoning culture of empty-headed songs exalting the leader. To many ears, this is how China sounds today.
Indeed, Prime Minister Hipkins’ assertion that Xi is not wielding absolute power itself can be recognized as a quirk of the dictator quack, a fear-initiated vocal tick that denies obvious reality. His claim that the form of government is a matter for the Chinese people to decide is deeply ironic considering that he, as the leader of a wealthy sovereign state 11,000 kilometers away from Beijing, is too intimidated to name Xi for what he really is. One can imagine how many alternative government systems he would put forward had he been born inside China.
The comment about Chinese people is disingenuous and damaging in multiple other ways. It implies that the countless citizens who are deprived of truth and disconnected from their right to express themselves freely are complicit in the crimes committed against them. It also feeds into the stereotype that the Chinese public is not manipulated and coerced into accepting dictatorial rule but robotically following a repressive leader with full consent. Taking that logic to an extreme, they would deserve what they get, which is an unfortunate way to view victims, even if it does make it easier to look oneself in the mirror when making trade deals with their oppressor.
The duck test can meanwhile be applied to various other kinds of leader. On this showing, Hipkins would not pass it for any of them.