GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Inside a cramped dorm room on the campus of South China University of Technology, Yin Hao leads an operation to decode American politics.
The 29-year-old engineering student records every Sunday news show, listens to podcasts from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow as he walks to work, and scours Mike Allen’s “Playbook,” a DC-insidery newsletter for Politico. He knows more about the 2016 presidential race than many Americans.
Yin is a rare breed: a politics junkie and electoral horserace-watcher in a one-party state, where a small group of officials select the nation’s leader and the government severely restricts the press. The political process that transfixes Yin is not that of his own country, but that of someone else’s. He leads a team of hobbyists who translate and add Chinese subtitles to videos of U.S. campaign events, then distribute them via social media to a small, obsessive group of Chinese viewers.
“I have the freedom to talk about American politics,” Yin said, “so I want to use it.” Following the State of the Union address on Tuesday, he noted the two-party bickering that characterizes Washington. President Barack “Obama’s tone was a little more optimistic,” he said. “That makes for a very strange contrast to the GOP rhetoric, [which is] very much danger and terrorism.”
The size of Yin’s group varies—up to about 20 people—as do the motivations of his colleagues and audience. Some just want to laugh at America’s unusual cast of presidential candidates; others seek insight into an election that could reshape the world’s most crucial bilateral relationship.
It’s difficult to measure Yin’s audience. He boasts nearly 34,000 followers on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Some of his translations show up on video-sharing platforms, and others appear on Chinese news sites. But much of China still hasn’t heard of the Republicans’ Iowa front-runner Ted Cruz, the self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, or even the inimitable real-estate magnate Donald Trump.
That may change. Many of the candidates have already turned China into an attack theme. Trump accused the communist country of manipulating its currency and stealing American jobs. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie declared that he would fly Air Force One over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and counter Chinese hacking attempts with “cyberwarfare like they have never seen it before.” Another Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, proclaimed China “a rising adversary,” and on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton blasted the country on human-rights issues, calling some of its actions “inexcusable.”
Chinese officials have largely avoided commenting on the rhetoric, even if they do keep track. An op-ed in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said Trump’s initial popularity was “based on his big mouth” and chided Clinton for using the same kinds of “ignominious shenanigans” Trump was employing toward China.
“What they say in campaigns is one thing,” said Song Yuhang, an international news editor at a Chinese media outlet. “If elected into office, they will become more realistic.”
Either way, the election’s outcome will impact China. Writing subtitles is as close as Yin gets to participating in a political process where candidates woo the public for votes and the media reports on every move. His efforts underscore the gulf between the system he observes and the one he inhabits—the first where potential leaders spend millions (or billions) attacking each other, and the second where vocal competition among politicians almost never occurs in public, because the public lacks any real voice.
When I met him in December, Yin wanted details about my past experience as a Washington reporter covering national politics. How do journalists get information from the White House? Why do presidential candidates visit small towns and shake hands? What purpose do the Iowa caucuses really serve? Had I met Chuck Todd?
“U.S. elections are like Real Housewives without throwing wine or slapping each other in the face,” Yin said. “It’s pretty much the same, just a verbal slap.”
It’s somewhat fitting that Yin developed an interest in America’s political system through its entertainment value, largely by watching The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. (Chinese people have access to little criticism of their own country, but can easily download swipes at America.)
Yin only started campaign-related translations last spring—in the midst of a doctoral thesis on 3D printing—when Sanders announced his candidacy and it felt to Yin like the race had officially begun. Now he spends most of his free time, up to five hours a day, curating clips from political speeches to campaign commercials. With limited hours and reams of material, he chooses which interviews and rallies merit translations. Yin, even unintentionally, acts as a filter for the information his fans view.
While he often works alone, Yin realized this fall that he needed assistance to tackle debates. China has in recent years seen the emergence of a volunteer translator subculture—some members of which operate in a gray area of copyright legality. Many provide Chinese subtitles for television shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards on the Internet. Yin came across an informal online subtitle group that focused on documentaries, joined it, and recruited some of its members to concentrate on U.S. politics.
One morning in November, Yin was among a half-dozen or so people who started translating the first 40 minutes of a Democratic debate, carefully matching time sequences and throwing in subtitles. When they finished, Yin put the video on Weibo and went to bed. The group interacted online; most have never met. Its members come and go, but Yin’s goal remains the same.
“I want to create a place so everyone can watch the original stuff,” he said during a late dim sum breakfast next to the campus’s emerald lake. “So you can judge for yourself.”
Yin found a gem in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who appealed to viewers that might not otherwise have taken to American presidential politics, because he appeared to bridge entertainment and news. Yin echoed his mother’s sentiment to me: “I am now watching an American TV show called Election.”
Guo Xiaohui, a former car importer and translator turned standup comic, put it more bluntly.
“This election has become really weird,” he said. “Look at the founding fathers. It’s reverse evolution from Thomas Jefferson to Donald Trump.”
Part of Trump’s draw is simple fascination in a country where politicians are rarely flamboyant and few show public displays of emotion. Chen Yue, who sometimes works on translations with Yin, came up with the now-popular Chinese nickname for Trump: chuang po, or “broken bed.” (The phrase pops up all over social media.) A play on the tones of Trump’s Chinese name, the term suggests shoddy construction. Some interpret it sexually—not in a positive way.
“I just wanted to make a funny name for him to describe that his hotel isn’t good,” Chen, an amicable Beijing pharmacist, explained. Chen started subtitling because she wanted a way to practice her English and loved Jon Stewart’s ability to poke fun at politics. “Perhaps because we don’t have Facebook or Twitter we have the feeling that we want to see more of the world,” she said of those in her country who watch and create videos on American politics. Both social networks are blocked in China.
Yin himself is an unlikely practitioner. He grew up in an industrial town in Northwest China, where he frequently skipped English classes. He chose Germany for his master’s degree and studied communication technology. His cubicle at the university in Guangzhou holds a 3D banana he printed, and a picture of his mother.
Watching the ups and downs of U.S. campaigns—who’s “winning” in the polls at any given moment, who won the last debate—is “like watching a sport,” he said. “Someone wins, someone loses, and after a few news cycles, everyone forgets.”
In my discussions with him, Yin didn’t dwell on comparisons between the American and Chinese systems. And yet he operates in a world that constantly reminds him of the difference. Censors last year removed from Weibo a speech he translated by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that pummeled China’s human-rights record. Certain phrases—“enough is enough,” “Glass-Steagall Act,” or “feel the Bern”—just don’t translate. He stumbles over tax-code discussions and linguistic nuances, like the difference between “rival” and “enemy.” The influx of money into American elections, Yin said, looks to some like “open bribery.”
But Yin keeps trying to makes sense of America’s presidential race and how the country chronicles it. He invoked the Chinese Communist Party motto of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to describe what he’s witnessing from half a world away. “It’s American democracy with American characteristics.”
Since the collapse of several authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s—most notably the Soviet Union—conventional wisdom in political science has held that dictatorships inevitably democratize or stagnate. This wisdom has even been applied to China, where the Communist Party (CCP) has presided over 26 years of economic growth since violently suppressing protests at Tiananmen Square. In 2012, the political theorist and Tsinghua University philosophy professor Daniel A. Bell aroused controversy among many China-watchers for challenging this idea. In several op-eds published in prominent Western publications, Bell argued that China’s government, far from being an opaque tyranny, actually presented a “meritocratic” alternative to liberal, multiparty democracy. In a new book titled The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Bell expands on that idea.
“I disagree with the view that there’s only one morally legitimate way of selecting leaders: one person, one vote,” Bell said at a recent debate hosted by ChinaFile at Asia Society in New York.
Bell is under no illusion that China has already perfected its political recipe, admitting that the ideal “China model” is still very theoretical. This involves a “vertical democratic meritocracy,” as he puts it, with open democratic elections at the local level, meritocratic assessment (like China’s civil-service exam) to choose top national leaders, and experimentation in the middle. In this system, local leaders—who handle relatively basic issues—are still accountable to voters. But national leaders, who must handle more complex issues and make tough decisions that may not be popular (like enacting serious climate-change measures), can be chosen based on experience and knowledge without American-style political gridlock or susceptibility to populist approval.
“This is the political ideal that has informed political reform in China over the past 30 years,” Bell said. “But there’s still a huge gap between the ideal and the practice. This ideal is reasonably good though, and can and should continue to inspire political reform in China in the future.”
Bell dismissed views that he’s an apologist for the CCP, saying that the ideal he writes about requires far more transparency, freedoms, and genuine local democracy than exist in China currently: “There’s a problem in China: There are constraints on free speech, people have visa problems, and that’s terrible. In this sense I’m a card-carrying liberal. I look forward to the day when China has much more political speech than it has.”
The breakneck economic growth that reigned for three decades in China has slowed. GDP, once guaranteed to exceed 8 percent each year, fell to 7.4 percent in 2014 and is expected to continue dropping. Meanwhile, China’s supply of cheap rural labor—essential to the country’s export-led growth model—is drying up and the overall population is rapidly aging. Social circumstances are also shifting, with young Chinese becoming more educated and nurturing aspirations that go beyond mere prosperity. Given these issues, Ash said, the CCP is facing major challenges in maintaining the “performance legitimacy” that’s kept it afloat for decades, and it faces an uphill battle in establishing a political model that bestows “procedural legitimacy.”
anti-corruption campaign is having an effective influence on reining in official graft and abuse of power. He suggested that the aggressive suppression of perceived threats to the CCP coincides with Xi’s turbulent and risky fight against corruption.
“I think once this corruption is dealt with, then I would expect the switch to a gradual openness,” Bell said. “And it’s a testable hypothesis. If in 20 years time China becomes more repressive, we see another Tiananmen Square, then I’m lost and I’ll change my views.”
In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world—or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory—prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.
The Future of Democracy in the Middle East: Islamist and Illiberal
That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support)—as they did in 1992—made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.
It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”
“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.”
* * *
Events in the Middle East, and the policy debates surrounding them, tend to proceed in endless, disorienting loops. The Syrian civil war has gotten almost unimaginably worse since early 2012 (from 7,000 dead to 250,000), but we’re debating much the same thing we were debating back then: to enact safe zones and no-fly zones in the country, or not to. Algerian Islamists were ascendant in 1991 and the military intervened to stop them; something eerily similar happened in 2013 after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt through democratic elections. Where exactly is the line between inaction and complicity? The notion of neutrality, for a country as powerful as the United States, is illusory. Doing nothing or “doing no harm” means maintaining or reverting to the status quo, which in the Middle East is never neutral, due to America’s longstanding relationships with regional actors.
Before, during, and after the Arab Spring, one thing has remained constant in the Middle East: the outsized influence of outside powers. When the United States opts to remain disengaged—itself a conscious policy choice—others move to fill the void. The convenient fiction that foreign powers can do little to respond to the conflicts or “ancient hatreds” of the region belies nearly every major political development of the post-Arab Spring period. For a moment, though, it was nice to think that it wasn’t about the U.S., or at least that it didn’t have to be.
The first two uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to shatter the illusion that Arabs had to wait. Even if Western powers weren’t with them—and, at least at first, they weren’t—Arabs could bring about their own revolutions. In Tunisia, where little was at stake for the United States, senior officials were still saying that the U.S. was “not taking sides” as late as two days before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s fall. After Ben Ali fled on January 14, 2011, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration quickly adapted, expressing its support for the revolution. The U.S. could live without the Tunisian regime, but could it live without a staunch ally like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a dogged opponent of Iran and a stalwart supporter of the Arab-Israeli peace process? Here too, Mubarak’s longtime ties with Western governments would prove insufficient in preserving his rule.
From the very start, there was a temptation to discount the importance of foreign powers in the Arab Spring. It became commonplace to hear some variation of the following: that the uprisings were a truly indigenous movement and that Arabs themselves did not want other countries to “interfere” in it—meddling that would, the thinking went, go against the very spirit of the revolutions. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials repeatedly insisted that this was “not about America.” In reality, it was partly about America, not just because of the past U.S. role in backing Arab dictatorships, but because of the critical role it would continue to play in the region.
For better and worse, international actors influenced the first phase of the Arab Spring and, in several countries, defined it. In Libya, Yemen, and Syria, Western and regional powers in the Gulf played significant, even decisive roles. In the one stalled revolution—Bahrain’s—it was Saudi Arabia’s military intervention that quelled the uprising and kept the ruling family afloat. Even in Egypt, the 2011 uprising was effectively internationalized, with foreign media devoting countless hours to covering every turn and, in the process, putting the issue at the top of the Western policy agenda. The United States, making use of longstanding military-to-military ties, pressured the Egyptian army to refrain from using force against protesters.
Nor were Arab Spring protesters entirely inward-looking. While those who rose up were no doubt angry over the lack of “bread and freedom,” the third element—the demand for dignity—was more difficult to characterize. Here, Egypt’s pro-Western policies and perceived subservience to the United States figured prominently, including in the defining chant that echoed throughout Tahrir Square the night Mubarak fell: “You’re Egyptian—raise your head up high.” During my time in Tahrir, I heard numerous chants attacking Mubarak for being a lackey of the United States and Israel (one such chant claimed that the Egyptian president only understood one language: Hebrew).
In Egypt and Tunisia, what the United States did—and did not do—continued to matter well after the initial uprisings. Newly elected governments facing deteriorating economic conditions at home needed as much outside support as they could get, in the form of direct financial assistance, loans, trade, asset recovery, and private investment. Despite its struggling economy and budgetary constraints, the United States had an important role to play. It was a question of political will. In the first year and a half after the uprisings, the U.S. proposed or allocated only around $2.2 billion in new aid to Arab Spring-affected countries. (For the sake of comparison, the U.S. committed $128 billion in today’s dollars during the four years of the Marshall Plan in post-World War II Western Europe). But this wasn’t just, or even primarily, about money. More costly were the Obama administration’s decisions to disengage from Libya after a successful military intervention there, to do as little as possible in Syria, to indulge Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq as he cracked down on Sunni political forces, and to outsource policy on Yemen to Saudi Arabia.
In recent years, a growing academic literature has pointed to the role of international actors in bringing down autocrats, though the focus tends to be on non-Middle Eastern cases. In their 2010 book, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way provide extensive empirical support to what many have long argued. They write that “it was an externally driven shift in the cost of suppression, not changes in domestic conditions, that contributed most centrally to the demise of authoritarianism in the 1980s and 1990s.” Levitsky and Way find that “states’ vulnerability to Western democratizing pressure … was often decisive.”
President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States failed to put any significant pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which dominated—and corrupted—Egypt’s transition in those early, critical days after the revolution. The United States wagered that a military-led transition would facilitate (and manage) the democratization process while safeguarding American interests. SCAF, though, grew increasingly autocratic, culminating in one very bad week in June 2012 when the military and its allies dissolved parliament, reinstated martial law, and decreed a constitutional addendum stripping the presidency of many of its powers.
The precedent had been set: even the most egregious violations of the democratic process would receive little more than the usual, bland expressions of concern and disapproval. The unwillingness to pressure SCAF would make it all the more difficult for the U.S. to hold future Islamist-led governments, such as Morsi’s, to democratic standards. SCAF wasn’t elected. How, then, could Washington justify withholding U.S. assistance to Morsi’s administration—the country’s first democratically elected government?
After the July 3 coup and subsequent crackdown against the Brotherhood and other Islamists, the U.S. response was muted. Despite a legal obligation to suspend aid in the event of a coup, the Obama administration, along with most of Congress, insisted on the importance of maintaining the flow of military aid to Egypt. A month after the military’s intervention—and in the lead-up to its massacre of Morsi supporters near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque—Secretary of State John Kerry even appeared to endorse the coup, saying that the army was “in effect … restoring democracy” and averting civil war. Egyptian military officials wagered, rightly, that they could get away with what became, according to Human Rights Watch, the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history—as well as one of the worst single-day mass killings in recent decades anywhere in the world.
America’s relative silence was no accident. To offer a strong, coherent response to the killings would have required a strategy, which would have required more, not less, involvement. This, however, would have been at cross-purposes with the entire thrust of the administration’s policy. Obama was engaged in a concerted effort to reduce its footprint in the Middle East. The phrase “leading from behind” quickly became a pejorative for Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine, but it captured a very real shift in America’s posture. The foreign-policy analysts Nina Hachigian and David Shorr called it the “Responsibility Doctrine,” a strategy of “prodding other influential nations … to help shoulder the burdens of fostering a stable, peaceful world order.” In pursuing this strategy in the Middle East, the United States left a power vacuum—and a proxy struggle. During Morsi’s year-long tenure, Qatar became the single largest foreign donor to Egypt, at over $5 billion (with Turkey contributing another $2 billion). Just days after the military moved against Morsi, it was Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait that pledged a massive $12 billion to the new military-appointed government.
The United States, along with the conservative Gulf monarchies and many others, also viewed Islamist parties with considerable suspicion. The Muslim Brotherhood had a long history of vehemently anti-Western and anti-Israel positions, including refusing to accept the Jewish state’s right to exist. (A few months after Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Morsi, who was particularly outspoken among Brotherhood leaders on these matters, shared his views on the 9/11 attacks with me. “When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter,” he said, shifting to English, “then you are insulting us. How did the plane cut through the steel like this? Something must have happened from the inside. It’s impossible.” In 2010, before he had any inkling of becoming president, Morsi, echoing classical anti-Semitic tropes, called Zionists “descendants of apes and pigs.”)
But what Morsi apparently believed and what he actually did in power constituted alternate universes. In 2006, the Brotherhood’s general guide, Mahdi Akef, told me angrily that “of course” the Brotherhood would cancel Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if it ever had the chance. More pragmatic Islamists adopted a different tone, usually one of resignation. As one senior Brotherhood figure in Jordan put it to me: “If we must, we will always, at the very least, believe and long for the liberation of Palestine in our own hearts.”As I discuss in my book Temptations of Power, it is in the realm of foreign policy that the dissonance between ideology and practice is most striking but also the least surprising. Islamist parties in power simply cannot do the things they might like to do in an ideal world. The structure of the regional and international order won’t allow it. As long as Arab countries are dependent on Western powers for economic and political survival, there will be limits to how far elected governments, Islamist or otherwise, can go. (If that dependency were to weaken in the long run, Islamists would likely pursue a more ideological, assertive foreign policy. Ideology, to express itself, needs to be freed of its various constraints.)
Gaza crisis of November 2012. He brought Egypt closer to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, but he did so in a way that fell well short of fundamentally challenging the U.S.-led regional order. The model for Morsi was Turkey or Qatar—countries that were tied to the United States militarily and strategically but able and willing to establish themselves as independent, assertive regional powers, despite occasional (or increasingly frequent) American grumbling. America’s red lines were clear enough to Morsi, and they included respecting the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and cooperating with Israel on security. Human rights and democracy were, as they had always been in Egypt, tertiary U.S. concerns.
* * *
The Arab Spring demonstrated the shortsightedness of the “stability paradigm”— the model of Arab governments doing the West’s bidding in return for the West overlooking the suppression of dissent—that had animated U.S. and European policy for a half-century. Regimes that once seemed resilient crumbled more quickly than anyone could have imagined. If there was a lesson to be learned, it was that human rights and democratic reform would need to be prioritized after the Obama administration had—hoping to distinguish itself from its predecessor—deemphasized their importance.
Almost five years later, however, it appears that Western governments have learned rather different lessons. The reorientation that many both in the region and within the foreign-policy community had hoped for did not come to pass. In most Arab countries, with the exception of Libya (and even then only briefly), the Obama administration was content to tinker around the margins of existing policies. This laissez-faire approach produced its own set of consequences.
positive conditionality”—providing economic and political incentives for governments to meet explicit, measurable benchmarks on democratic reform.
A model for what this might look like is (or was) Turkey. After coming to power in 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) passed a series of consequential democratic reforms. The prospect of membership in the European Union helped incentivize the AKP to revise the penal code, ease restrictions on freedom of expression, rein in the power of the military, and expand rights for the country’s Kurdish minority. But when the threat of a military coup receded, and negotiations with the EU faltered, the AKP government seemed to lose interest in democratization, increasingly adopting illiberal and undemocratic practices.
The European Union has the ability to embed European countries within a thick regional order. No comparable mechanism exists in the Arab world. Yet the template is relevant for understanding how the United States might bind struggling democracies within a mutually beneficial regional order. In a sense, of course, it’s too late. America’s unwillingness to play such a role increased the likelihood that the Muslim Brotherhood, empowered by its conservative base and pressured by its Salafi competitors, would veer rightward and overreach, alienating old and new allies in the process. As demonstrated in Egypt, the governance failures of Islamist parties can have devastating effects on the course of a country’s democratic transition. That Islamists were, once again, ousted, repressed, and exiled from the democratic process brings us back to Algeria in 1992. The ghosts of Egypt—the Arab world’s most populous country and long a bellwether for the region—will linger, but this time for far longer and with greater consequences than those of Algeria. Abdelkader Hachani, it seems, was vindicated. Victory is more dangerous than defeat.
This article is adapted from Shadi Hamid’s book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press), which is now out in paperback.