Whether their economies are thriving or in recession, the people of Western countries are understandably disillusioned with their governments at present. But how do they stack up when compared with the Government of a country many predict will eclipse the US?
Quality of leadership is hard to measure. In times of crisis it can be easy to recognize good or bad leadership, but most of the time it's just something that hovers in the background.
Despite this, I'll attempt to try to pin down some differences in modern leadership styles by looking at leadership in three different nations – Australia and the world's two most prominent superpowers, the US and China.
Quantifiable criteria fail miserably to measure leadership. Take Australia for example. The Australian economy is the envy of the developed world and yet the polls indicate Australians are more displeased by their leaders than at any time in recent memory.
When Bill Clinton used the catch phrase "it's the economy, stupid" to unseat President Bush in the early 1990s, it would appear he was correct for that place and that time. Australians today, however, would seem to disagree. An effective catchphrase has yet to be developed that encapsulates contemporary Australian politics, but you can be sure more than a few political analysts are trying to make one.
One might argue that leadership has taken a backseat to bureaucracy in recent years. The US government is deadlocked in bitter partisan political wrangling, as is the knife-edge Australian parliament, while the Chinese have perfected technocratic consensus decision-making to an art form.
It's easy to lavish praise upon the Beijing model, but there are many reasons to believe that the recent growth enjoyed by Chinese citizens has come at a heavy cost to Chinese society as well as the environment and the economy.
It's also worth considering the fact that a number of economists have very good reasons to argue that the US isn't falling behind China as such, rather, the rest of the world is simply catching up with the US. Many of the problems that China is facing can be directly traced to the country's style of leadership – and the recent growth has masked very serious structural problems.
Behind China's GDP story lie a number of unsustainable trends in terms of leadership. China now spends more money and employs more people on stability preservation than it does on the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This essentially, has become a catchphrase for the suppression of riots and dissenting voices. It wouldn't be so much of a problem if it was a centralized effort, but the bulk of this power has been placed in the hands of local governments, who can use it to jail their critics with impunity.
The recent furore surrounding the imprisonment of blind activist Chen Guangcheng is often attributed to the untrammelled power of the Chinese government. But in reality, it may be more accurate to see it as the central government's impotence when faced with wayward, rent seeking local governments. It's a situation that hurts the central government, but it's in the local government's interest to keep it going. As one commentator notes:
From this perspective, these thugs are the ones who do not want to see Chen get free. In numerous stability maintenance events, I describe these vested interest groups of stability professionals as "black hole interests." They have the strongest desire to keep the stability machine running, and are the front line running dogs in this "battle." The prospect of this stability interest group being destroyed is slim.
It's a stark contrast to the sweeping power of the Chinese State typically portrayed in Western media and is an apt illustration of the limits of Chinese leadership. In creating a self-sustaining stability-preservation monster, the Chinese government has accelerated dissatisfaction rather than slowed it down.
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