Populism in Western democracies is on the rise. What was once confined to outliers and extreme political parties is now tearing away into the whole political system. Inflammatory speeches and critics of so-called ¡°fake news¡± made by Donald Trump,and half-truths broadcasted by Boris Johnson during the Vote Leave campaign in Great Britain, are only two out of many examples. Fed partly by people¡¯s economic frustration and fear of globalization, populism does not only legitimate xenophobia and racism, it may lead to economic mismanagement and will have a huge impact on relations between the West and China.
No matter the number of competing definitions of populism, there all have some common traits. First, populism states an inherent opposition between so called self-interested and corrupted elite entangled in corruption and political scandals, and a silent majority of virtuous people. Indeed, populism is not only a political but also a moral movement. This assertion is rarely true in fact, but it is at least the heart of the populist rhetoric, the reason why so many voters tend to flock around populist leaders. Second, populist leaders pretend to represent the volont¨¦g¨¦n¨¦rale (general will) while directly opposing traditional politicians. As Donald Trump bluntly said during his inaugural address ¡°we are transferring power from Washington D.C., and giving it back to you, the people¡±, i.e. the so-called ¡°forgotten¡±. Even before his election, he declared ¡°one of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace. Good people don¡¯t go into government¡±. Once again, this is rarely true or even completely false in the case of the incoming Trump administration composed mostly of white male, many of them former CEOs and billionaires, who do not represent per se the diversity of the American people. Third, contemporary populism relies on therejection of the perceived failure of mainstream parties to respond to globalization, and questions the benefits of liberalismthat has shaped Western democracies for decades. Indeed, populism leans towards protectionism as a solution to revitalize sluggish economies, reversing the dynamic of Western economic liberalism that has spread around the globe since the end of the WWII.
Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and he has not toned down his rhetoric.The first measures he announced stick to his electoral promises, such as withdrawing his country from the Transpacific Partnership, an international agreement the three previous administrations, including the second Bush administration, had negotiated for almost a decade. In Europe, populism has also started to infect politics to the point whereMartin Selmayr, the European Commission president¡¯s chief of staff, mentioned last summer the ¡°horror scenario¡± in which populists would take power all across the world. Populists are now on both sides of the European political spectrum, from right-wing in economically secure Northern and Eastern European countries(Finns Party, Freedom Party of Austria, Alternative for Deutschland or Hungary¡¯s Jobbik), to left-wing in Southern European countries entrapped in economic crisis (Greece¡¯s Syriza and Spain¡¯s Podemos). Populism no longer concerns merely outsiders and marginal political parties, but it has started to infused mainstream ones like the Conservative Party in Great Britain, or the Republicans and even the Socialist party in France.
Populism tends to erase the traditional political divide between left and right, and to create a new one between open and close. Donald Trump presents himself as the hero of ¡°Americanism, not globalism¡± and insisted that ¡°from this day forward, it is going to be only America first¡±. European populist politicians can similarly ride the wave of euro-skepticism and xenophobia in a context of slow growth and migrant crisis. From London to Warsaw, from Helsinki to Budapest, the European Commission has become a very convenient scapegoat while the European Council, which comprises the heads of states and government of every single member states, is supposed to lead the European Union. Indeed, Brussels is not responsible for falling turnouts, declining Party memberships, and growing distrust in politics, which altogether fuel populism and create a toxic environment of political malaise fueled by inability of traditional parties, the irresponsibility of some politicians, and the absence of major structural reforms.
Populism is a growing problem in Western democracies, and has clawed itself into some Asian countries, as best embodied by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines who vowed to ¡°test the ¨¦lites in this country¡±. Yet, it is a global problem with far reaching consequences, especially for China.
On the political side, political deadlock and instability could reduce the prestige of the Western democratic system internationally, and indirectly increase the legitimacy of the Communist Party domestically. For the first time since 2008, and without even taking into account the election of Donald Trump, the United States are now considered as a ¡°flawed democracy¡± by the Economist Intelligence Unit'sDemocracy Index.While Francis Fukuyama was revising, in 2011, its forecast issued in 1989 about ¡°the end of history as such [¡] and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government¡±and instead mentioning a ¡°dramatic reversal of fortune in the relative prestige of different political and economic models¡±, the balance of prestige could further shift away. Often presented in the West as a pariah, China¡¯s political regime could shift towards the center of acceptability if it proves to be more stable politically and less prone to the extremes. If populism brings economic mismanagement to Western economies ¨C Moody¡¯s has evaluated that Donald Trump¡¯s economic measures would destroy at least 3 million jobs in the United States, it could indirectly strengthen the Communist Party¡¯s legitimacy at home since it still relies on its capacity to ensure long-term economic development to the Chinese people.
However, on the economic side, the world¡¯s biggest trade countryhas almost everything to lose with the rise of populism that will most likely be associated with a comeback of protectionism. Even though Secretary General Xi Jinping¡¯s speech in Davos has been widely acclaimed as one defending international trade and economic interdependence, a dynamic that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in emerging countries for the last few decades, it may not be enough to ease the pains populism might trigger. In many Western countries, China is presented as the biggest beneficiary of globalization and the one country responsible forprevalent job lossacross Europe and the United States. As a consequence, any partial economic withdrawal or implementation of trade tariffs would not only impact China¡¯s economy in the context of already laggard economic growth, it could be manipulated to target China on purpose. Precursory signs werealready visible inpresidential candidate Donald Trump¡¯s assertions that ¡°the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive¡±.
Worse, the President-elect seems inclined to use the ¡°Taiwan card¡±, among others, to put pressure on the Chinese government in order to force it to make economic concessions to the United States. Yet, declaring a trade war on China or even the European Union will not bring job backs to the US, most of the job loss in the last decade is due to an increase in productivity. It could even go as far as tohurt the United States economy and the very ones that have voted for Donald Trump. A direct consequence would be a slowdown of international economic growth that would hit every single economy, including China. On the European side, the rise of populism could delay the decision of the European Union to award China with the market economy status. In that gloomy context, the OBOR initiative is more needed than ever if it can increase interconnectivity and eventually boost Eurasian trade.
On all counts, populism is in no way a cure to the problems which Western democracies and economies are facing. It is instead a deadly poison. Rather than exhibiting their natural tendency to turn a blind eye to their plights, Europeans and Americans should face it head on and stop projecting faults on others. Taking responsibility, reducing social inequalities and investing on innovation are some of the keys to reduce people¡¯s plight. However, populism is nomore a Western problem; it is also China¡¯s problem since it would bring forth a new reality with far-reaching consequences, especially on the economic side. China, just like the others, may soon have to resort to deep throating the double-edged sword of populism.
(Antoine Bondaz is a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research and an Associate Ph.D. at Sciences Po, in Paris.)