Authoritarianism in China: A Threat to The Dragon’s Rise?

Hope Sutherland

In the weeks leading up to China’s 19th Party Congress last October, official media channels were whipped into a frenzy of praise for President Xi. He has been hailed “a great helmsman;” a leader integral to achieving the country’s objectives during the crucial years of 2020 to 2035. Liberal critics, more hesitant to ascribe such a positive image, have dubbed him China's “emperor for life.”

The official channels have more than a grain of truth in their portrayal. The fulfilment of the 'Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation’ is characterised by two goals: to have the world’s largest economy by 2021, and to achieve the status of “moderately well-off country” by 2049. Given these ambitious objectives, the guidance of a strong leader is necessary for the party both politically and practically if it is to succeed.

In light of this, the move of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to abolish presidential term limits in February was important for what it symbolized. Xi is, after all, also the Party’s General Secretary and Chairman of its Military Commission, neither of which have term limits. Nicknamed the ‘chairman of everything’, his particular brand of power relies on setting up committees headed by himself — likely as a way to marginalise the more liberal premier, Li Keqiang — than it does the presidential office. However, the abolition of term limits underlines the President’s consolidation of power through other channels. Xi’s appointments of his cronies and protégés to the most senior positions of power in the National People’s Congress (NPC) ensure his influence is cemented on a political level. The enshrinement in the Party constitution of his political philosophy, Xi Jinping Thought, is on an ideological level the principle “that overrules all kinds of work”. Xi is positioning himself as the leader able to deliver on China’s ambitious goals for the new era; to do so he is remaking ’Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ in his own image.

Xi’s politics offer a stronger and more united Party front, but even a partial realisation of the ‘Chinese Dream’ faces significant setbacks. China has a rising inequality problem, coupled with the likelihood of an aging population problem in coming decades. In the face of this, Xi’s promise to eradicate poverty by 2020 sounds improbable. Additionally, the country faces problems caused by an unrelenting drive towards progress that prioritises pace over quality. Recent disasters, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake or the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, have been attributed to a combination of widespread bureaucratic corruption and inadequate engineering standards.

A refocusing of political control in the Party centre is the CCP’s proposed solution to these problems. Even as Party politics become more centred around Xi’s personality cult, the NPC has tightened the Party’s control over a variety of areas. This includes legislation, State Council ministries, financial regulation, and the newly formed National Supervisory Commission (NSC), which commands chilling extra-legal features, such as the right to deny legal aid. Through these channels, Xi’s Party seems poised to exert increasingly greater authority over all levels of Chinese society, both at home and abroad.

These ‘new era’ changes are explicitly driven by President Xi. No leader since Mao has exerted this level of control on the Party: in positioning himself thus, Xi disregards the warning, given by Deng Xiaoping, that no Party head should further a personality cult in lieu of collective leadership. But, Xi appears to have looked abroad to the recent trend towards strong, populist leaders. His “helmsman” presentation has significant parallels with Putin’s strongman image. Xi even said to the Russian President “I feel that our personalities are very similar” in 2013. Putin’s reputation as a powerful reformer who stands up to the West is echoed in Xi’s own crackdown on Party corruption, his recent emphasis on military engagement, state security, and proposition of a ‘China solution’, paralleling Putin’s ‘Russia path’.

Most commentators agree that Xi’s authoritarian turn is intended to curb domestic problems that might threaten China’s rise. CCP analyses of the Soviet Union’s collapse emphasise factors like the loss of Party control over governmental organs and the failure to take threats to Party ideology seriously. Xi appears to be fortifying against such mistakes in the changes made to the United Front Work Department (UFWD) and the NSC, providing both with more centralized power. Likewise, Xi Jinping Thought’s increased emphasis on 学习 Xuéxí (studying) is intended to standardise collective thought, not only across the party, but the nation — hence its dissemination across official channels, but also in universities — rejuvenating a sense of belief in the ‘Chinese Dream.’ Perhaps, in looking to Russia, the Party has concluded that one-man rule is not only necessary for China's ambitious milestones, but to save China from suffering a similar collapse.

Despite centralisation, there remains a disjunct between the Party’s goals and its ability to usher in promised change. Last December saw a fuel crisis in North China, as a governmental push to transition from coal to the more environmentally friendly natural gas happened faster than the infrastructure could withstand. Increased centralization might well minimise corruption, but it comes at a cost of engagement with ground-level circumstances. Likewise, China’s attempt to open more widely to foreign investments conflicts with its increased focus on security. While 2010 reforms lift limitations on foreign investment in Chinese businesses, 2015 cybersecurity laws require foreign firms to store data in Chinese-approved devices, creating fear of intellectual property theft.

Yet, Xi not consolidating power in a way might undermine China's rise. Widespread corruption undermines party ideology and slows China’s progress. Party leaders also fear ideological dissent in what is a crucial time for China’s growth. A collapse in the system could mean chaos, seriously damaging China’s position internationally. For all its risks (and there are many), Xi’s authoritarianism is an effective game to play — at least in the short term.

What the international community should be most concerned with, then, is not whether Xi’s actions will reduce China’s role as a world power, but how they might change how China ’rises’. Xi’s strongman nationalism will only encourage China’s expansion of their ‘sphere of influence’ throughout Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. Moreover, the recent Chinese admiration for Putin’s anti-Western stance signals something dangerous — especially combined with Xi’s increased emphasis on state security, the military, and assertive foreign policy decisions. Speaking to an audience in Auckland, New Zealand in May, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a blunt warning about China’s efforts to gain political and economic power in the Pacific region. If China’s authoritarianism continues to be matched with geopolitical expansion, perhaps this is a warning the world needs to heed.

Cyprus and Korea: Comparative Hopes of Reunification

Emily Balkwill

The twenty-first century is an age of ongoing war, terrorism, and nuclear threat; characterised by political phenomena marked by their inconceivability. The new millennium of globalisation has brought with it increased conflict and division. However, perhaps, there is still a hint of hope of peace and reunification. Specifically, the prospect of unification between Northern (Turkish-Cypriot) and Southern (Greek-Cypriot) Cyprus, and North and South Korea.

 

Following years of stagnation and unease in both divided nations, the recently reopened lines of communication between the opposing sides have brought with them at least an initial desire for cooperation and possible restoration of peace. Although the most recent Cypriot peace talks ended in July 2017 after no solution emerged, the re-elected Greek-Cypriot president, Nikos Anastasiades, has highlighted his persistence on the matter. Even more recently, on 27 April 2018, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), constituting the first time the current North Korean leader crossed the border. Despite recent setbacks, the reinitiated communication is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Yet, what is perhaps most resonant about both situations is the urgent need for demilitarisation. The summits made explicit that reunification would not be achieved without the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus, and the promise of the denuclearisation of North Korea.

 

Looking at the circumstances of both divisions, it is interesting to see how they are the products of a comparable overriding paradigm. Despite the fact that Cyprus and the Koreas are geographically separated by thousands of miles, in both situations, external influence, characterised by military involvement, was an important factor in the countries’ divisions. In Cyprus, the period between 1955 and 1964, known as the ‘Cyprus Crisis’, was a time of political and communal violence between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. However, it was arguably the increasingly prominent military involvement that resulted in the rupture still existing today. As a consequence of the rising unease and resentment between the two communities, there was an outstanding increase in support for the ultra-right wing Greek nationalist organisation ‘EOKA-B’, who had close links with the military junta in Greece at the time. Their ultimate aim was to achieve ‘Enosis’; the annexation of Cyprus by Greece. Naturally, this would not be at all favourable for the Turkish community on the island, and they had other plans in mind: a partition between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, known in Turkish as ‘taksim’. On 15 July 1974, EOKA-B, with the support of the Greek military junta, attempted a coup against President Makarios with the hope of beginning the process of ‘Enosis’. To counteract the imminent threat, the Turkish forces invaded the north of Cyprus in the early morning hours of the 20 July. Finally, in August of the same year, the Turkish forces managed to capture approximately 40% of the island, resulting in the divided situation which still reigns today. With this turn of events in mind, it is indeed possible to see an alarming correlation between military action and the scales ultimately tipping in favour of division.

Similarly, despite the end of Japanese occupation of Korea after the Second World War, the country remained under foreign military occupation - the US in the south and the Soviet Union in the north. In 1948, UN supervised elections in the south were held, resulting in the democratic election of Syngman Rhee, whereas Kim Il-sung was undemocratically appointed by Stalin as leader of the north. The appointment of new Korean leaders resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Korea in the South and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. However, this political disparity, spurred on by external pressure, provoked further unrest between the north and south – which were already practically divided – leading to the eruption of the Korean War (1950-53). It ended in a stalemate, and Korea is still divided along the DMZ today. Although the situation differs in that the external influence – that of the USA and the Soviet Union – led to internal military conflict, the direct contribution of military conflict and violence is undeniably visible, as was the case in Cyprus. Fire was fought with fire in both cases, burning a line, tainted with blood, across the two nations.

Understanding of both historical contexts shows us why demilitarisation is realistically the only method to truly restore peace. The dichotomy between war and peace is clear. There is no hope of peace being restored as long as military relevance and involvement persists. Unfortunately, however, the theoretical answer of demilitarisation may not be consistent with reality. While we live in an era dominated by threats of even more “fire and fury”, as well as ongoing war, we cannot yet expect the demilitarisation of the Koreas. Humans are dominated by an instinct to protect. So, it is hard to imagine that they will drop their weapons just yet in the name of peace, the definition of and respect for which the world seems to have forgotten.

Although this is sadly the case today, the reopened lines of communication between the two sides in both cases, as well as the prospects for further cooperation must not be undermined. Certainly, we are witnessing a step in the right direction, especially in view of the positive action gradually being taken. In 2008, the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia’s, central pedestrianised street was reopened after 34 years of being militarily blocked. This year, South Korea withdrew their loudspeakers blasting propaganda in the DMZ, while North Korea changed their clocks to mirror the South’s time zone. We can glimpse some light at the end of the tunnel, even if the road to peace is long. Hopefully, the light will become increasingly brighter and closer, as both nations continue their journey towards reunification

Dislocation in ungoverned urban spaces

JAMES DICKSON

Rapid urbanisation, especially in lower and middle-income countries, is creating areas where public service provision and economic opportunity are low, and susceptibility to external security threats is high. Transnational organised crime, flows of illicit goods and violent ideologies, all benefit from the relative weakness of public institutions, as well as social and economic marginalisation.

While working at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), I helped organise a meeting in Panama of Central American law enforcement professionals and municipal authorities. Some of the key issues raised in this meeting and two similar ones that were held in South Africa and Thailand, were the strong relationship between crime and social and economic dislocation, as well as how difficult it has been for city governments to plan and manage the inclusion of communities while cities expand at a rapid pace. This issue has received increasing international attention, not least during the  the third International Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (‘HABITAT III’), held in Quito in October 2016. The conference made declarations on, among other things, the economic and social exclusion that is both a cause and consequence of urban poverty. Despite declarations and a new urban goal in the Sustainable Development Goals, there is still a wide gap between commitments made at the international level, and the attention paid by municipalities to disadvantaged communities and populations. As Central American city and police officials made clear in Panama, the key to the long-term health of cities lies in finding ways to support broad-based development that counteracts the risk of community fragmentation and dislocation.

Improved human development through better urban life

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This urban population currently produces 80% of global GDP and is likely to grow by an extra two billion individuals by the middle of this century. The majority of this population growth will occur in lower and middle-income countries, with Africa and especially Nigeria seeing some of the most rapid urbanisation .

Cities favour economic development through the existence of so-called ‘agglomerative economies’ – clustering of related economic activities in a single area. Economic specialisation, reductions in transaction costs, increased knowledge transfer, and economies of scale are all facilitated by urban growth. However, growth puts increasing demands on city resources, infrastructure, as well as governance and service provision.

Even where growth is not a significant factor, poor or inadequate housing, infrastructure, public services, and international connectivity can all serve to restrain a city’s potential to provide economic and social opportunities for its inhabitants. Furthermore, when population growth is rapid and unplanned, potential investors and trading partners may see these restraints as evidence of civic dysfunction, potentially perpetuating cycles of low investment and limited economic opportunity.

The OECD’s report ‘Fragile States 2016’ connects low levels of economic opportunity with fragility at the country level, highlighting areas where there is insufficient capacity in local communities and authorities to mitigate or else manage risk exposure.  Many of these risks connect local social and economic opportunity, as well as and effective governance, to broader regional or global trends such as the expansion of international criminal networks or the increasing effects of climate change. This interconnected view of vulnerabilities echoes recent discussions in development circles on ‘policy coherence’ - the rather obvious idea that programmes in different departments or levels of government should be mutually reinforcing, or at the very least not in open conflict with each other. As cities look to reduce their overall vulnerability to risk, they will increasingly need to look at how to work with a range of actors across policy domains, both nationally and internationally.

Cities in lower and middle income countries tend to suffer from higher levels of vulnerability to risk, but also higher resource constraints. Though population concentration should make service provision both more economical and logistically feasible, even modest levels of investment may be difficult for civic leaders to manage. In rapidly-urbanising sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a lack of opportunities for new urban residents may already be creating new threats to citizens’ security and fragile urban zones of weak government authority.

In fragile city zones with reduced avenues of economic opportunity and weak or ineffective civic and security institutions, what has been referred to as ‘criminal governance’ may take the place of the state. Criminal governance actors are criminal groups that successfully impose their own sets of rules and norms on local communities. These actors regulate local markets through the control of licit or illicit trade, or through the provision of services to the local population where criminal actors demand ‘protection’ payments from local communities. One of most well-known examples of this is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra however, the ‘privatization’ of local security governance in the hands of criminal actors is a common phenomenon in areas where state governance is weak.

In certain cases, illicit groups may enjoy some level of support from local communities or segments of the population - either for their ability to provide protection services - or through their self-promotion as ‘defenders’ of otherwise marginalised groups. Such connections have been observed, for example, with the Primeiro Comando da Capital group in Sao Paulo, that appears to exert control over levels of criminal violence in the city.

Illicit flows and illicit economies

Already fragile zones in cities can provide spaces where international flows of illicit goods can be managed by criminal actors without state interference - further exacerbating local vulnerabilities. As economies grow around illicit activity, segments of the local population may begin to see illicit flows as a source of economic opportunity. In some cases, they may even become the primary means to improve standards of living.

City fragility and threats from illicit flows and economies bring together issues that are traditionally handled at different levels of government. In mitigating these threats, both municipal authorities and national policy-makers would gain from increasing coordination and cooperation. At the national level, this means greater attention given to understanding migration flows that are driving urbanisation, and provision of support to municipal authorities that are dealing with rapid change, including small and medium sized cities.

Support would include cooperation between central policing and security agencies and local municipal authorities. Failure can further undermine fragile communities by allowing international criminal elements to exploit highly localised areas of weak state authority. Moreover, an inability to address social and economic exclusion in cities risks creating areas where criminal elements can assert their dominance. Improved transport links to areas of economic activity, expansion of basic service provision to impoverished and informally settled areas, and efforts to build local democratic accountability have all shown some success in reducing community exclusion. While not all of these interventions will be relevant in every local context, they highlight a key finding of debates in reducing security risk and improving livelihoods in urban areas - that effective responses may involve rethinking existing governance structures at local, national and international levels, and taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding urban exclusion and dislocation.

How the Muslim Brotherhood redefined Middle Eastern politics

ALEXANDER BANNERMAN

At the start of 2018, the governments of the Middle East and North Africa face as much uncertainty as ever, even where they are not fighting civil wars. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to win elections in March but, marked by the suppression of opposition candidates, these elections are unlikely to bolster his international image or domestic standing. Qatar stands isolated from her Gulf neighbours, while Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing radical liberalisation coupled with political repression. In each country, an organisation known as the Muslim Brotherhood has had a greatly underappreciated impact in bringing about the current state of affairs.

To understand how the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved such international relevance it is important to understand the nature of the Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928, in Egypt, by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. Inspired by the works of older Islamic thinkers, al-Banna developed an ideology combining a belief in Islam as the foundation of just government with the principles of social justice, as well as whole-hearted rejection of the Western imperialism present throughout the Middle East at the time. Although he aspired to political power, he sought it through democratic means, and focused initially on working for the poor of Egypt, such as in running schools and hospitals. This approach, appealing particularly to the lower middle classes, helped the party grow rapidly, exceeding half a million members by 1948. However, al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, apparently by secret police, and in the wake of the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, where the secular military overthrew the monarchy, the Brotherhood was banned and its adherents imprisoned and executed or exiled.

Such a cataclysm would have spelled the end for many movements, but the Brotherhood’s adaptability has allowed it to expand its influence. One way this has been achieved is through inspiring international Islamist groups. Through charities and institutions set up by adherents abroad, the Brotherhood has founded sister parties across the Middle East, most notably Hamas. Its offshoots have also played major political roles in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Jordan, among others. In addition to these direct offshoots, al-Banna is widely credited as the father of political Islam, among the first to argue for Islamic government as an alternative to oppressive, Western-backed regimes. This ideology inspired countless other influential Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, and even the leaders of the Iranian Revolution. In fact the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the first to translate into Persian two works by the prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb, influenced he he was by Qutb’s preaching of the necessity of a truly Islamic state and of removing Western influence from the Islamic world.

It is crucial to note that since the 1960s, and at times during the preceding decades, the official attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been one of non-violence, though their exception for ‘defensive jihad’ allowed them to reconcile this with support for Hamas and the Afghan Mujahideen. Many offshoots have accepted this non-violent approach, as in Morocco and Jordan, where they have pushed for democratisation. Elsewhere, however, offshoots and affiliated groups have ignored this precept. This is possible because while the Muslim Brotherhood is a label that covers many groups, there is no unified international control. Attempts to organise internationally have been rejected by most related groups, who prefer an ideology that adapts to local circumstances. Though the Egyptian Brotherhood is the most influential branch, its influence stems only from the prestige accrued through age and size.

In fact, the tendency of the Brotherhood to foster wide ideological divisions among its membership has been a major reason for international opposition, as it has allowed extremists to emerge from the group. One member stands out here, the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb. As the Egyptian Brotherhood’s foremost thinker, he was imprisoned alongside then-leader Hassan al-Hudaybi after the 1954 crackdown on the group. While many members were imprisoned and tortured by the regime, Qutb’s thinking swiftly diverged from al-Hudaybi’s while in prison. Already contemptuous toward Western society after spending time in the United States in the late 1940s, he reasoned that the guards who tortured devout Muslims could not be true Muslims themselves. From this arose the idea of takfir, declaring self-professed Muslims to be apostates (Muslims who have rejected Islam, a serious crime in Islamic law). Whereas al-Hudaybi stuck to the idea of Islamism, a political approach to enshrining religious law in national law, Qutb embraced the idea of jihad through takfir, declaring that the guards and the regime who employed them, and other similar regimes, were apostates and enemies of Muslims. In Qutb’s eyes they were therefore legitimate targets for jihad (religiously justified war).

The influence of Qutb’s thought on all subsequent jihadist groups is hard to overstate. How this influence has been exerted can be illustrated by two key members of al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Qutb personally influenced al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who joined the Brotherhood at 14 in 1965. The following year, Qutb was executed by the state on charges of plotting a coup, leaving al-Zawahiri with a determination to fulfil his goal of an Islamic state. He soon joined the group Egyptian Jihad. After work in Pakistan, where he met bin Laden, he merged his group with al Qaeda, and became al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death. The radicalisation of bin Laden followed a different, more trodden path. After the Brotherhood was first banned in Egypt, thousands of members fled to Saudi Arabia. Here, the state ideology of conservative Wahhabi Islam and the recent establishment of a public education system helped many well educated, pious Muslim Brothers to gain jobs in the educational establishment. This allowed them huge influence over the minds of young Saudis. Among these youths was Osama bin Laden, the son of a construction tycoon, who may have been taught by, among others, Muhammed Qutb, brother of Sayyid. After spending time fighting in and financing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, he returned to Saudi Arabia, where frustration with the government led him to pursue global jihad and to propel the idea of jihad into the global consciousness on September 11, 2001.

The future of the Muslim Brotherhood is as unclear as that of many of the regimes still standing in the Middle East. Members have been imprisoned en masse in Egypt and elsewhere, and the Trump administration has considered proscribing it in the US. However,  history shows such efforts have done little to prevent it from attaining a place of leadership in both political Islamist and violent Jihadist circles. The willingness of various Middle Eastern regimes to permit political expression over the coming years will be decisive in determining whether the Brotherhood’s democratically-inclined leaders gain control, or whether it is the Jihadists who win out. Whatever happens, it seems likely that the Brotherhood and its past leaders will continue to play a vital role in Middle Eastern affairs for many years to come.

Warsaw’s Shift Eastwards: the Dislocation of Polish Identity

KRZYSZTOF KRUK

Poland has always strived to define itself against the East-West dichotomy; a struggle common amongst Eastern European societies.  Even though globally the North-South distinction continues to rise in relevance, this division is still – often implicitly – popularly embraced and mapped onto the understanding of world politics, and remains exceedingly important in the Polish context.

Amongst the most common criticisms of the East-West dichotomy is its difficulty in capturing hybridity, cultural interpenetration, and contamination – everything that makes the concept of a rigidly delineated border seem somewhat irrelevant and easily substitutable by the concept of borderland. In the light of a vast amount of easily accessible testimonies and simple logic, it would be naïve to cherish a vision of the world whereby the membership in a certain cultural circle was a dummy variable. Admittedly, states and nations form communities focused around shared values, norms, and practices, but at the same time their cultural constitution is dynamic and open to multiple influences.

Sławomir Mrożek (Slahvomir Mrozhekh), a Polish absurdist novelist and playwright, famously characterised his fatherland as being “to the west from the East and to the east from the West.”. Being in the peculiar grey zone between the two traditionally defined spheres has clearly translated into the political realm. Perpetual uncertainty surrounding the construal of Self against the Other, which could underlie national identity, generated scepticism towards the Other per se. It contributed to the purchase of a martyrized theory of national history and it made Poland swing between recognising and embracing its Slavic origins and looking up to the developed Western Europe.

The roots of Polish insecurity concerning its place in the global-political landscape can be traced back to the state’s foundations. The earliest recorded milestone in the country’s history is 966 AD, when Mieszko I, the first known Polish ruler, adopted Christianity as the state religion through his personal baptism. By the standards of the era, this was a politically momentous act which effectively integrated Poland with the community of established European states centred around the Catholic Church. Borne by the incoming religious current, the wave of Western legal, political, and administrative influences profoundly shaped the young and consolidating Polish state. Even nowadays, 966 remains a date - one which most Poles associate with the foundational act of their homeland.

 Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)  Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)

Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

To give an opposite example, forced into the Soviet sphere of influence throughout the Cold War era, Poland was associated with the world’s East. Its capital was enshrined in the name of the communist defence alliance forged as a counterpunch aimed at NATO; the USSR exercised a nearly unconstrained control over its political and economic life; imported Marxism-Leninism took the place of the ideological paradigm. Wretched by the war and too weak to decide for itself, in a game between great powers, the country was forced into the Eastern camp with no realistic prospects of changing sides in foreseeable future.

Some news, however, soaked through the iron curtain and the dense clouds of official propaganda. It soon became obvious that the degree of freedom, welfare, and prosperity enjoyed by Western societies vastly exceeded that of the ordinary Polish resident. The West, neither for the first nor last time, became a model looked up to - despite the communist authorities’ desperate attempts to play down Western appeal.

The chance to cross the line and join the Western community came in 1989 with the breakdown of communist authoritarianism in the aftermath of the upsurge of the Poland-based Solidarity movement - a source of national pride. A series of events took Warsaw, shaking off the authoritarian grip and centrally planned economy, closer and closer to the West. Joining NATO in 1991 and the European Union in 2004 marked two major steps in its political shift westwards. By 2014, a Pole became the President of the European Council, which was widely dubbed a success and sign of recognition from the West.

However, the rise to power of the incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party abruptly broke the steady Polish integration with Western Europe. PiS wasted no time. Just after the electoral results were announced, they started passing multiple illiberal policies, politicising the Constitutional Court, seizing state media, and later concentrating considerable power over the judiciary in the hands of party-nominated Minister of Justice. Nearly overnight, relations with Western Europe were severely damaged. PiS dignitaries did not wish to initiate dialogue with the West - let alone step back. The language they used to justify their political actions was exceedingly divergent with the language of Western liberal democracies.

 PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

This discontinuity manifested itself in the way the authorities altered the state narrative about the EU. Just a few months before PiS took power, the official commemoration of the end of World War II involved a choral performance of the Ode to Joy alongside the national anthem. Soon after the seminal parliamentary elections, the Prime Minister tellingly decided to remove EU flags from the background of her press conferences. These gestures went hand in hand with a startling change in words. Polish ever-growing participation in the European community used to be presented as a source of pride; Western liberal democracies were posited as partners and, in many respects, models to follow. Since 2015, instead, government officials have exhibited a tendency to construe Europe as part of the Other rather than the Self – to talk about Poland as opposed to Europe rather than as being part of it. It is enough to read a few headlines of state media to notice that “Brussels” is identified with a foreign agency, embracing an inferior socio-political model, misguided and misinformed by inimical media, and threatening to punish legitimate defiance with sanctions.

Luminaries of the ruling elite have openly questioned values cherished by Western democracies. The overtone of notions such as “political correctness”, “liberal left”, or “feminism” has been rendered either ironic or simply pejorative. A prominent PiS’ MP, Krystyna Pawłowicz, called the EU flag a “rag”, expressing contempt towards European axiological system. The idea of liberal democracy came under attack: the then-Foreign Minister openly declared in a BBC interview that his party seeks to establish a “democracy without adjectives”. Kaczynski, the leader of PiS who effectively runs the state from behind the scene, notoriously deplored “legal impossibilism” – the obstacles posed by the system of checks and balances, which prevents winner-takes-it-all political outcomes.

The dismantling of checks and balances took the form of legislation. A series of ruthless reforms set the grounds for executive dominance known from most non-Baltic post-Soviet states. The goal of the process was simple – putting power over law and removing the obstacles which tie the hands of the rulers. The ideological shift extends to personal freedom and plurality, which were marginalised for the sake of order and homogeneity.

In his brilliant essay, John Plamenatz of All Souls College distinguished between Eastern and Western nationalism, listing the features where they are different. “Eastern nationalism” – writes Plamenatz – “is also illiberal (…). Leaders or rulers who take it upon themselves (…) are impatient of any opposition. Their task, they think, is urgent, and they will not tolerate obstructive criticism, taking it for granted that it is for them to decide when it is obstructive”.

Clearly, since the 2015 elections, there is an observable change in how Polish identity is officially construed. The authorities not only brutally criticise, but also seem to deny the legitimacy and relevance of current Western European politics and values. Whereas they don’t dare to argue for “Polexit” – surveys suggest over 80% of Poles are supportive of the EU – their rhetoric, absorbed by the exposed population, alienates and stigmatises the West. They seek to deeply alter the political structures based upon Western examples and embrace arrangements increasingly resembling Eastern hybrid systems. Given the popularity of their narrative, this can mean that the new vision of politics will be here to stay – unlikely to be reversed in the nearest future.