The appeal of populism  is that it speaks on behalf of common people in societies dominated by wealthy and exploitative elites. In a world that feels (and is) exploited by elites, this is a powerful motivation for people that causes such contradictory pulls as the Occupy and Tea Party Movements, as nations all around the world feel the pulls between left-wing and right-wing populism that criticize different elites but share a common interest on stirring the common people to rise against their (supposed) oppressors. While this is an appealing political program for many people, there is the sad and bitter truth that many populists are phony populists who look to capitalize on crony capitalism while also capitalizing on popular discontent with it, to gain power through popular support while gaining power and influence through the same corruption they claim to oppose. Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in China.
Some days ago, I received an article from Asian Correspondent that pointed to an article from the New York Times about the surprising wealth gained by the family members of China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jaibao, who come from a modest background of farming folk (not that dissimilar to my own family background) but who have amassed over $2 billion of assets in stocks and business investments once their relative entered the elite ranks of Chinese government . While using his modest background to gain support from similarly ambitious Chinese commoners, Jaibao appears to be using the traditional left-wing crony capitalist model of using government power to gain personal profit.
China is not the only nation where this model of milking government power for personal profit runs rampant. One sees the same thing in the fact that successful politicians, even from fairly modest backgrounds, inevitably become millionaires, and find that the laws they support often support their own big contributors. To be fair, there is an equally powerful right-wing crony capitalism of using private profits to fund political power, with the same effects (see, for example, the career of Berlusconi in Italy). Nonetheless, the example of China is particularly instructive in showing how an official support of left-wing ideology supports a particular type of crony capitalism and that leads to the rise of phony left-wing populist politicians who claim to oppose a system that has given them and their families such power while attempting to calm social unrest that results from the effects of that corruption on the common man.
Given the seriousness of the charge, we should not expect China’s leadership to take this double-barreled accusation lying down. However, the response of China’s leadership was that the report from the New York Times had ‘ulterior motives’ and was designed ‘to smear China .’ Well, clearly the New York Times has ulterior motives. It has a particular worldview of left-leaning liberalism that makes it biased when it comes to political matters. Its bias is not in question. The fact that China’s leadership focused on the (obviously questionable) motives of the New York Times and not on the accuracy of the evidence presented by the report suggests that the facts as stated are true. And that evidence indicates that China’s leadership does not play by the same rules as everyone else, and that political loyalty to an authoritarian (and nominally communist) ideology ends up with crony capitalist rewards.
So how is one to deal with this problem? For one, we must be suspicious of populist claims and must look at the policies of governments and politicians under the principle of cui bono. Who, specifically, will benefit from laws and regulations? Who truly represents our best interests, both now and for the long haul? Are those who make populist appeals truly interested in the well-being of the common man or are they only interested in lining their own pockets through official corruption and favorable deals? The answers to these questions are not straightforward, and few are willing are willing to give honest answers given the stakes of the matter. But we ought to be aware that it is easy to feign compassion and interest in the common folk and hard for politicians to keep their hand out of the cookie jar and avoid corruption that benefits their own bottom line, even as it harms the very people they claim to faithfully serve. Moreover, these problems exist all over the world. More than one nation has a phony populist-in-chief, after all.