What strips power from today’s emperors

Challenges to strong democratic leaders are common. In China, ruled by a ‘supreme leader,’ a pastor has challenged personal rule by pointing to the real source of power.

Xu Shijuan, a Christian in Zhengzhou in central China's Henan province, sings at her hom in June, 2018.

 In democracies, leaders are often reminded, outside regular elections, about the source of their authority and how that responsibility is to be exercised. Take these events just in recent days:

In the United States, Democrats in the House limited Nancy Pelosi’s next tenure as speaker to four years.

In France, after the “yellow vest” protests, President Emmanuel Macron had to endure a no-confidence vote in Parliament (he won).

In a much-divided Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling party took a vote on her future leadership (she won). 

Such public trials help rein in personal power. They force alternative ideas to the fore. They compel citizens to reassess the principles behind their choices at the ballot box. They highlight the values of stable democracy, such as equality, individual rights, and accountability.

Little of that happens under authoritarian regimes, especially if a leader claims absolute power and tries to build a cult of idolatry masked as ideology. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is getting close to this point. He has few checks on power and portrays himself as an ideal, muscular patriot. China, in contrast, may already be at such a point.

Last spring President Xi Jinping achieved life tenure as “supreme leader,” or the personification of power. He has launched a campaign depicting himself as an icon of virtue who must be seen in heroic and paternalistic images. His ideas are required reading. A new song extols him with the title “To Follow You is to Follow the Sun.”

Only a few intellectuals or human rights activists in China have challenged this personality cult. Mostly they warn that rulers who practice “totalitarian politics” must rule mainly by fear. Most of these critics are easily silenced by various means.

For Mr. Xi, the greatest threat comes from large religious groups, such as Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region or Buddhists in Tibet. They regard secular power as necessary but lesser to the power of faith and perhaps subservient to it.

The fastest growing religious group in China is the Protestants. One of the most prominent Protestants is Wang Yi, a former human rights lawyer who is pastor of an independent Christian church, Early Rain, in Chengdu in Sichuan province. On Dec. 8, he posted a 7,300-word “meditation” on Xi’s crackdown on religious groups and the Caesar-like worship of the Communist Party chief.

He did not call for Xi’s ouster. Rather, he wrote that treating a leader like an emperor is incompatible with “all those who uphold freedom of the mind and thought.”

The next day, Mr. Wang and about 100 people in his church were detained. He and his wife are charged with “inciting to subvert state power.”Just before the roundup, the church issued a statement: “Lord, help us to have the Christian’s conscience and courage to resist this ‘Orwellian nonsense’ with more positive Gospel action and higher praise. Without love, there is no courage.”

In the US, Britain, France, and other democracies, dramatic challenges to a leader receive much of the world’s attention. They serve as reminders that, while secular and certainly personal power is not eternal, the ideas that sustain it, like freedom and equality, are.

China sees few reminders of this sort. Yet when they happen, they deserve notice. Wang and his wife face up to 15 years in prison. But as much as any election or party challenge in a democracy, they have now pointed to the right source of authority in the governance of China. It lies not in person.

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