Resilient Authoritarianism and Soft Power

Last Thursday I was driving into Canberra and had the opportunity to listen to Richard McGregor’s interview with Margaret Throsby on ABC’s Classic FM. Richard McGregor is the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers published in June 2010. I had heard an earlier interview with Phillip Adams too.
Both interviews left me with a desire to explore the combination of resilient authoritarianism and soft power as a leadership style relevant to sport contexts. Richard explored both characteristics in his interviews. His study of the Chinese Communist party provides enormous detail about the processes and outcomes of a distinctive, transforming leadership practice. This is a link to a talk Richard gave at the Lowy Institute.
Penguin Australia’s trail for the book is: “It is impossible to understand China without really knowing who is in charge. And this book tackles the subject head on. How did China’s Communists merge Marx, Mao and the market to create a new superpower? How can they maintain such a grip on power in the face of a changing world.”
Resilient Authoritarianism
A lot of the references to ‘resilient authoritarianism’ are linked to China. For example, Andrew Nathan (2006) points out that he describes China’s authoritarian regime as resilient “because it remains robustly authoritarian and securely in power”. He suggests that some signs of the regime’s resilience are:

  • Hu Jintao’s smooth succession to power in 2002-2003 and his consolidation of power since then.
  • The regime’s ability to discern problems in economy and society and to make policy changes to respond to these problems.
  • High levels of support for the regime in public opinion.
  • The inability of social discontent and political dissent to cumulate.

He adds that the roots of the regime’s grip on power include:

  • Economic growth has improved the welfare of most of the population, giving them a stake in the survival of the current regime as long as they continue to benefit from its policies and its stability.
  • The regime has scored real as well as perceived achievements in foreign policy, such as securing the 2008 Olympics for Beijing …
  • The regime maintains a variety of safety-valve institutions which, however ineffective they are, nonetheless offer dissatisfied citizens an alternative to opposing the ruling party.
  • The regime has been able to use repression to prevent the rise of any substantial political opposition.
  • The regime has managed the far-flung and complex propaganda system in such a way that the broad public perceives diversity and significant freedom in the media, while at the same time sensitive political messages are eliminated from the public sphere.
  • The Party has developed the ability to co-opt economic and social elites, so that it is “the only game in town” for ambitious persons.
  • The regime has the necessary policy-making systems in place to respond to economic and social change.
  • Crucial to the resilience of the regime is the elite’s will to power. The leadership hangs together.

Art Hutchinson explores the relationship between resilience and robustness. He notes that ‘resilient authoritarianism’ is:

a strange combination, to be sure, and in fact ‘robustness‘ rather than resilience may be a better term for the Chinese government. The former connotes sheer strength and durability; the latter is more characteristic of a system that’s able to bounce back seamlessly (or nearly so) from a wide array of unanticipated shocks and challenges. It’s a distinction many large organizations should take to heart–and many have.

He argues that the true resilience of highly distributed systems tends to triumph due to:

  1. Greater adaptability (they can deform in extreme ways without disintegrating altogether) and;
  2. The speed with which they can route around ‘failure’.

Soft Power
Joseph Nye (2008) points out that soft power is:

the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. A country’s soft power rests on its resources of culture, values, and policies. A smart power strategy combines hard and soft power resources.

Ernest Wilson (2008) suggests that smart power is defined as:

the capacity of an actor to combine elements of hard power and soft power in ways that are mutually reinforcing such that the actor’s purposes are advanced effectively and efficiently.

It strikes me that attraction and advancing purposes effectively and efficiently are characteristics of good coaching.
Leadership in Sport

The discussion of authoritarianism and soft power in political science resonates for me with discussions about effective coaching. In writing this post I was taken back to Muska Mosston’s work in identifying and discussing The Spectrum of Teaching Styles. The Spectrum builds upon the premise that teaching behavior is a chain of decision making. Every deliberate act of teaching is a result of a previous decision.
Jonathan Doherty (2003) points out that Mosston’s ideas on the interactions between teacher and student have provided a framework for teaching physical education in different contexts all over the world. He notes that in the 1970s it was described as “the most significant advance in the theory of physical education pedagogy in recent history”. (For a recent discussion of the pedagogical approaches in the Spectrum see Sicilia-Camacho and Brown (2008). Jaekwon Na (2009) provides an example of the use of the Spectrum in the teaching of Taekwando. Shirley Gray (2009) and her colleagues look at the teaching of invasive games.
I see an important link between deliberate acts of teaching and the underlying approach to authority and control. Ian Pickup (2010) explores some of the factors that impact on teaching in his discussion of teaching young children.
Resilient behaviour in coaching for me is a fascinating mix of world view (big picture understanding) and pedagogical practice that frames deliberate acts of knowledge reproduction and production. In professional sport it requires a lot of political will too.
Richard McGregor’s insights provide an interesting guide as to how coaches might manage all three elements.
Photo Credits
Bank of China
Gentle Caress of Light
Coach 01


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