Twenty-one years ago, US president Bill Clinton stood alongside his counterpart Jiang Zemin at a press conference and brazenly told his guest that when it came to political reform and respect for human rights, China was “on the wrong side of history”.
From the mid-1970s to the early 90s, more than 30 countries became democracies.
In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party barely survived an existential political crisis when protests involving millions erupted throughout the country.
The Soviet Union fell two years later.
Democratic transitions in South Korea and Taiwan provided a glimpse of what was possible.
Optimism for political reform is not extinguished but has since subsided. More serious is the prospect that democrats have lost, if not their conviction, then their fight. When China’s Xi Jinping up-ended 40 years of prudence and abolished presidential term limits, it was largely received with resignation. The corruption of democracy in Cambodia and Myanmar is met with disappointment but not surprise. More time and column inches are expended on excoriating the democratically elected Donald Trump than genuine autocrats in our region.
Why is authoritarianism resilient in Asia and its appeal, even within democratic polities, on the rise? We must begin with the reality that there are relatively few genuine democrats in the region.
Consider a 2017 Pew survey of citizens from The Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. Only 15 per cent, 12 per cent, and 8 per cent respectively were “committed democrats”, favouring electoral democracy under any circumstances. Whereas committed democrats will blame the party in power for poor outcomes that do not meet expectations, uncommitted democratic societies frequently blame the democratic system for perceived failures.
This deeply embedded instrumentalist or pragmatic view of democracy largely accounts for the phenomena of authoritarian resilience and democratic erosion in Asia in recent times.
Consider Thailand, which has experienced at least 15 coups or coup attempts since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. With respect to the latest takeover in 2014, the junta experienced its highest approval ratings months after it seized power, as it was perceived military leaders had a better chance of restoring order to Thai society and politics.
In The Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s approval ratings, almost 80 per cent earlier this year, are the highest of any president on record since the 1980s despite his illiberal tendencies: extrajudicial killings as part of the anti-drug campaign; intimidation of political opponents; and so on. For these two governments, democracy remains an afterthought.
This brings us to the uncomfortable truth that autocrats have become better purveyors of their approach than democrats. An overwhelming majority of countries in Asia have developing economies that are yet to fully industrialise. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand are the exceptions.
The rest are straining to become middle-income economies, while only a small number of others, such as Malaysia and Thailand, are seeking to break out of a so-called middle-income trap.
The message of autocratic governments in poorer countries is that the lack of political freedom or reform is an advantage. Last year, the fastest growing economies in East Asia were Laos, The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China; all either authoritarian systems or, in the case of The Philippines, suffering democratic erosion.
Modern authoritarian approaches have demonstrated an impressive capacity to generate rapid economic growth through the forced mobilisation of capital, land and even labour in undeveloped and developing economies. Ruling elites continue to retain control of the distribution of land, capital and contracts: political connections are the gateway to commercial opportunity.
This means that the emergence of an independent middle class is retarded. Such an arrangement tends to lead to a greater divide between politically connected insiders and the rest, but is clearly appealing to autocrats throughout Asia whose primary objective is to remain in power.
This inevitably leads to a discussion of China, which has the greatest claims to authoritarian success. In a debate largely vacated by democrats who are too afraid to offend, Beijing is given free rein to run the uncontested line that autocratic competence is outstripping democratic dysfunction. Xi and his officials openly denigrate pluralism in the region. Through speeches and editorials in state media, democracies are criticised for being frail, divided, inept and indecisive.
By way of contrast, China actively promotes its authoritarian model as one that is politically stable, technically superior, and better able to pursue sensible policies in a consistent manner.
What do we do to combat the illiberal tide and narrative? It is worth pointing out that the only countries to have successfully become high-income economies are liberal democracies. Several oil-rich Middle Eastern states are the exception. Nevertheless, it is ill-advised for democracy to seek to compete on crude economic performance measures. Mature democracies in advanced economies will not generally grow as rapidly as developing nations regardless of whether these nations are democratic or autocratic.
The previous century has shown that prolonged political, economic and social disasters occur almost always in authoritarian systems that lack the institutional capacity to self-correct. Democracy’s strongest selling point is the capacity of citizens to put pressure on governments to change policies, and to peacefully remove oppressive, corrupt or poorly performing governments from power.
The recent election of Mahathir Mohamad, ousting Najib Razak and the United Malays National Organisation from power for the first time since Malaysian independence six decades ago without any bloodshed, is a case in point.
It is not enough, though, to point to the odd serendipitous democratic event; democracies need to go on the diplomatic offensive and challenge the narrative of superior authoritarian competence, or at least put it in perspective. Consider the common autocrat’s contention that autocracy creates order while democracy leads to chaos. In autocracies, keeping a lid on things comes at an immense cost.
Since 2010, China has spent more on the People’s Armed Police than it has on the People’s Liberation Army. With a budget almost 20 per cent larger than that of the PLA, the PAP is a military-trained domestic militia whose primary purpose is to control unrest within the country.
The PAP is never idle. The number of annual instances of “mass unrest” is estimated to be well above 100,000. China has 170 million closed circuit cameras in place and plans to install another 400 million by about 2020. Consider the opportunity cost of keeping just one party in power. China spends more than 25 per cent of government revenue on social goods such as welfare safety nets, healthcare and education, even as budgets for internal security and other apparatuses for repression and surveillance increase disproportionately to gross domestic product growth. This compares with an average among lower middle-income countries of about 36 per cent and 42 per cent for OECD countries.
It is also essential to contest the narrative that the skill of authoritarian technocrats enabled China to sail through the GFC unscathed. The reality is its then export-dependent model ground to a halt and its leaders responded by demanding state-owned enterprises embark on a huge debt-fuelled fixed investment program.
Chinese debt-to-GDP ratio increased from 100 per cent to 260 per cent in the 10 years to 2018, as corporate debt as a percentage of GDP more than doubled. This represents the largest and most rapid accumulation of corporate debt for any 10-year period in economic history.
The point is not to gratuitously denigrate all aspects of the Chinese model but to expose its weaknesses, just as Beijing attempts to do with respect to democracies. It should cause others to reassess the perception that autocrats achieve superior results in terms of economic management, improving standards of living, social stability and public order over a sustained period.
Further, more should be made of the fact that citizens from autocracies overwhelmingly choose to migrate to democratic nations, not the other way around.
To be sure, democrats have harmed their own cause by focusing too much on universal suffrage — the right to vote — rather than on institutions that place greater checks, balances and restraints on the exercise of executive power and limitations on the role of government in the economy. The purpose must be to promote habits of accountability and compromise, greater citizen participation in governance, and the emergence of a genuinely independent middle class. As has occurred in countries such as Indonesia, Mongolia, Malaysia, and East Timor, an active and vibrant civil society makes democratic transition or resilience much more likely.
In contrast, universal suffrage without these institutions and practices is unlikely to produce better outcomes.
Although robust democracies are noisy and somewhat chaotic in the way they operate, strong and principled leadership is clearly possible. In the latest Lowy Institute poll, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leads the way among regional leaders in the category of who would “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”
Beyond foreign policy, nations such as Japan prove that in the right conditions, liberal democracy is suitable not only for the West. Contemporary autocrats grow in confidence when propagating an image of competence and fitness, and the unsuitability of democracy, in helping the region realise its potential. A compelling counter-argument could be made that democratic Japan or South Korea — and not authoritarian China — should serve as the paradigm for a rich, stable and successful Asian nation.
Democracy has been written off before. In the 1930s, democracies appeared a feeble and spent force compared with rising fascist and communist nations. West German chancellor Willy Brandt believed in the mid-70s that in another 20 to 30 years democracy in western Europe would drown “under the surrounding sea of dictatorship”. Given what is at stake, it is time for democracies to re-enter the fray.