Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.

Ukraine’s Revolution: It’s 1989 Again

February 23, 2014

        “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

                      — Martin Luther King

imagesMy favorite year was 1989. Today, in Ukraine, it’s 1989 again – complete with toppling Lenin statues. (Yes, inexplicably, they still had them.)

I’m thrilled, but I won’t get carried away.  These stories don’t always play out well. Egypt is certainly a sobering case in point. Russia had a revolution in 1991 and wound up Putinized. And Ukraine itself had its “Orange Revolution” that turned out poorly. But this one looks much more like the real thing.

Though it’s a volatile situation. While Yanukovych’s support in the country as a whole is shredded, he still has a base in the Russified east and could still continue or even escalate the bloodshed. If those easterners actually want to be ruled by a thoroughly corrupt murderous thug, subservient to another thoroughly corrupt murderous thug in the Kremlin, maybe they should be allowed to enjoy it. images-1But a preferable outcome would be Yanukovych put on a trial for his crimes and swiftly executed, a-la-Ceausescu 1989. Let him be the final victim of the violence he unleashed.

Meantime, there are some lessons. One is that this is the Twenty-first Century. And in this century, bad guys can’t get away with what they used to. Or at least they sure can’t count on it. Time was, if you just shot enough people, you’d be home free. It worked in Tiananmen Square. It may be working in Syria. But it didn’t work in Ukraine’s Maidan Square. This is progress. The world is improving.  Though it’s a darn shame a lot of Ukrainians had to get shot before the shooting was seen to fail.

It failed because Ukrainians — enough of them at least — understand that they needn’t tolerate it any more. They’ve read Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man. They insist on having a normal modern free country, not some sorry-ass replica of Putin’s Russia. (Maybe someday enough Russians will too.)

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister whom Yanukovych beat in the last presidential election, has been released from 2-1/2 years imprisonment on bogus corruption charges, and says she will run for president again. Perhaps her election platform should be a simple one: “No shooting.”

Another lesson is this: nonviolence is all well and good, but sometimes there are things worth fighting for, and sometimes you do have to fight. Otherwise you hand the world over to thugs like Yanukovych with no scruples about using violence to gain their ends. It’s a tragic reality that passive nonviolence may not cut it in such cases.

Ukraine has had its revolution thanks to courageous people willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it. I melt in reverence toward such heroic people. UnknownI’m a big talker when it comes to issues of freedom and democracy, but would I have been willing to go into Maidan Square in freezing cold to face hard men with clubs and guns? I don’t think so.

Erdogan Crushes Turkish Protests

June 26, 2013

“Power corrupts and absolute power . . . “ runs the hoariest of clichés. And it’s true of course. But power also intoxicates, inflates the ego, and blinds.

Erdogan

Erdogan

The latest sufferer of this syndrome is Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced “Erdowan”). His AK Party (“mildly Islamist” The Economist invariably calls it) has won three solid election victories, ending a period of political instability. For a long time I considered Erdogan one of the good guys. He’s done a lot right, most importantly confining the army to its barracks and quashing its political meddling; getting the economy on track; and starting to mend things with Turkey’s abused and stroppy Kurdish minority. All this positioned Turkey as the model for how Islam and democracy could be compatible.

Erdogan’s achievements made him Turkey’s most important figure since Ataturk, and had he stopped there, he could have gone off into the sunset venerated as a national benefactor.

But leaders don’t always stop there, do they? Often success goes to their heads, they come to consider themselves the darlings of the gods. And so Erdogan in recent years grew increasingly authoritarian and intolerant, ever more a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. And unfortunately, while Turkey has been pretty much a democracy for a length of time, it hasn’t yet graduated to becoming a mature democratic society. One indication is that Turkey jails more journalists than any other country. And while its judicial prosecution of legions of army coup plotters is good in concept, these proceedings show appalling disregard for norms of fairness and due process. So – even in “democratic” Turkey, there’s a lot of room for a leader’s authoritarian itches to be scratched. (And Erdogan was once quoted that democracy is like a train — you get off when you reach your destination.)

images-1This all came to a head recently with protests over government plans for development in an Istanbul park. A trivial issue, perhaps, but the real grievance was Erdogan’s increasingly arrogant and bullying manner. Demonstrations spread across the country. And Erdogan responded by ramping up to the max his ugliest characteristics. He basically declared, “I was elected by half the voters. The rest can go to Hell.” Indeed, he virtually declared them public enemies. And then he unleashed really horrific police brutality against the protesters. Erdogan now seems bent on making Turkey a repressive police state.

But this is not just about Turkey. The point is that what we’re seeing there plays out over and over: the democratically elected leader for whom success goes to his head, turning him into a monster. We saw this too in Venezuela. Another textbook case is Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa.

Why doesn’t it happen in countries like England, France, (postwar) Germany, or America? Note again my phrase “mature democratic society.” In such societies, the pluralistic, open, democratic ethos has gotten woven into their warp and woof. Having elections is not all there is to democracy. It’s not merely a system – it’s a way of life. And when a country reaches that stage, behavior like Erdogan’s is simply impossible, unthinkable.

UnknownGlobally speaking, it still seems clear to this optimist that democracy is on the upswing; that the great historical tide begun in 1776 is still running, and will ultimately sweep away the world’s Erdogans and Rajapaksas, not to mention its Mugabes and Putins – for the reasons explained in Fukuyama’s The End of History. A liberal democratic society is where human beings can flourish best, and achieve their deepest wants; and in the long view, people will not settle for less.

But nothing in human affairs ever goes in a straight line, and on the road to that utopia, we will still, alas, meet our share of Chavezes and Rajapaksas and Erdogans.

Even in Africa

March 29, 2013

high horseWhen William Easterly reviewed Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, he called “disturbing” Ridley’s use of the word “even” regarding Africa, as in saying something good is happening “even in Africa.” Easterly, from a politically correct high horse, sneered at Ridley as “equality challenged.”

Strange perhaps that Easterly himself authored a book titled The White Man’s Burden” !

That’s a cheap shot – but so was Easterly’s. The fact is that most of Africa for decades was obviously, er, “progress challenged,” a graveyard for dreams; so to say that a positive trend is visible “even in Africa” is entirely appropriate. Is it somehow anti-equality to recognize the reality of Africa’s problems?

This blog has long expressed great optimism about progress and the human future. So let me now add too: even in Africa.

Ouattara

Ouattara

When in 2010 I heard news that Cote D’Ivoire’s President Gbagbo, who had lost a (long-delayed) election, was refusing to accept the result, I said to myself, “Here we go again. How many lives will this cost?” The answer was several thousand. But in the end, Gbagbo did not get away with it, and is now a guest of the International Criminal Court awaiting trial. His successor, Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF economist, seems to be responsibly working to tackle the nation’s problems. This is the new Africa.

It is portrayed in an excellent recent survey by The Economist. After colonialism ended, much of Africa was plunged into a morass of incompetent and corrupt, rapacious government by venal dictators, who did what they did because they were pushing on an open door; i.e., civil society did not have its act together sufficiently to stop them. But that has been changing; the door is finally closing, as seen in Cote D’Ivoire, and in many other African countries. Democracy is very much on the rise, more and more elections are being held, more and more fairly, and one by one the dictators have been going; and with them, a lot of the conflict and violence that such rule tends to propagate.

Even (that word again) in places like Sudan, Congo, Angola, and Somalia, no pillars of democracy, violent conflict has been ebbing. Somalia is beginning to rebuild itself as a functioning nation. Sudan’s split into two countries, I had feared, would spark a new war, especially over contested oil resources. But that situation too seems to be calming down.

UnknownAfrica has also seen a lot of material progress, with rising economic growth and incomes, falling poverty, more education, sanitation and better health, and a growing middle class. Real income per person rose over 30% in the last decade (compared to a 10% fall in the two before it). Opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last. (Only a third of Europeans do.)

This is an obvious consequence of reduced violence, and mainly reflects the overall better quality of governance that democratic politics brings, with officials accountable to voters. A key factor is the general abandonment of socialist and statist economic approaches in favor of more market-oriented, trade-oriented, and investment-oriented policies. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it’s finally being learned in Africa. (In this, Africans may be ahead of those advanced sophisticates in Europe.)

Unknown-2Such changes don’t “just happen.” There are great historical forces in play. The problems that befell post-colonial Africa entailed the basest elements of human nature, with the ascendancy of the worst people. Conversely, the turn-around reflects the efforts of that other and vastly greater segment of humanity, motivated to improve quality of life not only for themselves but for their fellows. Ultimately, that force is the more powerful, and must prevail.

Even in Africa.

Aung San Suu Kyi: “Freedom From Fear”

October 15, 2012

I picked up this book of hers at a used book sale from a sense of duty. Of course I knew her story and expected, well, yada yada yada. Eventually I made myself actually read it. And I was deeply moved and impressed.

Aung San Suu Kyi & father

Her father Aung San was Burma’s independence leader, assassinated at 32, in 1947, just before independence came. He was apotheosized as the national hero.* Born in 1945, Suu lived the life of an ivory-tower scholar, mostly abroad; married a Brit; and had two sons.

In 1988 she returned to Burma to tend her dying mother. That same year saw massive unrest against the military dictatorship that had seized power in 1962. Thousands were massacred. Suu could not stand by, and soon she was leader of the National League for Democracy – and under house arrest. So she remained for most of the next quarter century. Suu could not be present to collect her Nobel Peace Prize; nor for her husband’s illness and death. (She would have been allowed to leave – but not to return.)

Meantime, in 1990, the regime held an election. They apparently expected an inconclusive and hence non-consequential result. (Such regimes typically seem delusional about popular opinion.) But Suu’s NLD won overwhelmingly. So the military just ignored the election (and arrested many of those elected).

The book, Freedom From Fear, published in 1995, is a sampling of Suu’s essays and speeches, with some material by others. The title’s import is obvious. While Suu has never been put in a dungeon, beaten, or tortured (as so many followers were), the physical danger has always been real. At one point she was actually about to be shot by soldiers. She faced them coolly until the order was countermanded.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

But courage is not an absence of fear. Only a fool would be fearless confronting violence. Courage, rather, is acting in spite of the fear. That is what the Burmese regime’s opponents have done. It is what the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 did. It is what the Syrian people, in their thousands, are doing now.

But Suu is not merely courageous (and steadfast, eloquent, principled, and all that (not to mention beautiful)) but also (as this book shows) a deep political thinker, benefiting from all her years of study. In her very first 1988 public speech she set forth the precepts that would guide her and her movement ever after: personal commitment, discipline, unity, non-violence, multi-party democracy, basic human rights, and reconciliation. And in discussing freedom from fear, she isn’t talking just about regime opponents, but about the regime itself: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.” In this case, fear of what might happen to them if they don’t hold on. It’s like riding a tiger. This too we see in Syria.

Suu has no time for the argument that economic development must precede democratization, understanding (along with Amartya Sen) how tyranny actually cripples economic progress. We see this debate again today focusing on China, supposedly showing authoritarianism good for economic growth. Yet (as I’ve written) China’s growth has been concentrated in the part of its economy totally unregulated by government. Freedom is the best economic stimulant. And anyway, as to Burma, the junta’s rule has been an economic catastrophe, certainly disproving that such repression somehow has its benefits.

Suu furthermore dissects the “Asian Values” trope (so prominent particularly in the ‘90s, but far from dead), holding that “Western” ideas of democracy and human rights are alien and inappropriate to Eastern societies, which are grounded in differing traditional cultural value systems. Suu correctly sees right through this as nothing but another shabby pretext for authoritarian elites to justify their oppressions.

In this context she also addresses the notion that America’s example actually reflects badly on democracy, since it engenders a raft of social pathologies that no “uninfected” society should want to emulate. (We hear this today from Muslim critics.) Having lived in America, Suu acknowledges its imperfections. But her vision is broad enough to understand what is so good about America and its democratic underpinnings. So, after recapping the usual indictment of American society, here is her beautifully expressed conclusion:

“No political or social system is perfect. But could such a powerful and politically diverse nation as the United States have been
prevented from disintegrating if it had not been sustained by democratic institutions guaranteed by a constitution based on the
assumption that man’s capacity for reason and justice makes free government possible and that his capacity for passion and
injustice makes it necessary?”

As I have written before, a new Burmese president, Thein Sein, seems at last to be leading the nation toward the democratic vision for which Aung San Suu Kyi has struggled for almost a quarter century. Now she has moved from house arrest into parliament. One may dare to hope that in due time she will take her proper place at the head of the nation.

Burma is only a small country. But one step at a time, one person at a time, one country at a time, the world gets better.

* Asia has had legions of dead bigwigs’ daughters in political roles. Their record is mostly dismal. Aung San Suu Kyi is an exception that proves the rule.


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