Financial Times title: Democracy might be in crisis. But Autocracy certainly is
FT subtitle: From the 2008 crisis on, authoritarians were praised for their ‘efficiency’. Their troubles dwarf ours
By: Simon Kuper
Date: 12 May 2022
“Crisis of democracy” is a cliché of our time. But what about the even more consequential crisis of autocracy? Just watch the meltdowns in China, Russia, Turkey and arguably Africa’s biggest authoritarian state, Ethiopia.
From the financial crisis of 2008 until last year, authoritarians were frequently praised for their supposed efficiency. Their countries’ economies were growing faster than western ones, with China’s doing so for decades (though getting richer is easy if your starting point is self-imposed mass famine). Admirers also argued that authoritarians could think long-term, whereas democratic leaders always had to worry about elections. This advantage, it was said, would help the Chinese fight climate change.
By spring 2020, China was efficiently locking down (or locking up) its population, while a democratically elected US president kept promising that Covid-19 would disappear like magic. But now it’s the authoritarians’ turn to hit trouble, and their troubles dwarf ours.
Chinese autocracy worsened the pandemic. Even presuming that Covid didn’t stem from an accident in a Wuhan laboratory, China’s secrecy cut months off the world’s preparation time. Had the virus originated in Italy, say, then by late November 2019 epidemiologists everywhere would have been informed and planning countermeasures.
Democracies tend to share values and compromise. That’s why lonely Russia feels encircled by enemies
Later, the arrival of vaccines — the best ones developed in the west — displayed democratic strengths. Most western countries are now jabbed and free, whereas Chinese and Russian vaccines, rushed out for prestige reasons, are of dubious efficacy and widely distrusted. These are autocratic flaws: it’s hard to do groundbreaking research without freedom of inquiry, and authoritarian secrecy about their vaccines engenders suspicion. No wonder only half of Russians are fully vaccinated. (Even Vladimir Putin hesitated for seven months before getting jabbed.) China, worried that its vaccines won’t stave off Omicron, has imprisoned 25 million Shanghainese at home since early April.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war of choice shows that its strongman leader doesn’t care about his people’s wellbeing. The country’s economy could shrink 10 per cent this year, and 3.8 million Russians emigrated in the first quarter. Hong Kong, too, is experiencing authoritarian-induced brain drain. Who knew that business centres needed rule of law and free media?
Now Russia is losing its war largely because it’s an autocracy. Even on battlefields democracy helps. Ukraine empowers non-commissioned officers to take decisions on the ground; Russia’s army is as top-down as Russia itself, while Russian arms are as unreliable as their vaccines.
And Ukraine has friends. Democracies tend to have those because they share values with other countries and know how to compromise. That’s why lonely Russia perennially feels encircled by enemies. Members of Nato and the EU are feeding Ukraine arms and, for their friend’s sake, have accepted at least a little economic pain and some risk of being nuked. EU countries are also supplying each other with scarce fuel.
Admittedly, countries in the global south haven’t condemned Putin’s invasion, but that doesn’t mean they are Russia’s friends. India, for instance, is just taking advantage of Putin’s problems, happy to buy Russian oil at discounts of $30 a barrel. Contrast this with Poland welcoming 3.1 million Ukrainians.
Simultaneously, two other authoritarian states are melting down: inflation in Turkey hit 70 per cent (imagine that in any western country) because President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed wacky beliefs about interest rates. As in Russia, the middle classes who initially backed the strongman are being impoverished. Much worse, in Ethiopia, civil war is exacerbating an incipient famine.
It also turns out that autocracies don’t think long-term: Chinese carbon emissions more than tripled in three decades and now exceed those of all developed countries combined.
The crisis of autocracy stems partly from a lack of corrective mechanisms, especially since Xi Jinping, Putin and Erdoğan removed legal limits on their own powers. By contrast, the US gave up invasions after the Iraqi disaster, and ejected its buffoon. True, Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro may try to hijack elections, but for now the number of democracies remains near the all-time high. Given how many countries with little democratic history and weak institutions tried democracy after 1989, it’s surprising how few have backslid.
Since 2020, authoritarian states have given the world disease, war and now hunger. Looking ahead, their overthrow could spread violence and anarchy. These systems are like rotten trees, forever threatening to topple on to our better-kept houses.”