What’s gone wrong with democracy?

Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. Why has it run into trouble, and what can be done to revive it? The Economist asks in a must-read analysis:

Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Yet just a few years ago democracy looked as though it would dominate the world.

“China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail,” it suggests.

Why has democracy lost its forward momentum?

The two main reasons are the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the rise of China, it asserts:

The damage the crisis did was psychological as well as financial. It revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West’s political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of their great assets. Governments had steadily extended entitlements over decades, allowing dangerous levels of debt to develop, and politicians came to believe that they had abolished boom-bust cycles and tamed risk. Many people became disillusioned with the workings of their political systems—particularly when governments bailed out bankers with taxpayers’ money and then stood by impotently as financiers continued to pay themselves huge bonuses. The crisis turned the Washington consensus into a term of reproach across the emerging world.

“Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress….China’s advance is all the more potent in the context of a series of disappointments for democrats since 2000,” it adds:

The first great setback was in Russia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the democratisation of the old Soviet Union seemed inevitable. In the 1990s Russia took a few drunken steps in that direction under Boris Yeltsin. But at the end of 1999 he resigned and handed power to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative who has since been both prime minister and president twice. This postmodern tsar has destroyed the substance of democracy in Russia, muzzling the press and imprisoning his opponents, while preserving the show—everyone can vote, so long as Mr Putin wins.

“Autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere have followed suit,” The Economist continues, “perpetuating a perverted simulacrum of democracy rather than doing away with it altogether, and thus discrediting it further.”

“The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves,” the paper contends:

Plato’s great worry about democracy, that citizens would “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment”, has proved prescient. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy.

Democracy has “been on the back foot before,” it notes:

In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in 1931, Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, pronounced that “western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship”. Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail.

“Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature,” the analysis concludes.


Uyghur intellectual’s prosecution shows ‘no one in China safe’ from regime

uyghurtohtiA prominent human rights group has expressed alarm that Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti (left) has been formally arrested and charged with “separatism.”            

“The charge reflects not only a zero tolerance policy to Uyghur dissent, but also the growing intractability of China towards international criticism of its ethnic policies,” said the Uyghur Human Rights Project. The group challenged China’s communist authorities “to present compelling evidence” to prove its charges against Tohti.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, no one in China is safe from the government,” said UHRP Director, Alim Seytoff.

“Outspoken or silent, pro-government or anti-government, moderate or extreme, it is of no concern to the Chinese Communist Party. If you displease the leadership in China for any reason, you’ll quickly find yourself in trouble,” he said.

“The government, through its police force, will not hesitate to trump up charges in order for the courts it controls to rubber stamp guilt and a harsh sentence. The case of Ilham Tohti shows there is no space for constructive Uyghur dissent in China.”

Reports from Reuters and AP dated February 25, 2014 described how Mr. Tohti’s wife, Guzelnur was notified of her husband’s formal arrest via a warrant she received Tuesday. She also obtained confirmation that Mr. Tohti was being held in a detention center in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). This was the first notice Guzelnur has received as to her husband’s whereabouts since he was detained at their Beijing home on January 15, 2009. Prior to today, she had also not received any notification of the reason for his detention.


Wu Guijun trial tests China’s tolerance of labor militancy, shows regime ‘fear’ of dissent


Witnesses and supporters of labor activist Wu Guijun wait outside the courtroom for his trial to open in Shenzhen. Epoch Times

China’s communist authorities are extending the crackdown on rule-of-law advocates such as Xu Zhiyong to labor activists like Wu Guijun.

“No one [in China] knows when they step across the line and it becomes a criminal case,” said Monina Wong of the International Trade Union Confederation. “That’s why this case is so important. It shows where the line is.”

Some fear the prosecution of Mr Wu could mark the end of a period of relative tolerance enjoyed by China’s worker movement, which erupted four years ago with a series of industrial actions at Japanese-invested car and auto parts factories, the FT’s Tom Mitchell reports from Shenzhen:

China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based worker rights group, has documented some 1,200 Chinese strikes since the summer of 2011. “There was a noticeable increase in police interventions in the second half of 2013,” CLB said in its latest annual report on China’s worker movement, released on Thursday.

“Local governments are now taking a tougher stance against worker protests.” In the second half of 2013, CLB tracked 78 incidents of police involvement in strikes, of which 32 resulted in arrests but not necessarily formal prosecutions.

“The government isn’t adapting to the worker movement, which is a natural response to the development of China’s market economy,” said Duan Yi, a lawyer defending both Mr Wu and hospital security guards in Guangzhou. “Government officials only want workers to listen to them.”

Regime anxiety

Lawyers sense that state fear of subversion – regime anxiety that disparate protests may become politicized – lies behind recent prosecutions, Mitchell writes:

When Mr Xu was sentenced in January to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order”, the verdict made no mention of a broader plot to subvert state power.

Two other public order cases under way in southern Guangdong province, which stem from separate labour protests at a furniture factory and hospital, also do not cite subversion specifically. But many feel that is precisely what the labour activists involved are being prosecuted for.

“Why attempt to link what you would call an ordinary [public order] offence with a state security offence,” asks Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based expert on China’s legal system. “There seems to have been something different about the way [Mr Xu and his supporters] were perceived. They weren’t tried as state security offenders – at least not formally – but it does suggest that they were being seen in that light.” 

China’s workers have emerged over the last few years as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force, says the CLB report:

Workers have time and again demonstrated the will and the ability to stand up to abusive and arrogant managements and to demand better pay and working conditions. However, workers are still hampered by the lack of an effective trade union that can maintain solidarity, bargain directly with managements and protect labour leaders from reprisals.  As a result, workers are turning to labour rights groups that can advise and support their collective actions while, at the same time, demanding more of the official trade union and putting pressure on it to change.

China Labour Bulletin’s new research report on the workers’ movement examines the evolving relationship between workers, the trade union and civil society and looks at how the government is struggling to respond to rapid social and economic change.

Waking the slumbering giant

The [state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions] remains firmly stuck in its old ways, unable to change or adapt. It mechanically claims to be “unified with the Party Central Committee” in its thinking and actions, and yet has completely failed to implement basic Party and government policy on improving workers’ living standards and reducing the number of strikes and other labour conflicts. Instead it continues to preach the virtues of “hard work” and “meritorious service,” investing vast amounts of money and manpower in “work competitions” and in selecting “model workers.” This only succeeds in driving workers even further away from the union.

When striking workers need the union to back them up, in the vast majority of cases, it is simply not there. The union currently does not have the will or the ability to help workers by establishing a genuine collective bargaining system in the workplace. Instead, it continues to set targets and quotas, create hollowed out unions and conduct meaningless “collective consultations” with management that completely bypass the workers concerned.

The reality is that the primary concern of the ACFTU, with 900,000 full-time officials, is its own self-interest. If the ACFTU is ever to become an organization that puts the interests of workers first, it needs to undergo a thorough restructuring and get rid of all of those union officials who are currently surplus to requirement. The union needs to be where the workers, industry and the government need it to be, and not, as is currently the case, act as a lifeless shadow of the government’s administrative structure.

RTWT CLB is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Chinese dissident lands at US institute

yeliangFormer Peking University Economics professor Xia Yeliang, who was fired under a cloud of controversy in October, is now in the U.S. and will start a position as a visiting fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Xia, who had close connections with several American universities, warns U.S. academics to be careful in their dealings with Chinese universities in an interview with the New York Times:

In an interview on Friday, the dissident, Xia Yeliang, warned that American universities should be careful about partnerships with Chinese universities. “They use the reputations of Western universities to cover their own scandals,” he said.

“Perhaps Western universities do not realize that Chinese universities do not have the basic value of academic freedom, and try to use Western universities to cover their bad side,” Professor Xia added.

At Wellesley, which had recently signed a partnership with Peking University, more than 130 professors declared in an open letter in September that they would seek to have the agreement reconsidered if Professor Xia was fired for political reasons. …Wellesley’s partnership with Peking University is continuing, and Professor Xia will be a visiting associate at Wellesley’s Freedom Project, headed by Thomas Cushman, who organized the letter.

Professor Cushman said many of his colleagues did not understand the centrality of Communist Party officials in China’s universities, and were too quick to believe that Professor Xia had been fired for bad teaching.

“I can’t say we’re headed toward another Tiananmen Square, but there’s definitely a crackdown on dissidents,” Professor Cushman said.


Read more about Xia Yeliang via CDT, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Putin welcomes autocrats, but Western leaders shun Sochi Games

sochi-logos-1Russian president Vladimir Putin will host friendly heads of state from China, Ukraine, and Belarus, but leaders from France, the United States, Germany, and the UK won’t turn up for the games, the Council on Foreign Relations reports:

Security in Sochi is tight to mitigate the risk of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants in the North Caucasus region. One measure, for example, includes tall fences topped with razor wire along the border with Abkhazia that extend offshore in the Black Sea (AP). Meanwhile, many Russians have expressed discontent over the cost of the Games, the most expensive Winter Olympics ever, as they struggle in an economy that expanded just 1.3 percent in 2013 (Bloomberg).


Corruption, terrorism, human rights protests, high-level no-shows—all these represent ways in which the Sochi Olympics have embarrassed Putin. Yet in each case, the problem goes well beyond any connection to the Games. Each reflects a major tension in the system that Putin has created. And even if all goes well at Sochi, they suggest continuing challenges for the Western effort to create a cooperative relationship with Russia,” writes Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The theme of these Games is simple: this is Putin’s pop-culture reassertion of Russia, a worldwide media-saturated insistence on its modern power and capacities, all done with a flash and a reach that no diplomatic summit could ever match. Dissident Russian voices such as Alexei Navalny, Masha Gessen, and the members of Pussy Riot all call these ‘Putin’s Games’; they talk of a pharaoh intent on building, and displaying, his pyramids. In fact, minus the tone of derision, when you talk to Russian officials close to Putin, the explanation for his motives is not so different,” writes David Remnick in the New Yorker.

Much of the coverage leading up to the Sochi Winter Olympics has questioned whether the Games, intended to boost Russia’s reputation internationally and Putin’s reputation domestically, will turn out to be an embarrassing failure, say two experts.

“They could already be considered an embarrassment, given the extent to which they have highlighted the Putin regime’s diverse and pervasive failings,” the National Endowment for Democracy’s Miriam Lanskoy and Dylan Myles-Primakoff write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.