China’s system ‘not as stable as it seems’?

china cpcongress clbOver the weekend, thousands of residents of Boluo County, Guangdong took to the streets to protest a planned garbage incinerator, Chris Buckley at the New York Times reports:

A street march broke out on Saturday and three residents contacted by telephone said the protest had resumed on Sunday, when people again walked toward government offices in the main town, despite a police announcement issued through the domestic news media that 24 people had already been detained. The residents spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of arrest.

“We strongly urge the government authorities to reconsider the siting of the waste incineration plant,” said an appeal against the project that spread on the Internet in China, notes China Digital Times [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy]. One of the Boluo residents who helped with the appeal confirmed it had come from there.

In the two years since he was named general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping has moved swiftly to consolidate his personal grip on political power, established “leading small groups,” which he chairs, to handle pressing domestic and foreign policy problems. and launched a series of well-publicized corruption investigations targeting high-ranking civilian and military officials, notes a leading analyst.

But despite this appearance of solidity, there are some indications that the system may not be as stable as it seems, Princeton University’s Aaron L. Friedberg writes for The Diplomat:

Since shortly before Xi’s elevation to the top leadership post there have been periodic rumors of coup attempts and assassination plots against him. As recently as August of this year, Radio Free Asia carried a story under the headline “Some Kind of Coup May Have Taken Place in China.” …. Meanwhile, at around the same time, a Hong Kong magazine published an account claiming that Xi had already survived six assassination attempts. Xi himself reportedly said that he was prepared to but aside considerations of “life, death, and reputation” in order to pursue his campaign against corruption…..

Xi may succeed in neutralizing his opponents or, as he suggested in his June speech, “the armies of corruption and anti-corruption” may become locked in “stalemate.”  But sudden, unexpected and potentially violent developments cannot be ruled out.  The rules that have governed high-level political combat in China for over thirty years no longer seem to apply. 

At 81 years old and after decades imprisoned in labor camps as a foe of the Communist Party, the Beijing writer and underground publisher Tie Liu had said that he was too old to seriously worry the security police anymore. But they raided his home over the weekend and detained him on a charge of “creating a disturbance,” his wife and friends said on Monday. – New York Times (HT: FPI)   Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong should veto China’s proposal for universal suffrage in the territory, according to roughly half the respondents in a new poll. – Financial Times

Democracy’s depressing paradox: Fukuyama’s ‘Political Order and Political Decay’


fukuyama pol order decayFrancis Fukuyama’s “Political Order and Political Decay,” a whirlwind tour of modern political development from the French Revolution to the present, is nothing if not ambitious, says Columbia University’s Sheri Berman.

“He wants to do more than just describe what liberal democracy is; he wants to discover how and why it develops (or does not),” she writes for the New York Times:

He suggests that the sequencing of political development is important, arguing that “those countries in which democracy preceded modern state building have had much greater problems achieving high-quality governance than those that inherited modern states from absolutist times.” But the cases he gives as examples do not necessarily fit the argument well (since Prussia’s state eventually had trouble deferring to civilian authorities and the early weakness of the Italian state was probably caused more by a lack of democracy than a surfeit of it). In addition, he surely understands that authoritarianism is even more likely to generate state weakness than democracy since without free media, an active civil society and regular elections, authoritarianism has more opportunities to make use of corruption, clientelism and predation than democracies do.

Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, leaves his readers with a depressing paradox, Berman notes:

Liberal democracy remains the best system for dealing with the challenges of modernity, and there is little reason to believe that Chinese, Russian or Islamist alternatives can provide the diverse range of economic, social and political goods that all humans crave. But unless liberal democracies can somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay, history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper.


R.I.P. Great Britain?

The prospect of Scotland’s secession from the United Kingdom is in large part due to the success of the  “undistilled populism” of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond (above, right), which pays little heed to the economic impact of independence, says a prominent analyst.

Presuming that a 300-year union could be smoothly unpicked and that there would be no serious investment flight, an independent Scotland would be 42nd in world GDP rankings, Edinburgh-based political scientist Tom Gallagher writes for the National Interest.

One of the world’ s most extensive public sectors would need to be financed from a tax base of under 4 million people instead of the present 52 million, notes Gallagher, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:

In Salmond’s virtual reality, the rest of the world will fall into line and smooth Scotland’s path to statehood. There is no inkling that leaders who fear the eruption of a eurozone-style financial crisis in Britain due to a run on assets and deposits in Scotland might instead seek to deter or even punish a Scotland seen to be in a grip of destructive hubris at a time when the world economy is still in intensive care.

It is not an analogy that the pro-Palestinian Salmond might enjoy, but probably not since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 has such positivity gripped the architects of a would-be new state. Israel was taking shape in the wake of peculiarly terrible circumstances for the Jewish people. Scots, by contrast, have been part of one of the most successful economic and political unions in modern history. It has usually been marked by peace and prosperity. At hardly any other time have Scottish living standards been as high as they are now.


Manchester University Press will publish Tom Gallagher’s next book, Europe’s Path to Crisis: Disintegration Through Monetary Union, in October.

Waves of democratization are not over?

JODIn the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, (PDF), Marc Plattner makes the provocative claim that “the era of democratic transitions is over, and should now become the province of the historians,” notes political scientist Jay Ulfelder. By that, he seems to mean that we should not expect new waves of democratization similar in form and scale to the ones that have occurred before. I think Plattner is wrong, in part because he has defined “wave” too broadly, he writes on his Dart Throwing Chimp blog.

In his essay, Plattner implicitly adopts the definition of waves of democratization described by Samuel Huntington on p. 15 of his influential 1991 book:

A wave of democratization is a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period of time.

Much of what’s been written and said about waves of democratization since that book was published accepts those terms and the three waves Huntington identifies when he applies them to the historical evidence: one in Europe from the 1820s to the 1920s; another and wider one in Europe, Latin America, and Asia from the 1940s to the early 1960s; and a third and so-far final one that began in Portugal in 1974, has been global in scope, and now appears to have stalled or ended…..

I think we can make out at least five and maybe more such waves since the early 1900s, not the three or maybe four we usually hear about.

First, as Plattner  (p. 9) points out, what Huntington describes as the “first, long” wave really includes two distinct clusters: 1) the “dozen or so European and European-settler countries that already had succeeded in establishing a fair degree of freedom and rule of law, and them moved into the democratic column by gradually extending the suffrage”; and 2) “countries that became democratic after World War I, many of them new nations born from the midst of the European empires defeated and destroyed during the war.”

The second (or now third?) wave grew out of World War II. Even though this wave was relatively short, it also included a few distinct sub-clusters: countries defeated in that war, countries born of decolonization, and a number of Latin American cases. …. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to split the so-called second wave into two clusters (war losers and newly independent states) and a clump of coincidences (Latin America), but there are enough direct linkages across those sets to see meaning in a larger wave, too.

As for the so-called third wave, I’m with Mike McFaul (here) and others who see at least two separate clusters in there. The wave of democratization that swept southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s is temporally and causally distinct from the spate of transitions associated with the USSR’s reform and disintegration, so it makes no sense to talk of a coherent era spanning the past 40 years. Less clear is where to put the many democratic transitions—some successful, many others aborted or short lived—that occurred in Africa as Communist rule collapsed. Based partly on Robert Bates’ analysis (here), I am comfortable grouping them with the post-Communist cases. …

So, based on that definition and its application, I think it’s fair to say that we have seen at least five waves of democratization in the past two centuries, and perhaps as many as six or seven….

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries now have regimes that most observers would call democratic, so the pool of potential democratizers is substantially diminished. As Plattner puts it (p. 14), “The ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked.” Still, if we look for groups of authoritarian regimes that share enough political, economic, social, and cultural connections to allow common causes and contagion to kick in, then I think we can find some sets in which this dynamic could clearly happen again. I see three in particular.

The first and most obvious is in the Middle East and North Africa, the region that has proved most resistant to democratization to date. In fact, I think we already saw—or, arguably, are still seeing—the next wave of democratization in the form of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. So far, that cluster of popular uprisings and state collapses has only produced one persistently democratic state (Tunisia), but it has also produced a democratic interlude in Egypt; a series of competitively elected (albeit ineffective) governments in Libya; a nonviolent transfer of power between elected governments in Iraq; ongoing (albeit not particularly liberal) revolutions in Syria and Yemen; and sustained, liberal challenges to authoritarian rule in Bahrain, Kuwait, and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. …

Beyond that, though, I also see the possibility of a wave of regime breakdowns and attempts at democracy in Asia brought on by economic or political instability in China. Many of the autocracies that remain in that region—and there are many—depend directly or indirectly on Chinese patronage and trade, so any significant disruption in China’s political economy would send shock waves through their systems as well. I happen to think that systemic instability will probably hit China in the next few years (see here, here, and here), but the timing is less relevant here than the possibility of this turbulence, and thus of the wider wave of democratization it could help to produce.


Integrating Afrodescendants in Colombia’s Post-Conflict Democracy

Since the 1980s, an armed conflict between the Colombian military, leftist rebels, and right-wing paramilitary groups has forcibly displaced tens of thousands of Colombians, resulting in one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world.  Disproportionately affected by the conflict have been Colombia’s Afro-descendant communities, most of whom live along the country’s western coast.  As the Colombian government and FARC rebels gather to discuss a longstanding peace, leaders must take steps to reintegrate displaced civilians within their traditional communities and safeguard their civil, political, and socioeconomic rights. 

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy

cordially invites you to a presentation entitled

“From Internal Displacement to Inclusive Democracy:

The Afro-Colombian Experience”


Marino Córdoba Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy

with comments by

Zakiya Carr Johnson

Director, Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit

U.S. Department of State

moderated by

Carl Gershman

President, National Endowment for Democracy

In his presentation, Marino Córdoba will share his experiences as an Afro-Colombian community leader who was displaced multiple times and who has led numerous campaigns over the past decade advocating for the civil and collective land rights of Colombia’s Afro-descendant peoples.  He will also share his ideas on how best to integrate Afro-Colombians and deepen their participation in Colombia’s post-conflict democracy.  In sharing his story, Mr. Córdoba hopes to foster a broader understanding of the challenges faced by displaced Afro-Colombians and how to overcome them, suggesting lessons for other Afro-descendant communities in the region.  His presentation will be followed by comments from Zakiya Carr-Johnson.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 3:00–4:30 p.m. 1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675

RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Thursday, September 18 at

Livestream of the event will be available here.

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