Thursday, February 03, 2011
Authoritarian rule is usually brittle
The events in Tunisia and Egypt have brought out starkly the difference between an autocracy and a democracy. You can never predict the way things will unfold in an autocracy. Democracies are quite predictable. Take India. You may not be able to predict which party will be leading the government in 2020, or who the prime minister will be, but you can be sure that things will be, more or less, a variation of what they are today. Doesn’t sound very exciting, but that’s the way it is.
Things work differently with authoritarian states. Seemingly unshakeable regimes suddenly find the ground beneath their feet shifting. The events in Egypt and Tunisia are actually a pale replay of what happened in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe and Russia a decade later.
Usually empires, kingdoms and governments come apart following a defeat in a war, a financial crisis or a military coup. But in modern autocracies, with their well-developed systems of secret police, press censorship and repression, the faultlines develop and extend themselves silently. The collapse is usually swift and often triggered by a trivial set of events. Many explanations have been offered for the collapse of the Shah of Iran, or the Soviet Union. But only in hindsight. Prospectively no one predicted the events.
Looked at through this prism, two countries of great importance to India stand out—Pakistan and China. On paper, Pakistan is a democracy, but just on paper. It has its elections, change of governments, a somewhat free media. But then there is the Army, whose role as a guardian of the nation goes beyond what is expected in a democratic polity. The edifice of formal government in Pakistan, too, is a shaky one.
The ground rules keep shifting somewhat dramatically year on year. It was just last year that the Prime Minister regained his primacy as the head of government. His powers had been usurped by the military dictator Pervez Musharraf and his civilian successor, Asif Ali Zardari was not too keen to shed them and they had to be reluctantly pried from his hands by a united Pakistani political establishment, aided by the Army.
The case of China is more straightforward. The Communist Party of China makes no bones about running an authoritarian system, so effective that it has even been able to police the usually ungovernable world wide web. So remarkable have been the economic achievements of the country, that people talk of the Beijing Consensus where an authoritarian government with a market economy is being spoken of as a model for third world countries. Rather than go the route of Russia which became a democracy prior to restructuring its economy, the CPC has adjusted itself to provide the booming market-based Chinese economy an effective system of authoritarian political stewardship. This system is based on a vast bureaucracy which has evolved a system of internal rules which ensure that the excesses of the Maoist period are contained. It limits the term of party and government leaders, much in the same way as many democracies do, but the key decisions on who will be the leaders is decided on in an opaque manner. Deng Xiaoping, who was himself the core of the second generation leadership set in place a system that has seen the third generation—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji— successfully take the nation to great heights and hand over command to the fourth generation—Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in 2002-3.
We are now on the eve of another leadership shift in China, as the fifth generation comes to the fore. It’s now clear that in 2012, Xi Jinping will succeed Hu as the General Secretary of the party and the President of China. Li Keqiang’s attendance at the World Economic Forum meet in Davos last week seems to have cemented his candidature for the prime ministership in succession to Wen Jiabao.
This is where the uncertainties begin. The stability of the Chinese leadership has been a function of the enormous expansion of the Chinese economy, the great skill of the politicians in command, and the consensus within the CPC on the need to play by the internal rules, whatever they are. But, the Chinese economy cannot grow at this blistering pace for the next decade as well.
As it is, faultlines are becoming visible between the town and countryside, and the east and the west. A measure of the fragility of the Chinese system is evident from the haste with which Hu abandoned the G-8 Summit in Italy and returned home in the wake of the disturbances in Xinjiang in July 2009.
While China’s great economic progress is a tribute to its astute leaders and hardworking and hugely gifted people, the order and control that you see in modern China is based on an authoritarian system. Its cities do not feel the kind of pressure their Indian counterparts are subjected to because you need a special passport to live and work there. The population has been kept in check by methods that would never work in India, as became evident during the Emergency of 1975-1977. The legal system in China is virtually non-existent. Land is sequestered at will and uprisings crushed ruthlessly.
Unlike India where instances of social and political disorder are often limited by ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries, in China such movements grow to dangerous levels, sometimes developing an all-China character, resulting in regime change. In the mid-19th century, the Taiping rebellion spread across southern China and led to the loss of millions of lives.
The Wuchang uprising that preceded the 1911 Revolution that overthrew the Qing empire, is another case in point. Though it was initiated by the central authority, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s also falls into the pattern of civil disturbances that begin in one part of China, spreading quickly to its length and breadth. The Tienanmen uprising of 1989 occurred because the authorities refused to permit the people to mourn the passing of the reformist Hu Yaobang. It shook the Communist rule as nothing else has done in recent times.
In the ensuing years, the potential for a cataclysmic all-China uprising has grown. For one, Mandarin has effectively established itself as the dominant Chinese dialect. For another, the internet has provided the people a limited mode of self-expression which was hitherto prohibited.
This is not to say that China will go the way of the Soviet Union or Egypt. The Chinese have a clever and competent leadership and they are undoubtedly aware of the structural time bomb they are sitting on. There are indications that the issue of more political freedom is the subject of intense debate within the Chinese Communist Party. Given China’s importance to the world economy, a cataclysmic change is highly undesireable.
The Chinese have reacted to the Egyptian developments with prudence. They have, for one thing, gotten some of the portals to censor “Egypt”-related searches. The state controlled TV and newspapers have steered the discussion on events in Egypt carefully, highlighting the perils of disorder and chaos. A million men marching, demanding more personal liberties in Cairo may not threaten the rulers in Beijing right now, but there is always tomorrow.
The events in Egypt have given the lie to the belief that if your economy is doing well and governance tough, you don’t really need the constant renewals of the consent of the governed through free and fair elections. The events in the Arab world do sound like the tolling of the bell against the so-called Beijing Consensus.
Mail Today February 3, 2011