by Stella Liu
One of the great mistakes made by many observers of history is a mistaken belief in inevitability. People, when talking about the development of institutions over time, like to think that events could not have happened any other way and that the trend will continue indefinitely.
This is a mistake which has managed to find itself into the realm of political science. The most famous example of this mistake was when Francis Fukuyama declared the fall of the Berlin Wall to signify ‘The End of History’. This thesis suggests that liberal democratic values had asserted themselves as the ideal form of governance and all states would, over time, see a process of democratisation.
When we think about comparative political analysis, there is often discussion about the democratic deficiencies that are to be found in different countries and the number of steps that the country still needs to take. This approach is one of breath-taking arrogance, and one of the largest reasons why liberal democracy faces all the threats that we can see in the world today. China, the country from which I herald, has seen a marked consolidation of power by Xi Jingping. He is now (arguably) the world’s most powerful man, and China does not seem to be any further along the path towards democracy.
The problem lies in the fact that conceptions of competition (a seemingly key component in disentangling political friction) is assumed to mean competition for legitimacy bestowed by the people. But, this need not be the case. Think back to the allegory of the Fox and the Lion in Machiavelli’s Prince. He argues that humanity is all about submission to authority, and to be a beast is to concern yourself with raw, almost Darwinian strength. Machiavelli argues that all rulers need to be able to tap into their raw strength, but need to channel different animals at different times. Sometimes, the wily fox is required to traverse the traps which could ensnare a less subtle operator. At other times, the courage, strength and command of voice more fitting of a lion is best. My argument is that it is very rare throughout history to find a faction or leader with both qualities. Thus, even authoritarian regimes become a matter of internal competition between the two conceptions of statecraft.
This may seem like a far fetched theory which merely concerned the Medieval Age. But there is an increasing body of contemporary political science which supports the idea that there can be an authoritarian regime, tending no closer to democracy because the frictions which could bring down power structures are resolved internally and out of public view. The best example of this comes from Levitsky and Way, in their discussion surrounding the rise of what they labelled ‘Competitive Authoritarianism’. They note that it is possible for a country to have aspects of what we consider to be democratic norms, whilst still being authoritarian in structure. China is, again, a good example of that. Anyone is able to join the Communist Party, and the mechanisms through which one can advance are notionally meritocratic. Yet, it is a country that does not operate free and fair elections (it is an unwritten rule that anyone running for office above the municipal level has to be a member of the CPC) and censorship and restrictions on political freedom are rife.
People who think that China, and Xi Jinping’s China in particular, is on the road to democratisation are sorely mistaken. Democracy does not just come about. It is something that has to be fought for. In the West, we have gotten far too sloppy when it comes to fighting for the values that we really care about. The air of inevitability could not be any further from the reality. The events of 2017, in China and in the other great world powers have shown that democracy as we know it is at existential risk. The only option left is to fight on the intellectual battlefield which has been shirked for so long.
Stella Liu is currently a secondary school student at Charterhouse School in Godalming, United Kingdom. Her academic specialism is focusing upon the interface between China’s desire to trade with the world, and its unwillingness to embrace Western institutional design. She hopes to specialise in Trade Theory in the near future.