There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.


British political thinking (or more likely English, as so often when something is said to be British) will have it that governments need to be strong in order to deliver. They must have a solid base and autonomy of action, and they must be in charge. It is the strength they have behind them that determines what they can get done.

Because of this prevailing view, Britain holds on to an election system in parliamentary elections – first-past-the-post in single representative constituencies – that is likely to preserve a near-to two party system and to produce a majority in Parliament behind one of the two major parties although none of them are likely to obtain a majority of votes. Smaller and aspiring parties call for a change in the election system towards proportional representation, but that is consistently blocked by agreement of the major parties. They obviously want to stick with what is to their advantage, but they justify that with the argument that the present system makes for governments that are able to govern.

Furthermore, because of the same prevailing view, British parliamentary democracy has been set up to work by rules that give the government control of Parliament’s agenda. It may sound strange to non-Brits, but in a system in which the sovereignty of Parliament is the Holy Grail, that sovereign Parliament is not in charge of its own agenda. The Leader of the House is a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet and in charge of arranging work in Parliament according to the expediency of the government. The defence of this odd arrangement is that the government, to be able to deliver, must be free to get on with its business without having to deviate according to the whims of a Parliament that might decide on other priorities.

Other democracies work differently. In many of them, coalition or minority governments are the norm. Some, such as Germany and the United States, have detailed constitutional designs of checks-and-balances that deny their governments the autonomy that in the British view is essential. If we look to the record of effectiveness in different systems, it does not seem, to put it carefully, that Britain stands out in any advantageous way or that governments in muddled (through British eyes) systems do worse in delivery. Comparing the effectiveness of governance in Germany and Britain, for example, it’s clearly Germany One, Britain Nil.

But that does not sway the prevailing view in Britain that remains wedded to the theory that government delivery depends on government strength.

That theory may seem to get some support from other quarters. Today, many see dictatorial China as a system that has the edge in ability to deliver, and the Chinese leaders are not shy in promoting their brand of authoritarianism as superior to dithering democracy. Strong-man autocracy is making itself attractive not only in China but also in, for example, Russia, Turkey, and some of the new democracies in Europe where democratic culture is so far not strongly entrenched, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. In America, President Trump gives the impression of looking to his Chinese and Russian colleagues, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, with a mixture of admiration and envy.

Here again, the record does not give much support to the theory of government strength. The best evidence is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” of which include “government effectiveness.” The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries that includes, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The reason the evidence is not in support of the theory of strength is that what matters for effectiveness in government, once a government is in position, is not how much force it has behind it but how it is able to deal with those who stand in front of it and on whose obedience and acquiescence it depends, from its own officials, via organisations of business and civil society, to the mass of ordinary citizens. It comes down not to muscle but to behaviour.

In Britain, we would be better off obeying evidence that theoretical doctrine. That should lead us to constitutional reform. British parliamentary democracy, contrary to the English illusion, does not do well in delivering for us. Such reform should include, first, new working arrangements in Parliament to give Parliament control of its own agenda, and second, a new election system of proportional representation.



In today’s world, democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. The established democratic countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania are also the most democratic countries. In Europe, recent democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the countries of Central Europe. In Latin America, the democratic exceptions (until recently) of Costa Rica and Uruguay are also the region’s most prosperous countries. In Africa, Botswana is the most successful country both democratically and economically. In East Asia, it is the democratic countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that have risen to the level of high-income countries.

The significant exception is India. Although economic growth is now very strong, India remains a democracy with widespread and oppressive poverty. It is a country that should have done better in prosperity. But within India, the rule still applies. Kerala is the leading state in both democracy and prosperity.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But except for the bigness of the economy, and its therefore clout in the world, China’s economic performance falls short of the standard in the region set by neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, it could be the other way around. But there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the sequence is in favour of this hypothesis. The new democracies in Europe have grown to prosperity after they became democracies. South Korea and Taiwan took off in development under autocratic regimes but went on to grow economically to the level of high-income after having transformed politically to democracy.

Some of the reasons we should expect democracy to encourage prosperity are the following: Citizens are more likely to feel secure under regimes of protection and predictability and therefore more confident in enterprise. They have free access to information and deliberation and are therefore better positioned to entrepreneurship. They are more likely to have the protection of safety nets to fall back on and therefore more able to take on economic risk. There is rule of law, including property and contract law, and therefore more security in enterprise and occupation and less susceptibility to corruption and gangster rule. Governance is more likely to be effective and therefore more likely to deliver infrastructural and other forms of support. Democratic polities co-exist with market economies and market economies have proved to be more efficient than command or monopolistic economies.

Autocracy with prosperity is not inconceivable. The Chinese party-state defends autocracy with the claim that it is delivering prosperity for the population. There has been impressive economic growth in recent decades. However, what has been delivered so far is elevation to a level of middle-income. The promise of prosperity depends on China escaping the middle-income trap, which is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the party-state promises people prosperity on the condition that they surrender their freedom. Only democracy holds up the audacious promise of both prosperity and freedom.


In my experience, the most common judgement to democracy’s disadvantage is that autocracies deliver while democracies dither. That, however, is a myth which does not square with experience. Generally, democratic government is not only more fair but also more effective.

One might think autocratic governments have the advantage that they can just get on with it without having to face dissatisfied and possibly organising NIMBY citizens (NIMBY: not-in-my-back-yard) or succumb to the short-termism of pandering to the next election. The delivery of, for example, high speed rail and new airports and city subway networks in China in recent years is evidence of that advantage.

But democratic governments have advantages of their own over autocratic ones. Firstly, they have an interest in delivery since citizens hold power over them. Autocratic governments might possibly be able to get on with it, but that assumes that they are intent to deliver for citizens in the first place. Secondly, democratic governments have the advantage of ruling by consent, whereby they may tend to get their policies accepted, since they are policies agreed upon through reasonably fair process. The experience of effective rule in for example, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is evidence of these advantages.

And they have a third advantage: they are meritocratic. Political position is attained through intense competition. In representative democracies, citizens, in theory, elect representatives who are more qualified than themselves to govern. Political competition works out so that more qualified and motivated candidates prevail. Citizens can thereby have some confidence in their representatives and the policies they enact.

Of course, it does not always work out in real competitions that that the most qualified candidates win. Sometimes, far from it. But generally, elected representatives are probably better at their jobs than critical citizens are prone to granting them. In autocratic systems, political position is attained by selection from above. Here, the most important qualification is usually obedience upwards and trustworthiness in the maintenance of autocracy.

The best evidence on effectiveness in government is in the World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators,” with “government effectiveness” a main indicator. The highest scores are for the countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all democracies. There are no non-democracies in the top range of this indicator. In East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have high scores for government effectiveness, while China, the darling of democracy’s detractors, is in the middle range, in a group of countries including also, for example, India, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico.

The other main indicators in the project are “voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, regulatory quality, rule of law, control of corruption.” There is a high level of correlation between these indicators and government effectiveness, suggesting that it is the institutional solidity which is a feature of democratic systems, that gives these systems the edge in effectiveness.

We are right today to be concerned about democratic delivery. We are in the aftermath of the most dramatic economic crash since 1929, with extremes of economic inequality and social polarisation in democratic-capitalist countries. Social groups that are on the losing side of globalisation have rather experienced abandonment than protection. However, the lesson from experience and evidence is solidly that more effective government is to be found in better democracy, not less democracy.


In democracies, the law prevails. Governments cannot do what is not authorised in law. Retribution cannot be brought down upon citizens that is not sanctioned in law and managed through due process. Basic rights have statutory protection. Private property has legal protection and cannot be expropriated except by due process and with compensation. Contract is regulated by law. Public policy, policing, surveillance, land and property management, punishment – none of these are at the discretion of governments. Citizens have protection and predictability in life and business.

Furthermore, rights and regulations are effective. There are institutional arrangements that secure that the law prevails and that not even governments and ministers are above the law. Primary among these arrangements is an independent judiciary.

In short, there is rule of law.

Autocratic governance can be regulated by law. In China, the most sophisticated autocracy ever invented, both public policy and civil life have in recent years been increasingly regulated by law. That is an improvement for citizens in that there is less unpredictability. But in this and other autocratic systems, what results is at best rule by law, not rule of law. None of the criteria I have listed above apply. Under autocracy, the rulers are above the law, not the law above the rulers. The reason a regime needs to be autocratic is that it cannot prevail with rule of law.

Rule of law is not impossible in political systems that are not democratic, or very imperfectly democratic. Hong Kong is in one meaning a city state which is not governed democratically but which has still (recently) benefitted from a rule of law regime, including with an independent judiciary. This regime has come under stress after Hong Kong was reintegrated into the People’s Republic of China, but continues to prevail reasonably well.

However, while rule of law without democracy is not impossible, it is very unlikely. Democracy without rule of law, on the other hand, is not possible.


(I will issue 12 post under this heading over the next days – inspired by a list compiled previously by Professor Robert A. Dahl. Comments and discussion most welcome.)

We humans are a dangerous species. We are dangerous to each other. If we can, we will trample on others, or damage or kill them, for our own good. If they can, those who are stronger will supress or abuse those who are weaker. If they can, majorities will persecute minorities and élites will exploit those lower down the ladder. We need to be governed. We need protection.

Orderly social and economic life depends on governing authority. There must be defence and there must be police. There must be laws, regulations, courts and prisons. There must be infrastructure and public services. There must be taxation. For order, societies need governments with power. Modern societies and economies have governments with vast powers.

All governments are themselves dangerous to the people who live under their rule, the more powerful the more dangerous. Power corrupts. We depend on authorities with power for protection but we must also have protection from their potential excesses. The danger is that the governing we need turns into tyranny. Writes Robert A. Dahl (in On Democracy): “Perhaps the most fundamental and persistent problem in politics is to avoid autocratic rule.” That tyranny is an endemic danger in government is abundantly clear from history, and clear enough today when we look to, for example, China or Russia. In all autocratic systems – absolutist monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, outright dictatorships – there is an overwhelming risk of tyranny.

Under democratic constitutions, the governments that rule over the people are themselves under the control of the people they rule. The people can dismiss those who have the power to govern them, and they can threated the government of the day with being dismissed tomorrow. That counter-power is in the hands not of an aristocracy or some other minority, but of the people themselves. They exercise their counter-power by acting collectively, such as in elections, with equal right of participation by all, rich and poor.

In democracies, then, the combination of government above and safety below is possible. It’s ingenious: we get both protection and protection from the protectors. Without democratic checks, that combination is unlikely. Autocracy can provide the protection of stability, as now in China, but it cannot provide the combination with also protection from the protectors.


First published in ChinaFile.

Democracies have found it difficult to deal with the great dictatorships. So now with China. The first difficulty is to recognise just what we are up against, and to avoid wishful thinking.

  1. Totalitarianism

In his first five years, Xi Jinping has reshaped the Chinese state so radically that he has taken the People’s Republic into the third phase in its historic march, after the ideological madness of Mao and the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping and his followers. He inherited a state intent on economic advancement, and has turned it into one intent on political control.

His reign has imposed a relentless concentration of power, in the country to Beijing, in Beijing to the Party and in the Party to the leader. When he speaks, his message is invariably Party discipline. There has been a step-by-step tightening of repression against human rights lawyers and political and religious activists. Ethnic minorities suffer under cultural persecution. Censorship is harder. Political education, mass campaigns and thought-work are back with a vengeance, as is ideology in Xi’s narrative of national greatness in his “China Dream.”

The regime is equally determined in propaganda. There is much of old-fashioned boasting, but the real work is done more subtly. School children are taught to love the Party but the more effective influence is through careful editing of teaching material in history and other subjects to promote the national truth. Contrary to expectations, the internet has not become a lever for opening up from below but another instrument of control from above. Two million “internet opinion analysts” are on the job not only of keeping undesirable material out but also shaping what goes in, which is done so that even much of the criticism that circulates on the web, appearing to be from private citizens, is of the right kind.

The concentration of power and the tightening of dictatorial controls are logical. The party-state needs legitimacy. Since Deng’s reform and opening up, it has relied extensively on economic growth and the spreading of rewards in the population. Now, with expectations inflated and growth slipping, the regime can rely less on its ability to purchase the people’s gratitude. The leaders know the danger. Always weary of their grip on power, they turn, pre-emptively, to tighter controls and nationalistic ideology. Revolution has no traction in a kleptocracy in which officials enrich themselves by looting the state and income inequality is more extreme than in most capitalist countries. The available narrative is that of national glory.

The modern Chinese state does not rely on being forbidding to its people in their daily lives. Indeed, ordinary Chinese now have many freedoms that no one interferes with. But it has its red lines and does forbid what cannot be accepted: interference in Party affairs and organizing outside of the Party apparatus. Even in social media, where individuals on their own can mostly operate undisturbed, organized networking elicits sanction.

The regime has reverted to the Maoist ambition of shaping people’s mindsets. It censors information and dispenses propaganda with deadly seriousness. Schools train unquestioning fact-absorbing minds. The anti-corruption campaign is used to make people believe the party-state is being cleaned up. (A remarkable propagandistic skill of the regime is to have itself given credit for freeing people from the miseries it has itself imposed on them.) As other exposed leaders, they turn to nationalism and co-opt good people into a nasty venture of “national rejuvenation.”

Is it succeeding in not only controlling people’s behavior but also their minds? Chinese people are not more gullible or less capable of cynicism than others but are more than others subjected to aggressive thought-work. Propaganda and ideology are powerful tools, often dismissed by observers as tittle-tattle but never ignored by the leaders themselves. The perfect dictatorship aims not only to hold people in line but to make them believe that repressive order is for their own good. The Party is not without opposition and has heroic activists working against it. Lawyers continue to hold the authorities and courts to their own laws. Ethnic minorities are in latent revolt. Religious revival is sweeping the country. The leaders do not for a moment trust the people and never relax necessary controls.

But while the dictatorship is tightening, it is also increasingly able to rely on people’s self-control and make itself so smooth that it in some ways does not even look dictatorial. Activists are more likely to be seen by non-activists as a nuisance than as role models. As strange as it may sound in a population of 1.3 billion people, the Party hears everything, sees everything and knows everything. In his trial in 2014, the activist Yang Maodong defied the court with an eloquent defense statement in which he compared today’s China “blow by blow” to the nightmare state of George Orwell’s 1984.

If the dictators may be making the people believers, after a fashion, could it be that they are persuading themselves likewise? Possibly. The top brass live elevated lives in their Zhongnonhai enclosed compound, far removed from ordinary people’s daily grind, with their own protected food supply and behind the safety of air filtering systems. Xi Jinping looks and behaves like a man who really believes in the reds aristocracy’s right and duty to rule. The state may be a kleptocracy, but it is not more farfetched that those who float to the top there see themselves as righteous than that, for example, European nineteenth century aristocrats, who sat on societies rotten with corruption and vice, saw themselves as the custodians of orders of virtue. If the mission is now national greatness, is then not the Party again the instrument of a noble cause? If they are cleaning up the corruption, are they not reviving classical values of austerity and honesty? People who tell stories, and repeat them and have them repeated, are exposed to believing what they say and hear.

A prudent leader would rest on his laurels and use his powers for other purposes, such as to reform the economy. But Xi has brewed for himself a dangerous cocktail of personal power, ideology and propaganda. The imperative is to secure the perpetuation of Party rule. Xi sees himself as the man who can impose the necessary discipline within the Party and controls throughout society to avoid Soviet-style disintegration. He is a man with a mission, a believer in his mission, surrounded by other believers, and with a population, at least in his own eyes, of believers. When has any leader, dizzy with power and success, able to bend history, experiencing love and adulation, been able to say to himself: enough?

The economic miracle is over and China is getting stuck in the middle-income trap. The socialist market economy’s many contradictions can no longer be smoothed over by having money from mega-growth thrown at them. Such contentment as there may be in the population is not to be trusted. There is nowhere for this regime to go other than to controls justified by mythology. The leader who has reaped success for his efforts, will continue. He is in control, but control is not yet infallible. He has said to his people that “each person’s future and destiny is linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation” (in his launch of the China Dream), but his teachings are not yet fully absorbed.

So it is for the great dictators. They work day and night but utopia is denied them and their job is never done.

  1. Imperialism

When China and Norway normalized relations earlier this year, they issued a joint declaration in which the big power took the opportunity to humiliate the little one. (Official China-Norway relations had been frozen for six years after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010.) The Norwegian government declares its respect for various standard PRC interests and achievements, including (from one of the world’s most advanced welfare states) its social system. No similar respect for Norwegian values or achievements is expressed from the Chinese side.

Why was the Chinese government so haughty? The answer is that it did what it must do, considering the kind of state it is.

The People’s Republic is a superpower with Chinese characteristics. Its vision is “rejuvenation” for national greatness. China is to re-establish itself as the “middle kingdom,” elevated in dignity above lesser powers. Hence the emissaries of a small nation, as in imperial times, must pay tribute when they come to Beijing seeking favor.

The best interpretation of Chinese foreign policy is to see it through the prism of a great power seeking domination in the world. It may not be exporting its model, it may not be a warring state, but it aims to dominate. Deng Xiaoping, who brought China back to economic sanity after Mao, advised the country then to “hide your strength and bide your time.” The time has now come.

The project of domination is most visible in China’s dealing with its neighbors in East Asia. In the South China Sea, China has undertaken one of the biggest territorial grabs ever in history, effectively confiscating vast territories that by international law are either international waters or belong to other countries, notably the Philippines and Vietnam. These territories are being colonized by the building of artificial islands, some with military bases. The area China claims makes up 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers. This grab is not something China might do, it is what it has done.

The reason China has taken control in the South China Sea, is that it has the power to do so. It has also felt its way into the East China Sea, bolstering its clam to the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands. But here it is up against Japan, whose navy is more than a match for its own and has shown itself willing to respond, and is therefore maneuvering with more restraint. It has established an “air defense zone” in which it claims the right to control air traffic, but that is so far what its power has allowed it to do.

Beijing claims Taiwan to be part of its territory and is succeeding in getting that version of history accepted by bullying anyone who wants to be on good terms into signing up to their version of the “One-China Policy,” although Taiwan has never been ruled as a part of China, except for the short period from 1945 to 1949. On North Korea, it is pretending to be a force of restraint while in fact upholding the mutual Treaty of Friendship and assisting the North Korean regime economically, including by, at best, selective implementation of international sanctions. Beijing’s interest here is to maintain a divided Korea and to avoid any North Korean “instability” that might disturb its own rise.

Beyond its near neighborhood, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Xi Jinping’s brainchild, is an audacious program of infrastructural investments to create a system of trade and communication links through Asia and into the broader world, including, for example, a modern railway network now being built in East Africa with Chinese credit and technology.

These investments will bring economic activity and growth to recipient countries and regions, and in the bargain return multiple benefits to China. The links reach out from Beijing like spikes in a wheel, with China literally the middle kingdom in a structure spanning much of the globe. The capital is provided as credit, turning recipient nations into Chinese debtors on a grand scale.

Here, the People’s Republic is procuring that most precious of power resources which has so far eluded it: international friendships. The OBOR investments are real, as are the economic rewards that flow from them. Countries and national élites on the receiving end throw their lot in with China because China has given them good reasons to do so. American imperialism has rested in part on soft power alliances. Now Beijing is outdoing the master and building alliances of its own with investment power.

In the democratic world, China is up against powers greater than itself and cannot dominate as it does dependents. But it can make its importance felt. This it does in part with threats. Any government that receives the Dalai Lama, or speaks up for human or minority rights, or with any indication of support for Taiwanese independence or in remembrance of Tiananmen 1989, is in danger of retaliation – and almost none do. Here too, China works through investment power: into property, into Hollywood’s influence industry, into universities with Confucius Institutes. Its propaganda machine is international, some of it operating openly and some through news agencies that work for Beijing’s design under a camouflage of independence. Where weakened democracies, now America, leave a vacuum, China steps in. It is winning over apologists and fellow travelers in politics, business and academia, and is gaining quiet influence day by day.

  1. The mechanisms of domination

A state that is totalitarian at home and imperialistic abroad should be a pariah in the world. There are various reasons why China is not.

  • Size, power and the clever exercise of power. It is just not possible for others, at least on their own, to deal with this big and determined superpower differently from how it wants to be seen. The Philippines have had their sea territory stolen but have, after an unsuccessful attempt to resist through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, opted for friendship with the perpetrator.
  • China is good for business. Best to be on good terms. In Henry Paulson’s eulogy for China business, Dealing With China, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 gets only the lightest of mention.
  • Those who cross the regime are in danger of revenge, such as exclusion from operations in China. Environmental NGOs like Greenpeace, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International are silent on China’s environmental destructions in the South China Sea.
  • Self-censorship. Even in the critical academic literature, the Chinese dictatorship is almost never more than “authoritarian.”
  • China-fascination, of the uncritical kind. In Henry Kissinger’s On China, China is a “civilization state,” now no less than previously.