Springtime for Autocrats

Bill Keller surveys the scene and proclaims a “springtime for autocrats” with China and Russia as autocratic states capable of playing a substantial role on the world stage. Of course it’s hard to know if things would look that way from the perspective of, say, Sao Paulo, the largest city of a very large country that is now both more democratic and more prosperous than it’s been in quite some time. And similarly, the 1990s were hardly springtime for Japan, also a large and important democracy. And, again, there’s India. Over the past ten years we’ve seen something of a waning of U.S. geopolitical influence (though one can overstate this) and something of a waxing of influence of most other important countries. Some of these countries are autocratic and others democratic. Some of this trend is inevitable “catch-up” and some reflects U.S. policy errors, but the trend is fairly general and shouldn’t really be seen as representing a specific ideological turn against liberalism or democracy.

Keller, meanwhile, observes of Russia and China that “[b]oth countries have calculated that you can buy a measure of domestic stability if you combine a little opportunity with an appeal to national pride.” That seems about right as an explanation of why neither Moscow nor Beijing sees the need for substantial reforms or faces unmanageable public unrest. It’s worth noting, however, how absolutely normal this is — patriotic and nationalistic sentiments are cynically manipulated by incumbent politicians in democratic countries every bit as much as in Russia or China. And of course it’s well-known that robust economic growth tends to keep the opposition party out of power, whereas recession makes people want to throw the bums out.

It’s hear that I think the analogies start to break down. The Communist Party in China has long since ceased having any particularly compelling story to tell about why it needs to maintain a monopoly on political power. Crackdowns on the rights of ethnic minority groups like the Tibetans have a certain popular appeal, but patriotism can’t get the regime off the hook for being oppressive to the country’s vast Han Chinese majority. Rather, popular discontent is manageable because there simply isn’t that much popular discontent. Chinese people tell Pew that they’re very happy with the direction of their country, with the state of its economy, and with their own personal levels of well-being. The regime is staying in power, in short, mostly in virtue of the fact that it’s doing a pretty good job and delivering reasonably effective public policy.

In rare instances — Singapore, for example — this kind of thing can go on for a long time. But to me the PRC government is a bit like Wile-E-Coyote mostly being kept afloat by its own forward momentum. It doesn’t seem especially likely to me that China will go on and on and on without experiencing a substantial economic crisis or a serious foreign policy blunder forever. And any such crisis is likely to lead to a political crisis. What that would lead to, I couldn’t say. People sometimes seem to assume that the alternative to China’s current course is democratization, but it could just as easily be clampdown and insularity or chaos and destruction. But for things to just keep on keeping on would be genuinely odd and require a not-especially-likely combination of competence and good luck for Chinese officials.


Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is securing its geopolitical influence and economic prosperity the old-fashioned way — by seeing the value of its hydrocarbon exports boom. This is nothing really new. When I was in Russia in 1998 everyone old enough said the best of times was not the current era of glorious democracy but rather the Brezhnev years when high Soviet oil revenues allowed the government to make cheap consumer goods available as never before or since. Eventually the oil boom collapsed in the 1980s, forcing the regime to contemplate reforms. Thus, barring some kind of huge blunder, Putin should be in excellent shape until either the price of hydrocarbons falls substantially or else Russia’s reserves start to run out. People used to sometimes refer to Russia as “Upper Volta with missiles” (“Upper Volta” = the old name for Burkina Faso) but these days it’s more like Saudi Arabia with missiles and we should expect that situation to last until either Russia’s reserves run out or else hydrocarbon prices crater.