Western democracies face problems, but so do Russia and China

By Peter Apps

It has not been the easiest year for democracies in the West, with storm clouds gathering over Brexit and also now over next year's U.S. presidential election. But it is not just Western democracies that face problems. Protests in Hong Kong and Russia show the limits of what many see in the West as autocratic power.

In Hong Kong, the huge demonstrations against Chinese rule have deepened a crisis that now threatens those in power on the mainland. In Moscow, more than 1,000 people were detained on July 27 after an unauthorised protest demanding that members of the opposition be allowed to run in a local election. It was one of the biggest crackdowns of recent years against opponents of President Vladimir Putin's tight grip on power.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has also had a difficult few months. Ekrem Imamoglu, an opposition politician with a very different platform to the ruling AKP, became mayor of Istanbul in an election that was re-run after a court found irregularities with the first vote - also won by Imamoglu.

Turkey's rulers have abided by the outcome. But how will Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping respond to any further protests?

Beijing used force to crush the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong has so far remained in barracks since the protests started in April, and has left Hong Kong’s police force to deal with the protests. But some activists also see Beijing's hand in violent attacks on protesters and others blamed on criminal gangs, and fear at worst a repeat of China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Putin survived an earlier wave of protests that began in late 2011 without calling out the army but protesters and opposition leaders spoke of an atmosphere of intimidation and laws were passed setting stricter limits on protests. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed last month after he urged people to take part in the July 27 protest and says he believes he was poisoned in jail though a state hospital said tests for poison came up negative.

The authorities in Moscow and Beijing have accused the West of orchestrating protests, echoing their suspicions over the 2011 "Arab Spring" and almost every public uprising in eastern Europe as communist rule collapsed there in the late 1980s.

Such suspicions mirror Western disquiet over allegations of Russia meddling in the 2014 U.S. presidential election and in other European democracies, and are in some ways understandable. Western governments, including former U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, have tried for years to court Russian opposition groups.

There has also been a tacit belief in the West in the last three decades that Russia, China and other states are on a bumpy but predictable path to greater democracy, openness and globalised integration, even though this scenario has been increasingly questioned in Russia under Putin.

Kremlin critics say a turning point in Putin's rule was the arrest in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at the time the chief executive of what was Russia's biggest oil producer and largest private company, Yukos. He was sentenced to jail in 2005 on charges of fraud and tax evasion, and the state seized and dismantled Yukos and sold off its assets.

Investors already price in a hefty premium for geopolitical risk when it comes to Russian assets. A crackdown in Hong Kong could spark a dramatic outflow of foreign firms, money and expatriates from not just the territory but also mainland China.

The protests in Hong Kong were sparked by a proposed law allowing extradition to the mainland, something explicitly prohibited in the 1997 handover that ended Britain's administration and entrenched "one country, two systems" with greater rights for Hong Kong residents.

The extradition bill has since been shelved, but many protesters - whose Hong Kong citizenship allows them to reside only in the territory or in mainland China - still desperately want more change. Most cannot leave, and as things stand the territory will revert to Chinese mainland law by the middle of this century.

But the rising discontent in Hong Kong and Russia is not only about politics and democracy. It also about a lack of economic opportunity, frustration with growing wealth gaps and a host of other problems that are familiar in Western societies. Hong Kong's dissident movement partly grew out of the local version of the 2011 "Occupy Wall Street" protests.

Putin and Xi are both 66 and the battle to succeed them is already underway. Some forces, such as the protesters, are desperate for a more open society. Others are not - and in countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Egypt the fall of an ageing leader has been followed by increased repression. As Russia and China have used represssion at home, they have also been externally aggressive. Russia used force in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 - but such moves bring mixed results. A crackdown in Hong Kong might make China's goal of reunification with Taiwan harder or impossible to achieve. Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine prompted NATO to bolster the defense of its eastern member states.

Western institutions too are struggling to adapt to a fast-changing world, and almost all populations are frustrated with their leaders. But people in Western democracies do not generally share the same fear of arbitrary arrest or crackdowns as in countries seen in the West as autocratic.

The openness of Western democracies should increase the likelihood of renewal and change happening in such societies without causing a potentially catastrophic crisis. Democratic states should also find themselves protected by the openness of society rather than threatened or undermined by it. Countries that are less open may be more unpredictable, but it should be hoped they can find a way calmly through the storm.

Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, localisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.

© Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

The Russian government consistent gets the highest approval rating of any major country in the world, even when the polling is done by Western polling agencies.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Every country has issues and political problems. Politics is always adversarial.

I would never want to run for any office, even dog catcher anywhere, even if it was unlikely that I'd get to meet thugs at night and have my family threatened in many of the more challenging states.

The speed that "news" is shared world-wide has made everyone an armchair expert, so any decision has someone pointing out flaws. That speed also makes it harder for govts to cover up their atrocities, authoritarian or not.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I would never want to run for any office, even dog catcher anywhere, even if it was unlikely that I'd get to meet thugs at night and have my family threatened in many of the more challenging states.

It can be even more sinister than this too. In dictatorships, like North Korea and Russia, there is an inner circle. It requires generations of loyalty to get into the inner circle, and any display of non-loyalty can get one kicked out - as well as anyone associated with them. This puts them on the outs, the lower class, the peons.

This is what China is doing with their new social score. People can get loyalty points. But here is the kicker - no one ever gets to know their own score.

People talk about the stress of social media. Imagine if that score extended out to your entire real life. Imagine if your position in the inner circle was dependent upon maintaining a high score. You can see how fallible humans would succumb to choosing their actions based on popularity, rather than morality.

Essentially it's Facebooking an entire society.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Articles like this are only possible so long as most people lack critical thinking and are driven by peer conformity. If you think deeply and examine what is being said in this article closely, you would conclude that the assertions made in the article, and the premises upon which they are made are wrong.

First, let's begin with the term "West" and "Western Democracy".

What is that mean? Without going into detailed explanation on the history of that term, i will briefly explain to you that what the author means by the term "West" is not "Western World", but "Western bloc", a political term used during the Cold War to describe America and countries allied with America, such as Japan, Turkey and almost half of the European countries.

The original terms during the Cold War to describe the two sides were Capitalist bloc and Communist bloc. Later changed into Western bloc and Eastern bloc. Later abbreviated into just West and East. And here is where the confusion arose, because the terms West and East overlapped with two very different cultural and historical terms for Western World abbreviated as "The West" and Eastern World abbreviated as "The East".

The term Western World was used from the 15th century on to refer to Europe. The term itself comes from the Latin Occident, which was the name Romans used to describe Europe when the word Europe was not popular. The word Occident itself comes from a Phoenician word for "Sunset", since they believed there is no land West of Europe, and therefore the sun sets in Europe. The Latin word Occident means Sunset, but it also means West, the actual direction, so the Germans used the word "West" as synonym for Occident, and from German into English. Later during the late 18th and 19th century, the term Western World was used to refer to the newly formed countries populated by Europeans.

In contrast, the term Orient means Sun Rise, and it again comes from Phoenica. It was used by the Greeks to describe everything East of Greece, i.e. Asia, when the term Asia was not popular.

Neither the term Western World nor Eastern World are based on any political alliances. They were originally used to denote a geographical place, later became associated with features unique to those geographical places, mainly religion. Europe was Christian, while Asia was Muslim and Buddhist.

Fast forward to the Cold War where the Cold War political terms Western bloc and Eastern bloc get abbreviated into West and East thereby overlapping with the historical and cultural terms West and East.

My point is that, Russia is a Western country, because it is a European country with European culture. The terms Western Europe and Eastern Europe are also Cold War political terms that came from the two terms Western bloc and Eastern bloc. In reality, there are no such cultural regions or divisions in Europe.

Another false premise in this article is that the Western bloc aka The West was a monolithic entity. In fact, the Cold War was not between the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc, it was between America and the Soviet union. The countries occupied by the Soviets were called Eastern bloc, while the countries that were practically a satellite states of America were called Western bloc. These European and non-European countries part of the Western bloc did not even had their own foreign policy, let alone be in charge of foreign coalitions, or trying to sabotage the Soviets, or rescue other nations like this article implies. Therefore "The West'' did not orchestrate protests, nor was it accused or doing so, AMERICA did so, and AMERICA was accused of doing so, something this author misrepresents by using the term West as oppose to America.

This article was unsurprisingly written by an Englishman. They love to use the term "West" because it is the only way to associate themselves with America and create the illusion that they are in some sort of team together fighting the evil enemies. This couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is that European countries, both former Western bloc and former Eastern bloc do not have any foreign ambitions. They have no interest in solving other countries disputes, or involving themselves in foreign conflicts, they don't see themselves as global policeman, or anything of that sort, but America does. NATO is controlled by America, everybody knows that. England's foreign policy to a large extend is to conform to America's foreign policy, same with Japan.

So, the point is that, "The West" isn't doing anything, America is, and the Cold War ended 30 years ago, therefore there are no Western and Eastern blocs anymore, and if you read and listen carefully what Putin or the Chinese government is saying, they never use the word "West'', they use the word "America", because Slovakia and Portugal have no conducted military drills in the South China Sea or arrested Chinese CEOs or anything of that sort, America did that.

Groupism is rather a natural outcome of using group terms, which itself is a natural outcome when you don't understand the words you are using, but just conform to them because others have done so, and you don't want to question them, because you don't want to be mocked by others. When you speak incorrectly, you think incorrectly, and you come to the wrong conclusions.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Forgot to mention that there is no such thing as ''Western Democracy", there is just Democracy. You are either Democratic, or not. There is no special version of Democracy that is inherently "Western", that sentence itself has no actual meaning, just as the sentence "Asian Democracy" or "Democracy with inherent Asians features" has no meaning. Japan, SK and several other Asian countries are Democratic, several European countries are not Democratic. Spain was a dictatorship until the 70s, so was Spain not a Western country before the 70s? Italy was fascist until the 45s, so does that mean Italy was not a Western country before that? If France becomes communist tomorrow, would it still be a Western country? What if all countries in the world become Democratic tomorrow, would they all be Western then? What is that even mean? First of all, not all Western countries are Democratic, Russia isn't, Venezuela isn't, Belarus isn't. Unless you want to use the No True Scotsman fallacy and saying "they aren't real Western countries"?

See that's my point. The term West has become a superiority status, and the biggest irony of all is that the people who profess "Western liberalism" and the "Superior West must civilize the non-western inferior animals" those people are the biggest chauvinists out there, because they think democracy and modernity is inherently THEIR culture, and if you are democratic and pursue modernity, it means you are copying them, or they have "given" you their culture to you. Absolutely insane. But again, this type of articles or thinking is only possible because people don't actually think about the words they are using, they just conform to whatever they are told without thinking too deeply about it, even if the information they are given massively contradicts itself.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Great posts Ilovecoffee.

I think that sometimes people look at Asian democracy as a quasi democracy whereby the elections count as a check on de facto one party rule, as you get in Singapore and Japan.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The Russian government consistent gets the highest approval rating of any major country in the world, even when the polling is done by Western polling agencies.

No, it's Germany. Russia is not top even China

Here's the annual Gallup poll of Global Leadership for 2018:

China Overtakes U.S. Leadership, Russia Ties U.S.

Germany securely remained the top-rated global power for the second consecutive year. However, the country's 39% approval rating in 2018 was its first score below 40% in a decade.

China and Russia, on the other hand, gained considerable ground. After tying with the U.S. in 2017, China edged farther ahead of the U.S. in 2018 with its leadership earning a median approval rating of 34%. This is China's highest score since 2009, but it is still well short of its previous highs.

Russia's approval rating rose to 30% in 2018, tying its previous high in 2008 and notably placing the ratings of the U.S. and Russia on nearly equal footing for the first time.

For much of the past decade, the U.S. maintained a lead of more than 10 percentage points over China and Russia in the polls, competing with Germany for the spot of the most well-regarded global leader. That changed in 2017, when the U.S. saw its image abroad fall sharply in the poll.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Democracy is an imperfect form of government, but better than the alternatives.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites