“Autocracy Now” is the Foreign Affairs magazine cover story this month.
It may also be the story of our time.
“Historical eras,” Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose wrote, “tend to have characteristic leadership types: the fledgling democrats of the 1920s, the dictators of the 1930s and 1940s, the nationalist anticolonialists of the 1950s and 1960s, the gerentocrats of the 1970s, the fledgling democrats (again) of the 1980s and 1990s. Now we’re back to dictators.”
That’s the theme Freedom House sees as well. Its annual analysis of global freedom and democracy recorded the 13th consecutive year of reversal that “has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated, authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.”
The pattern, Freedom House starkly states, is “consistent and ominous.
“Democracy is in retreat.”
Indeed, autocracy now may seem like apocalypse now for democracy movements. But a countertrend, though not yet a counterrevolution, seems to be stirring, as often happens in history.
It’s happening in several places, like Moscow and especially in Hong Kong, where citizens continue to bravely face brazen security forces as they protest a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to China’s Kafkaesque justice system.
Hong Kong, conversely, “has a heritage of British common law and that kind of separateness really matters,” said Ann Waltner, a University of Minnesota professor of history who specializes in China.
But the enduring demonstrations are about much more than the shelved (but not scrapped) extradition law.
“The larger cause is anxiety and insecurity over the long-term future of Hong Kong,” said Waltner.
There’s real reason for concern. Because despite China guaranteeing Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” after 1997’s handover from Britain, it has “ruthlessly chipped away at that and turned Hong Kong into kind of a cipher for Beijing,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.
McGregor’s profile of China’s president for Foreign Affairs’ “Autocracy Now” issue is subtitled “Xi Jinping’s Quest to Dominate China.” But Xi’s extreme ambitions aren’t just national, as seen in China’s territorial aggression in the East and South China Seas, as well as its “Belt and Road” international infrastructure initiative.
So Xi is not likely to let Hong Kong’s unrest unravel his plans, especially as he has made fealty to the party paramount.
But because backlash to the brutality of Tiananmen Square is never far from Chinese leaders’ minds — even if they’ve tried to brainwash, or whitewash, Chinese memories of how the Communist government crushed the 1989 prodemocracy movement — Beijing has so far refrained from reprising a military response.
“I would have thought intervention was once unthinkable, but once the central government in Beijing starts using a word like ‘terrorism,’ that means they are laying the groundwork, or getting their own local opinion in line, for some possible intervention,” said McGregor. “They want to scare Hong Kong into submission, because intervention would be really disastrous.”
Another disaster eerily echoing nowadays is the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, which showed the world the Soviets’ capacity for opacity even if it costs lives. And strikingly, just as history seems to be rhyming, if not repeating, regarding Tiananmen and Hong Kong, an apparent nuclear-weapon accident in Russia this month was obfuscated even after it was obvious something significant had gone wrong.
But the truth, however slowly, has emerged. Including the truth about how deep the KGB runs in Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government seemed secretive just like during the Chernobyl crisis.
“They’ve been a little more forthcoming, but you still see a pattern of them being very reticent to come out and tell the truth and do it in such a way that it protects the health of the people and is true to the Russian Constitution,” said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies.
Stent, who was in Moscow during the Chernobyl disaster, has also been able to compare how the then-Soviet and now-Russian authorities responded to dissent.
Like the deeper dynamics behind the Hong Kong protests, the recent Russian unrest is about more than who qualifies for the Moscow city parliament.
“It’s mushroomed into something much bigger,” said Stent. Especially for younger Russians (44% of whom want to emigrate, according to Gallup), “it’s about political choice, about their future, about how long are they going to have to wait until they can in fact have a real choice in terms of not only municipal elections but national elections, too.”
They’ll wait a long while if Putin has his way — and he usually does. In fact, despite facing his second two-term constitutional limit on Russia’s presidency, Putin’s acolytes are angling for a Xi-like lifetime term.
Stent, author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest,” said that the prism to view the president isn’t chess, but judo. “Most Americans tend to stereotype that Russians are very good at playing chess,” said Stent. But Putin, she said, can be best understood through his mastery of judo. “You can prevail over an opponent even if they’re stronger than you. … You can move in when they’re distracted, and that’s been on display since he’s been in power.” Russia, Stent concluded, doesn’t have strong fundamentals, “but he’s managed to reassert Russia on the world stage.”
The world stage is crowded with autocrats, and the traditional actor on behalf of democracy has sent signals to Xi that are discordant with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as some allies and even administration aides. And President Donald Trump has seemingly more often admired than admonished his Kremlin counterpart.
But in Moscow and Hong Kong and elsewhere, citizens may not wait for foreign leaders as they respond to repressive regimes.
“The interesting thing about Hong Kong and elsewhere is it isn’t just about one man, one vote,” said McGregor.
“It’s about civil society, it’s about the courts, it’s about everyday justice, it’s about fairness. And I think the pushback against autocracy is about all those safe spaces for ordinary society being eroded.
“So I’m not sure we’re at peak autocracy,” McGregor said, before concluding on a more hopeful note, “But we might be.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.