The world is backsliding toward autocracy. Is China to blame?

This week’s Kuora comes from one of Kaiser’s recent answers originally posted to Quora on September 10, 2019:

Why have many Quora users, both in developing and 1st world countries, become more tolerant of authoritarianism in the past 3 years? Is it the rising Chinese influence?

The tolerance of, and even advocacy for, illiberal or flat-out authoritarian politics over the last few years seems to have risen appreciably around the world. In the West, illiberal parties or politicians — especially those with a deeply populist streak — have gained ground in the U.K., in France, in Germany, in Italy, and in the United States. In Central and Eastern Europe, we see them gaining ground in Poland and in Hungary, and in the Czech Republic. In India, an illiberal Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, has won in an overwhelming victory in the world’s biggest democracy.

The causes of this backslide are complex and numerous. Much of it, at least in the West, seems to be related to the surge in refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. Persistent wealth inequality is a factor in some of these countries. Growing sophistication in the use of the internet by advocates of populist authoritarianism. Some small percentage are persuaded by more sophisticated arguments for epistocracy — rule by the wise or the knowledgable — over democracy, like the arguments put forward by Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy. Attitudes toward authoritarianism among people are also shaped by some combination of these and other factors.

For some, I would imagine, there is also the example of an apparently successful authoritarian state in China.

The question of the role of Chinese influence in this trend depends very much on what one means by “influence.” If both “push” and “pull” factors count, then we can safely say that China’s influence is larger than it would be if only “push” factors count. Indeed, “push” is pretty minimal. There’s very little evidence that Beijing is pushing its system of government onto other states. China, as one scholar has persuasively argued, has sought to make the world “safe for autocracy” but hasn’t actively encouraged the adoption of its particular form of governance. China’s leadership, for the most part, recognizes that Chinese circumstances were unique and that the Chinese developmental path was sui generis.

Pull, on the other hand, is much in evidence. Many other states, especially in the developing world, are understandably impressed with the way that China has risen in the course of 40 years from a backward and impoverished agrarian state to a modestly well-developed state, with its per capita GNP going from $175 in 1978 to roughly $7,500 in 2018. Some believe that the silver bullet was the rule of a single authoritarian party: a developmental dictatorship that was able to harness the power of markets but keep them in check, maintain social stability (however brutally at times), invest in infrastructure for the long term, and so on. I believe this notion — that China’s developmental path can be easily replicated by other developing nations — to be quite a shallow one: It does not take into account many factors like education and literacy, relative linguistic homogeneity, and countless cultural and historical variables that all contributed to China’s relative (and arguable) success.

Advocates of pull, then, have often done nothing more than see what they want to see because it bolsters their own political power. And so they avidly study and adopt things like China’s media censorship policies and the technologies underlying them, or its surveillance technologies, and they fail to import many of the things that really mattered: A willingness to let go of some controls and allow the private sector to flourish and create the overwhelming majority of the jobs created each year in China, and an experimental mindset (which was arguably at least the case until this most recent administration in China!).

Kuora is a weekly column.