The conventional wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascendant and democracy is on the decline. But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy remains strong.
Human Rights Watch says the world’s democratic leaders need “to do better” in meeting global challenges if they are to build momentum in toppling autocrats after a wave of protests against authoritarian rule last year.
With many democracies reeling from the disruptive effects of new technologies, it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of political systems built on individual freedom and political agency. Yet it is still fully within democratic countries’ power to decide which technologies they do and do not want.
The US President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit held on 9th–10th December triggered an intense debate on democracy in China. China’s State Council Information Office released the “Democracy in China” white paper on 4 December, followed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs releasing the white paper “The State of Democracy in the United States” on 5 December. Various conferences, seminars, discussion sessions were organised throughout the month, which were attended by Chinese bureaucrats and top scholars/strategists from China and abroad to debate and discuss ‘democracy’. China’s state media also ran a high decibel campaign targeting the democracy summit. In fact, some Chinese scholars dedicated December 2021 as the global “Democracy Contest Month”, with the US and China as the two main protagonists.
India has a role no less important than America’s in exposing the falsehood of Chinese claims on representative governance
Rather than emphasizing their ideological differences with other countries, democracies should instead recognize their responsibility to themselves and the world. In particular, free societies must now address two critical, overdue tasks in order to revive their domestic and international legitimacy.
South and Southeast Asia have experienced a sharp decline in liberal democracy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the pretext of combating COVID-19, the Philippines and Thailand have suppressed freedom of speech, while Indonesia has concentrated power in the hands of government. India has promoted a COVID-19 tracking application that violates personal privacy while the military coup in Myanmar subverted the democratic elections of November 2020.
Digital technology was a reoccurring theme last week at the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy on “defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, promoting respect for human rights.” COVID-19 has highlighted how central digital capabilities are for all aspects of life—work, health, education, commerce, and government. Digital infrastructure and government services are no longer just nice to have, but essential elements of a 21st century nation. Digital capabilities are ideologically neutral and can serve authoritarian as well as democratic tendencies, so development donors must be wary of whom they partner with and how they deliver assistance for digital government.
Kleptocracy undermines democracy. Bolstering the capacity of journalists and civil society to respond to it at its source must be a central priority of the international community.