To the Editor:
Azar Gat ("The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers" July/August 2007) is right to warn against the prevailing teleological view of democracy. However, he overlooks two essential factors suggesting that authoritarian capitalist regimes cannot provide "a viable alternative path to modernity."
First, certain structural elements make authoritarian capitalist regimes economically and socially less sustainable than their democratic counterparts. Democratic states promote growth better, accommodate more diverse ideas, and are more responsive to the citizenry. And a free press encourages the exchange of ideas and discourages corruption.
Poorly run democracies do no better than poorly run dictatorships; it is the quality of governance that matters. However, studies have showed that democratic states tend to govern far better than autocratic ones, which leads them to greater growth. Enlightened despots rarely exist. In the long run, democratic states will outpace authoritarian rivals in the economic arena. Forcible repression aside, authoritarian regimes must justify their political monopoly by continuously delivering sound governance. But the opaque structures of authoritarianism breed corruption and waste. Authoritarian governments find it hard to retain a long-term monopoly on power.
The Chinese government is facing increased scrutiny as corruption festers and income inequality worsens. China's Ministry of Public Security estimates that there are around 200 incidents of substantial unrest every day. If that government cannot continue to placate its citizens with sustained material advancement, the Chinese citizenry will be less supportive of the status quo and will begin to push for political reform.
Second, a single generation of observation is inadequate to make broad historical predictions about current authoritarian powers. A polity having satisfied its material needs will shift to more intangible desires and seek greater degrees of self-determination. The transition to full democracy can take generations. China's economic growth has been accompanied by limited but real political reforms. Villages elect local leaders; some government officials are competitively appointed. The Chinese government has increasingly solicited public opinion, and earlier this summer it experimented with popular voting to resolve a housing dispute in the city of Jiuxianqiao.
President Hu Jintao's rhetoric on political reform has softened; the Communist Party's weekly Study Times recently carried an essay titled "Democracy Is a Good Thing." Villagers increasingly favor local autonomy. In the 2003 Blue Book of Chinese Society (an annual government survey), half of the party officials polled agreed that "increased inner-party democracy" was one of the top two factors in attaining success in political reform.
Such democratizing trends are not evident in Russia, as President Vladimir Putin has further consolidated power. Recent polling data show that most Russians are content with Putin's performance and that few prefer another leader. Russia does not neatly fit the mold of an "authoritarian great power." Much of its citizenry applauds the drift toward authoritarianism in the hope that it will lead to renewed Russian power. Economically, Russia's gains are attributable more to higher oil revenues than a robust market. A slump in the price of oil and a further curtailing of rights may prompt retaliation by a population disenchanted with broken promises of a return to glory.
Are authoritarian capitalist regimes an "alternative path to modernity," as Gat suggests? Perhaps, in the short term. But it is unlikely that such powers will continue their economic ascent without political changes. Such changes may take years, but the long-term prospects for democratization should not be discounted.