Dr Chris Ogden, Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor in Asian Security in the School of International Relations, says that democratic backsliding and a rising China could portend the demise of Western democracy and the dawn of an authoritarian era.
In his new book: The Authoritarian Century: China's Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order, Ogden argues that as more world powers embrace illiberal values, China's preferred authoritarian order may come to dominate international relations: ushering in an authoritarian century that risks transforming global institutions, political systems, and human rights.
The number of countries considered to be liberal democracies has dropped from 41 to 32 in the past decade, according to a 2022 report by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg. That’s down to the same levels as 1989.
China, which is becoming increasingly powerful and modernized, is at the forefront of these changes.
I recently spoke with Ogden at his office in the Arts Faculty Building. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed democratic backsliding, China's worldview and rise to power, and why he believes some significant changes may be ahead in global politics.
I first asked what some of the central claims of the book are, and what inspired Ogden to write it. He said,
“I mean, it really started from thinking about how China's amassing power. If [China] matters more and more, what will it change? How will it change the world? Will it try to create a world in its own image in the same way that the United States has? So I researched that. The big takeaway is that the US world order is firmly based upon democracy, and kind of projecting those domestic values out into the [global] system. And I thought maybe China would do the same thing with authoritarian values. And that's what I think will happen - that the world will tilt more towards [China’s] kinds of values.”
When asked about the context of the Democratic recession, Ogden said “It was an amazing time to write this book because it was at the beginning of the pandemic. And at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone thought that China was far too authoritarian. And most analysts in the West thought that [authoritarian political moves] could never really happen in the United Kingdom or the US. And then it did.”
“The more I thought about defining autocracy and authoritarianism, the more I noticed that it was accelerating across the West, particularly in the United States, but also in India, also in Britain, and obviously quite evidently within Russia… The more that I researched, the more that I read — I saw that there is a greater confluence — not just that China's very authoritarian, but actually that these other states are becoming less democratic.”
Ogen also had some insights on examples of democratic countries currently showing authoritarian tendencies. “I mean, I'd say definitely the UK is. There's a new policing bill, which stops people from protesting if the police deem it to be too loud, or deem it to be a public nuisance. There are also recent examples with the Queen's funeral, where people were holding up signs saying "hashtag not my king" and were arrested because that's meant to be offensive to some people. And I would say that that goes against freedom of speech. And that's also against freedom of protest.”
“Another change in the UK is that they introduced a mandatory ID requirement for elections because of voter fraud, even though I think there's only been six prosecutions in the last couple of years because of voter fraud. But that move will disenfranchise 3 million people — there are 3 million people without a passport, without a driver's license, who can now no longer vote. I think that that's a form of authoritarianism because that's swamping universal suffrage.”
Ogden explained what is enabling this democratic recession, as well as what advocates for a democratic world order can do to protect it. “There's a quote from Obama that "democracy is a garden that has to be tended." And I don't think there's enough awareness in the population here, and elsewhere, as to where all our rights came from. I'm not too sure if everyone's aware why we don't work on the weekend, why we work a set number of hours, where minimum pay comes from, or where workers' rights... all of these things... like the ability to be allowed to protest, come from. They don't just come out of nowhere – we have them because people fought for them and protected them. So, I think there needs to be more mass education to remind people where their rights came from. And this needs to be done regularly.”
The conversation then turned to China, and what characterised its rise to power in the recent decades. As touched on in his book, Ogden noted the complicity of the West in this rise.
“So the big thing is that China [was] highly isolated and highly illiberal in all senses, really up until the end of the 1970s. And then the West was very keen to integrate it into the [global] system and assimilate it. The biggest way they did that was by helping China open its markets to liberal economies.
“There was always this belief in International Relations that if you liberalize an economy, eventually you'll end up liberalizing its politics. And eventually, you'll get democracy. With a lot of hindsight, that belief has been proven to be completely wrong in China's case. They're a successful market economy, but they're still authoritarian. So they call that an authoritarian and capitalist kind of blend.”
On the world view that China is now championing, Ogden said:
“I don't think China will ever have leaders that will come out and say, "become authoritarian." But I think by being passive and not criticizing other countries, and kind of saying, "if you want to be a democracy, fine, if you want to be an authoritarian regime, fine," that opens up a space where they are a fantastic example and [authoritarianism] can gain greater credence. And particularly when the US stops becoming a hegemon and other states start to become more authoritarian, such as Britain, that space for [the US] to say, well, "we're the democratic beacon," also diminishes. So I think that also allows that process [of democratic backsliding] to accelerate.”
Ogden discussed the conditions under which China might begin to lead the global order.
“Most of the time, world orders seem to come about through some big conflicts – someone wins, someone loses. I think that's conceivable, but I would suggest that the US and China, the two sides of that rivalry, have far too much to lose [to go to war]. But then again, we know that unexpected things can happen in politics all the time. And if a leader came to the United States who wanted war with China, they could create war with China.”
“I think another thing to consider is that China's got some issues. It's just had a massive property bubble burst. There's high inflation, and for people aged 18 to 24 unemployment rates are around 20 per cent. There's so much pressure [in the workforce] and there's also massive environmental degradation. China has kind of destroyed its natural resources – most of its river sources are highly polluted, air quality is awful, and soil quality is awful. And then the final thing for China is that its population is getting very old. So there's a good chance that China will kind of plateau – and actually, that it won't make it as a kind of new power. But the authoritarian century will be China-centric and China-inspired – it's not about China being number one in the way that the US wants to be. It's more about what the prevailing dynamic within the system becomes. So for example, even if China flatlines, there's still India, which is becoming more and more autocratic. They could overtake China And there’s plenty of that in Europe and even the US. So it's that overall kind of confluence, which would allow the [authoritarian] century to happen. China might disappear, but it would be the spark.”
I asked, if that spark does catch, how concerned should people who care deeply about liberal and democratic values be?
Ogden stated, “If you live in a pretty well-established democracy — like in Northern Europe, where I think they're protecting democracy a lot more — you can be less concerned than say someone who's in a state that is borderline authoritarian, borderline democratic.”
“So, there's going to be fewer international cheerleaders for democracy. But one interesting thing about China's viewpoint is that it doesn't want the whole world system to be authoritarian in the way I say, the United States, would [with Democracy]. They have a “live and let live” kind of attitude. So if a state wants to be a democracy with liberal values, that's fine, as long as they don't force China to do that.”
“So I think there is space for democracies to exist. But I would say that anyone who lives in a democracy should be very aware of democratic backsliding. It's happening everywhere, in every conceivable dimension. And it's happening very slowly. It won't just be tomorrow that you live in an authoritarian state. You’d realize in two or five years' time. And again, things need to be protected. Any law that affects voting rights, any law that politicizes the judiciary, any law that insists that there's only one way of doing things – I think they need to be counteracted and protested.”
'The Authoritarian Century: China's Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order' is available for purchase on Amazon and in bookstores near you.
Image: Charles Gorrivan