David Runciman writes: In his 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man,” Francis Fukuyama famously declared the triumph of liberal democracy as the model of governance toward which all of humankind was heading. It was a victory on two fronts. The Western democracies held the clear advantage over their ideological rivals in material terms, thanks to their proven ability to deliver general prosperity and a rising standard of living for most citizens. At the same time, to live in a modern democracy was to be given certain guarantees that you would be respected as a person. Everyone got to have a say, so democracy delivered personal dignity as well.
Results plus respect is a formidable political mix. The word “dignity” appears 118 times in “The End of History,” slightly more often than the words “peace” and “prosperity” combined. For Mr. Fukuyama, that is what made democracy unassailable: Only it could meet the basic human need for material comfort and the basic human desire for what he called “recognition” (a concept borrowed from Hegel, emphasizing the social basic human desire for what he called “recognition” (a concept borrowed from Hegel, emphasizing the social dimension of respect and dignity). Set against the lumbering, oppressive, impoverished regimes of the Soviet era, it was no contest.
“Democracies, because they give everyone a say, are bound to be fickle.”
Yet today, barely two decades into the 21st century, the contest has been renewed. It is no longer a clash of ideologies, as during the Cold War. Western democracy is now confronted by a form of authoritarianism that is far more pragmatic than its communist predecessors. A new generation of autocrats, most notably in China, have sought to learn the lessons of the 20th century just like everyone else. They too are in the business of trying to offer results plus respect. It is the familiar package, only now it comes in a nondemocratic form.
Since the 1980s, the Chinese regime has had remarkable success in raising the material condition of its population. Over that period, nondemocratic China has made strikingly greater progress in reducing poverty and increasing life expectancy than democratic India: People in China live on average nearly a decade longer than their Indian counterparts and per capita GDP is four times higher. The poverty rate in China is now well below 10% and still falling fast, whereas in India it remains at around 20%. The benefits of rapid economic growth have been made tangible for many hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, and the regime understands that its survival depends on the economic success story continuing. But China’s rise has been underpinned by more than just improved living standards. There has been a simultaneous drive for greater dignity for the Chinese people. This is not, however, the dignity of the individual citizen as we’ve come to know it in the West. It is collective national dignity, and it comes in the form of demanding greater respect for China itself: Make China great again! The self-assertion of the nation, not the individual, is what completes the other half of the pragmatic authoritarian package.
“One of the striking features of the last century’s battle of ideologies was that the rivals to liberal democracy always had their vocal supporters within democratic states. Marxism-Leninism had its fellow-travelers right to the bitter end … “
Chinese citizens do not have the same opportunities for democratic self-expression as do citizens in the West or India. Personal political dignity is hard to come by in a society that stifles freedom of speech and allows for the arbitrary exercise of power. Nationalism is offered as some compensation, but this only works for individuals who are Han Chinese, the majority national group. It does not help in Tibet or among Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
On the material side of the equation, China’s pragmatic authoritarians have certain advantages. They can target and manage the benefits of breakneck growth to ensure that they are relatively widely shared. Like other developed economies, China is experiencing rising inequality between the very richest and the rest. But the rest are never far from their rulers’ minds. The Chinese middle class is continuing to expand at a dramatic pace. In the West, by contrast, it is the middle class, whose wages and standard of living have been squeezed in recent decades, who feel like they are being left behind.