On the heels of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), recent “mass incidents” (qunti shijian) in China have spurred renewed debate about the level of social dissatisfaction and the stability of authoritarian governance in the People’s Republic of China. Yet, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the MENA facing widespread rebellion against their ruling regimes, protests in China have not been directed at central political leaders or the political system as a whole. By examining the similarities and differences between Chinese and Middle Eastern authoritarianism, this article seeks to uncover which factors underpin continued public acceptance of the Chinese Communist Party and which ones—if left unchecked—bode ill for the regime.
Myanmar has been under military rule in various guises for nearly fifty years. The most durable and unyielding of the authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s military rulers have expertly exploited circumstances and methods that prolong their rule, even as they have failed to deliver genuine economic growth and development. Their methods include ruthlessly suppressing dissent, inciting ethnic divisions and fears of external threats and making implicit bargains with neighboring states and domestic elites over the spoils available to a rentier state. Myanmar’s emergence in recent years as a significant regional supplier of natural gas has dramatically increased the country’s distributable economic rents, thus exacerbating the country’s political stasis. This article examines the ways in which Myanmar’s military regime has maintained its rule through the exploitation of these methods, but with a particular focus on the impacts of the country’s exploitable energy and resource wealth and its implications for Myanmar’s economic development and political transition.
Belarus, a post-Soviet country ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, is a case of a contemporary regime that reverted to authoritarianism after a brief stint as an independent democracy. While some of the characteristics of the Belarusian system are typical of other nondemocratic regimes around the world and in the post-communist region in particular, others are distinct and set Belarus apart. This article emphasizes the role that social cohesion and national-identity formation play in perpetuating the current system. We apply the lens of public opinion to our analysis and focus on characteristics of the Belarusian regime that explain its vitality. Our analysis sheds light on the role played by such factors as national identity and social cohesion in the persistence and durability of authoritarian regimes.
Although North Korea’s northern border remains easy to cross, and North Koreans are now well aware of the prosperity enjoyed south of the demilitarized zone, Kim Jong Il continues to rule over a stable and supportive population. Kim enjoys mass support due to his perceived success in strengthening the race and humiliating its enemies. Thanks in part to decades of skillful propaganda, North Koreans generally equate the race with their state, so that ethno-nationalism and state-loyalty are mutually enforcing. In this respect North Korea enjoys an important advantage over its rival, for in the Republic of Korea ethno-nationalism militates against support for a state that is perceived as having betrayed the race. South Koreans’ “good race, bad state” attitude is reflected in widespread sympathy for the people of the North and in ambivalent feelings toward the United States and Japan, which are regarded as friends of the republic but enemies of the race. But North Korea cannot survive forever on the public perception of state legitimacy alone. The more it loses its economic distinctiveness vis-à-vis the rival state, the more the Kim regime must compensate with triumphs on the military and nuclear fronts. Another act of aggression against the Republic of Korea may well take place in the months ahead, not only to divert North Korean public attention from the failures of the consumer-oriented “Strong and Prosperous Country” campaign, but also to strengthen the appeasement-minded South Korean opposition in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This article demonstrates how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran’s uncertain future.
The Cuban Revolution recently experienced a major transition of leadership as power shifted hands from Fidel Castro to his younger brother, Raúl. Eschewing the role of caretaker, Raúl embarked on an ambitious program aiming to streamline a cumbersome and inefficient state while reforming the economy in ways that will increase agricultural production, encourage self-employment and lead to sustainable economic growth. At the same time, Raúl Castro refashioned the ruling coalition and proposed major changes to the ruling Communist Party, including term limits, leadership rotation and the separation of party and state functions. This article analyzes the emergence of a new Cuban political elite, explores how power is distributed between its military and party wings and examines the major challenges this coalition must overcome if it is to successfully manage the transition from the Castro era and stabilize Cuban autocracy.
Today more than 500 million Chinese Internet users roam social networking websites. Of them, as many as 300 million are part of a rapidly growing microblogosphere. This article examines the predicament of companies providing social networking services inside China’s Great Firewall—specifically, the way in which they handle conflicting demands from the party-state and emerging civil society. In light of the phenomenal growth of
microblogging and the Chinese government’s tighter control over netizens in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the issue of social agency comes to the fore. This article asks if the Chinese entrepreneurial class—the so-called “red capitalists”—could become agents of democratic political change. Are Internet entrepreneurs allies of civil society or the government? Based on their current esprit de corps with the state, it is unlikely that they will directly assist social change in the foreseeable future. Yet willingly or not, by providing civil society with tools to challenge the regime, they are becoming key players in the process of creating a more inclusive and accountable politics in China.
On 5 December 1978, Wei Jingsheng, an electrician at the Beijing Zoo, posted an essay to a brick wall on Xidan Street called “The Fifth Modernization,” which stated:
“Democracy is our only choice. . . . If we want to modernize our economy, sciences, military and other areas, then we must first modernize our people and our society. . . . Without democracy, society will become stagnant and economic growth will face insurmountable obstacles.”
Wei’s rare, public appeal for democracy struck a chord with the Chinese people, who were exhausted by the failures of communism and the Cultural Revolution. The brick wall on Xidan Street was soon filled with other criticisms of the regime and became known as the “Democracy Wall.” However, the “Beijing Spring” was short lived. Wei was arrested on 29 March 1979 and imprisoned for fourteen-and-a-half years. He was released in September 1993, only to be detained again in February 1994 for engaging in political activities. He was deported to the United States in 1997 when the international community succeeded in pressuring China for his release. Having lived in exile for nearly fifteen years, Wei discussed his views of China with the Journal’s Rebecca Chao.
Vietnam now participates in a capitalist market and keeps its borders open, but it still imposes a dated yet effective communist matrix of control over the country’s media outlets. This article examines the effectiveness of this system of control with respect to visual art. I find that contemporary art in particular is able to communicate—and express frustrations with—the tensions between rapid economic development and political stagnation, and between cultural traditionalism and modernization. Art can speak with relative impunity because its meaning is more difficult to pinpoint than written criticism of the regime. However, it is important to note that few, if any, Vietnamese artists advocate a change of regime. Instead, they emphasize their concerns about tensions in society caused by rapid development and its effect on centuries-old traditions. The current one-party regime certainly contributes to this tension, but it would be an oversimplification to call these artists “protest artists”; rather, they act as a lens through which both Vietnamese citizens and outsiders get an honest and unbiased view of a country that is too often thought of in terms of colonialism or war.
After an eighteen-day revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign, Egypt must direct the unifying energy of the Tahrir Square protests toward democratization. The military council now in charge of the government has vowed to oversee the country’s transition to more representative civilian rule, but the Egyptian people have expressed dismay at its lack of transparency, its crackdown on protesters and the slow pace of the transition. As the nation awaits its first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, slated to begin on 28 November this year, it remains unclear how and whether Egypt will effectively cast off the long shadow of its autocratic past.
The topic of this issue of the Journal of International Affairs requires little introduction, particularly at the end of a long year for autocratic rulers around the world. However, while many scholars have focused their attention on the causes of the Arab Spring revolutions—asking “Why there?” and “Why now?”—our aim is deeper. We asked our contributors, many of whom have first-hand knowledge of authoritarian regimes around the world, to examine the factors that underpin regime durability, not democratization. Our questions are, “Why not there?” and “Why not now?”
Nominally democratic institutions such as political parties and legislatures are common in dictatorships, which rely on them to maintain control of the state. Parties and legislatures provide a means through which dictatorships co-opt potential opponents, distribute rents to supporters and mitigate elite conflicts. Indeed, regimes with these institutions have longer tenures than those without them. Using evidence from postwar dictatorships, this study demonstrates that parties and legislatures also enhance the ability of authoritarian regimes to withstand leadership transitions. Transfers of power are inherently destabilizing. Yet we find that dictatorships with parties and legislatures are far less likely to be associated with instability because these institutions insulate regimes from the disruptive effects of unconstitutional leadership transfers.
The contemporary literature on authoritarian durability focuses more on democratic-looking institutions such as parties, elections and parliaments than the institution in which authoritarian regimes are most importantly embedded: the state itself. This article argues that state power is the most powerful weapon in the authoritarian arsenal. After clarifying the regime-state distinction and explaining why regime durability involves more than just duration, we discuss four “infrastructural mechanisms” through which authoritarian regimes stabilize and sustain their rule: (1) coercing rivals, (2) extracting revenues, (3) registering citizens and (4) cultivating dependence. Since state apparatuses are the institutions best geared for performing these tasks, their effectiveness underpins authoritarian durability in a way that no other institution can duplicate. And since state power is shaped by long-term historical forces, future studies should adopt the kind of historical perspective more often seen in leading studies of postcolonial economic development than of authoritarian durability.
The rising prominence of sovereign wealth funds—investment funds that are owned or controlled by national governments—has stirred debate about their potential use as tools to pursue global political interests rather than economic or financial ends. Recent sanctions levied on the Libyan Investment Authority, formerly operated by the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi, underscore this question. This article argues that the governance, accountability and transparency arrangements of sovereign wealth funds reflect the quality of political institutions within the countries that own them. In contrast to funds based in democratic states, those managed by authoritarian governments are distinguished by a lack of public oversight and are instead tightly controlled by the prevailing political leadership. The link between political leadership and fund management in many authoritarian countries allows governments more flexibility in using financial assets to pursue immediate political agendas.
The Arab Spring, a wave of revolutions in nondemocratic countries in North Africa and the Middle East, forced some dictators to flee from their countries while others stayed and one faced intervention by an international coalition. Using a stylized game-theoretic model, this article analyzes the decision-making process of a dictator and explains the different outcomes. A rational dictator only leaves the country if the expected costs from punishment outweigh the benefits of staying. For the international coalition, the model identifies a trade-off between the cost of the intervention and the potential for economic benefit from a successful intervention. A higher number of participants in the coalition increases the probability of the intervention’s success. However, if the intervention fails, coalition participants lose all economic benefits. Therefore, an intervening country benefits from the participation of other countries because it lowers the risk of failure. If the intervention succeeds, the economic benefits are shared among all intervening countries. Thus, an intervening country has the most to gain if it acts alone. Furthermore, a country can deliberately abstain from an intervention to benefit from higher shares of economic profit if the intervention fails and coalition members lose all economic benefits. The model can help explain the rarity of unanimous votes for an intervention and the complex and tedious bargaining process surrounding decisions to intervene.
Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist and a leading scholar on authoritarianism. In a conversation with the Journal’s Rebecca Chao, Mr. Krastev challenged the assumptions that underpin popular theories of authoritarianism and discussed how the very elements that undermined these regimes in 1989, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union, contribute to their durability today.
In their new book, The Dictator’s Handbook, New York University professors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argue that to understand how dictators monopolize power, we need to look no further than our local city council.
The book begins in Bell, California, where a scandal erupted in 2010 over the city manager’s $787,000 annual salary. For seventeen years, Robert Rizzo swindled thousands of dollars from his constituents, a quarter of whom lived below the poverty line. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith discovered that Rizzo behaved as all politicians do, whether democrats or dictators, securing his hold on power by reducing the size of his electorate. Rizzo manipulated the timing of elections to ensure low voter turnout and held special elections on policies that would give the city council greater control of the budget. In a conversation with the Journal’s Rebecca Chao, Smith explained how dictators act in very much the same way, and discussed how the book’s unconventional and pessimistic take on governance provides us with a more informative method for classifying regimes.