The spectacular social and economic development of China, its vast size and population, have turned China into the ideological threat to the West. Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea in the 1970s, for different reasons, have all demonstrated that respect for individual human rights comes second to economic development. Discuss the condition of many countries around the world today and it’s not long before the words “authoritarian” and “China model” enter the conversation.
Words are telling. Consider “authoritarian” – note not dictatorship or tyranny. Authoritarian is used to characterise dictatorships rich in essential resources or key allies. Maybe we are indicating a point on a scale of oppression. Perhaps if you harass, imprison or kill more than a certain number of your political opponents, the more condemnatory word dictatorship kicks in. Language subtly betrays attitudes and relationships.
“The China model” also bears thinking about. Is this on a national scale a matter of cultural choice and self-expression, an identity statement, like a particular car chosen by an individual? But the Chinese Communist Party ruthlessly imposes its uniform political and economic template. There is no choice if you are a Uighur Muslim, or a zealous evangelical Christian, or Falun Gong or a young dissident, or a human rights lawyer or an investigative journalist.
Are we then inadvertently, unconsciously dumping the idea of universal values and undermining the integrity and interdependence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as we celebrate its seventieth year? On what grounds do we soften reaction to violations of people’s rights to different freedoms and give preference to economic rights? These questions have no easy answer.
If democracy, democratic culture and human rights – the complete UN list – are the touchstone of Western values and inform foreign policy, talking about different models risks becoming a hostage to fortune. Dictators are happy to talk about the Asian model or the African model of democracy, particularly when they are locking up their opponents, rigging their elections, manipulating religious sentiments, or playing on tribal or xenophobic fears of one sort or another. In most instances, these aren’t different cultural ways of doing democracy. They are ways of reinforcing the idea that individual human rights confront social, political and economic rights in a zero sum game - when they don’t. Their purpose is to justify abuses of power and the enrichment of elites,
The West may rightly be shy about claiming that genuine democracy and respect for individual human rights are no impediment to economic development. It has an inglorious history of colonialism to overcome. And Africa is a constant reminder. Rwanda is a near perfect example of the West’s attitude. German and Belgian Trusteeship Rule in Rwanda prior to Independence in 1962 did little to promote economic progress and contributed to social divisions and the rise of ethnic identities. I tell the story in my Church and Revolution in Rwanda Manchester University Press 1974. Twenty years later the world failed to intervene to stop the genocide in which hundreds of thousands died. But did Rwanda really need authoritarian rule to achieve successful economic development?
Governments and some international NGOs present Rwanda and its economic progress as a model for the whole African continent. It is indeed impressive, rags to relative riches without, for example, the diamonds of Botswana. But even given the imperative of neutralizing ethnic tensions after the genocide, President Paul Kagame did not need to eliminate political opposition for the country to prosper.
The massacre by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front’s military of at least 4,000 internally displaced Hutu in Kibeho camp on 22 April 1995 spelt the end to an initial post-genocide government of national unity. Criticism of government became hazardous. The later assassination of Colonel Patrick Karegeya in Johannesburg, and the attempted assassination of General Faustin Nyamwasa, former Kagame top intelligence officials, are two of the best documented cases of the perils of opposition.
In August 2017, Kagame won Presidential elections with 98.8% of the vote. According to Human Rights Watch, before and after the vote: “the Rwandan government continued to limit the ability of civil society groups, the media, international human rights organizations, and political opponents to function freely and independently or to criticize the government’s policies and practices”.
A democratic culture requires the promotion of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as the fabric of politics, civility and social harmony. Dictatorships, Presidents clinging to multiple terms in office through rigged elections and violence against opponents, are not different models of democracy, whether African, Middle Eastern or Asian, or early stages of a China model. They are models of tyranny. And the cost of opposing tyranny continues to be paid by those who try to overthrow it, as demonstrated by the extinguishing of the ill-named Arab Spring.
There is, of course, hypocrisy, arrogance and hubris in the West’s global promotion of its ideology of democracy. Gerrymandering in the USA, attempts to render voting difficult for African-Americans, a referendum in the UK manipulated by fantasy projections of the benefits of a no or a yes vote, are striking own goals. So is the influence of parts of the mass media that thrive on echoing resentment and xenophobia, and foster an ill-informed electorate. Growing inequality, high levels of relative poverty in the USA and UK, torture and rendition to “black sites”, lend themselves to counter-challenge through authoritarian propaganda: they are a gift for those who deploy social and economic rights to deflect attention from their own violation of individual rights.
The West is not likely to win the ideological or ethical argument while economics and GDP growth provide the West’s dominant master discourse, demoting all else. We sing with dictators too often from the same economistic song sheet. If democracies hope to occupy the moral high ground, they themselves need to set a better example and urgently reform their own political and economic practice. Meanwhile, when democratic leaders argue that they are engaging constructively with tyrannical regimes, they need to be challenged about what has been achieved by such engagement. And when the real motivation is transparently economic self-interest, the West’s ideological position and its moral argument simply founder on their own contradictions.
My old Professor at University College, Galway, used to remark that when he got into his small, beat-up car it would often drive straight to a pub. The big, red China model, with its disappearances, extensive surveillance of citizens, new facial recognition technology, social credit data, and, in Xinjiang, “vocational training centres” (re-education camps), is driving straight into a dystopian, Orwellian future. To governments tempted to jump on board, just don’t go there.