The ideological clash between democracy and authoritarianism has been at the forefront of the development of the modern world. Best illustrated during the Cold War, the discord between these two antagonistic schools of political thought was framed as a power struggle between the two great superpowers during that time: the United States and the Soviet Union. However, a closer look at history reveals that shades of this conflict were already present further back in the past.
Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, in his work titled, Democracy vs Authoritarianism: How Ideology Shapes Great Power Conflict, states that the Cold War was just the latest iteration of an ongoing ideological battle which finds its roots in the Peloponnesian War fought by democratic Athens and its allies against belligerent Sparta. As time moved forward, Brands argued that this conflict of ideals was never fully resolved and continues to persist to this day.
The modern iteration of this struggle between democracy and authoritarianism can be seen in the growing tension between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the PRC filled the resulting gap and has risen to become one of the strongest countries today, able to stand toe-to-toe with the United States in terms of economic power, military strength, and global political influence. For the second time in history, the monopoly of power held by the United States is in jeopardy as the ideals of democracy seem to be on a steady decline worldwide.
Democracy in Decline
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, released a report titled Democracy Index 2021 The China Challenge which tracks the downward trend of freedom and democracy in the previous year.
In presenting its findings, the EIU ranks countries on a 0 to 10 scale using 60 indicators grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.
Countries that score 8 or higher are considered full democracies. Those that score greater than 6but less than or equal to 8 are classified as flawed democracies. Hybrid regimes score greater than 4but less than or equal to 6. Lastly, authoritarian regimes score less than 4.
Continuing the trend from 2020, the EIU’s analysis states that 2021 reflected “an unprecedented withdrawal of civil liberties among developed democracies and authoritarian regimes alike, through the imposition of lockdowns and restrictions on [traveling]...[alongside requiring proof of vaccination against [COVID-19] for participation in public life.” In their bid to halt the spread of infection, several nation-states imposed harsh and severe restrictions on individual freedoms and civil liberties. This has led to the normalization and the continued use of emergency powers in several countries and to the spread of demonstrations and protests all over the world.
In addition, the report highlights the overall decline of democracy in all regions worldwide since 2006, with several countries, such as Spain, being placed into lower tiers of democracy, according to the EIU classification. According to the report, only 21 out of 167 countries are considered to be fully democratic, 53 and 34 nations are listed as being flawed democracies and hybrid regimes, respectively, while an astonishing 59 countries are considered to be authoritarian regimes.
The EIU’s data also illustrates that 2021 marks the biggest drop in the democracy index for the world average. Likewise, the analysis claims that this is due, in part, to the continuation of certain political and societal threads which started in 2020, such as the tension between those who support lockdown measures and mandatory vaccination versus others who see these actions as a threat to their individual freedoms. The EIU states that several of these government restrictions and mandates were justified during the first year of the pandemic due to high mortality rates and the absence of vaccines. However, recent developments have graced the world with an ample vaccine supply, more effective treatments, and a drastic decline in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths. Despite all these, several nations have chosen to keep their societal restrictions in place or have even added additional measures of control.
Tyranny on the Rise
During the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed the entire Hubei Province under what could arguably be said to be the world’s harshest and most uncompromising lockdown. The CCP even went so far as to silence all discussions about the virus in social media and arrest independent journalists who dared to report about the conditions in the province. Despite scathing criticism from the international community, life in Wuhan has seemingly returned to normal one year later. The CCP heralded this as a resounding success and has since replicated its actions in Hubei Province to control other smaller outbreaks in other parts of the country. In fact, even the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed its approval of China’s actions in controlling the outbreak.
China’s success in handling COVID-19 coupled with the difficulty faced by Western nations in controlling their own local outbreaks, alongside instances of unrest in supposedly well-established democracies, has led Chinese President Xi Jinping to claim that “the myth of America has ended” and that the world is undergoing many profound changes that are in favor of the PRC.
Against this backdrop of the continuing ideological battle between China and the West, other nations have opted to adopt several of the PRC’s methods in managing COVID-19 at the cost of human rights and liberty. Examples of this would be the Philippines, which is continuing to suffer from one of the world’s longest lockdowns,-and Vietnam, which is hounded by its own fair share of authoritarian measures and spectacular failures in its struggle against the pandemic.
Implications for Vietnam
Vietnam’s score in the EIU’s 2021 Democracy Index currently sits at 2.94, ranking it at 131 out of 167 countries in the global rankings. Added to this, Vietnam has consistently scored less than 4 from 2006 to 2021, unequivocally classifying it as an authoritarian regime.
EIU’s report also mentions a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 which states that more than 50 percent of respondents in Vietnam believe that “a system in which the military rules the country” would benefit their nation.
The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) also routinely flouts freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process in addition to several reported cases of illegal arrests and detentions of several independent journalists and human rights defenders.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that many of the VCP’s policies and practices seem to come directly from the CCP’s playbook. Both political parties employ censorship, coercion, and force in order to force obedience from their citizens. And with China growing more emboldened by the day, perhaps the VCP finds justification in how the CCP runs the country.
The EIU believes that it is highly likely that China will eventually overtake the United States to become the dominant global power and suggests that rather than containing or controlling China, the West should focus more on analyzing and fixing its own political systems in order to stand as a more desirable alternative to the kind of authoritarian system that China represents. If the US and the other democracies of the world manage to accomplish such a feat, perhaps a fire will start to burn in the hearts of the Vietnamese people once more to push for lasting democratic change.
The EIU’s 2021 Democracy Index can be found here.
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