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Francis Fukuyama, 30 years on: Is the world turning Chinese?

'Democratic recession' underway as populism rises, 'End of History' author argues

People celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1. (Xinhua via Kyodo)

WASHINGTON -- In 1989, the scholar Francis Fukuyama published a magazine piece titled "The End of History?" about the decline of communism and the triumph of the West.

With Saturday marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world once again faces a major crossroads -- this time over inequality, protectionism, trade frictions and other negative consequences of global competition.

Nikkei talked with Fukuyama, now a senior fellow at Stanford University, about the three decades that have passed since his much-debated essay.

"In 1970, there were only about 30 to 35 countries that would qualify as a democracy," Fukuyama said. "And today, despite all of the reversals, there's still 110-something -- a number like that. So, a majority of the countries in the world are democracies."

He said that while the global economy quadrupled under liberal democracies from 1970 to 2008, the last decade has seen a "democratic recession" of setbacks. "Part of that is Russia and China are now consolidated authoritarian regimes that have been trying to project their influence beyond their borders, and that's hurt the interests of global democracy," he explained.

Francis Fukuyama is a third-generation Japanese American whose grandfather served as the first president of the Osaka University of Commerce, now Osaka City University. (Photo by Mikio Sugeno)

But "the more surprising development is the rise of these populist movements," he said, including in well-established democracies, as exemplified by Donald Trump's election as U.S. president, Brexit in the U.K. and populist parties in Europe.

"The external and the internal forces all are cooperating," Fukuyama said. Russian President Vladimir Putin "has been supporting these populist parties in Hungary and in France and so forth, and really using digital technology, social media, as a weapon to weaken the self-confidence of existing democracies," he said.

Fukuyama said culture, as opposed to economic injustice, is the main driver of populism.

"If the problem were simply economic inequality, you'd think that you'd have a big rise of left-wing parties" pushing wealth redistribution and social protections, he said. But the parties actually gaining momentum are right-wing and populist, he continued.

"The right has been able to interpret the crisis in cultural terms," portraying globalization as undermining national identities by promoting immigration, and "the elites" as personally benefiting from globalization but "more loyal to people halfway around the world than they are to their fellow citizens," Fukuyama said.

The problem with democracy, he said, is that by itself it is "not all that satisfying, because it doesn't give you a sense of community, it doesn't give you a sense of purpose, and that's a weakness in democratic regimes."

"The question about 'the end of history' is really a question of, 'Is there actually a superior system that hasn't been invented yet, or we somehow haven't gotten to it?'" Fukuyama said.

"I would say that China is probably the only alternative that is really plausible," he said.

China is "definitely not democratic" but has produced much economic growth, he said. "The question then is, 'Is everybody going to look like China in another hundred years?' ... I hope that's not true."

The global community is now grappling to keep the world from fracturing into opposing camps, as it did with the Iron Curtain three decades ago.

A wall of tariffs from the U.S.-China trade war now threatens a global market that has been growing since the end of the Cold War. Total trade in goods is set to grow 1.2% in 2019, according to the World Trade Organization -- the narrowest gain since after the global financial crisis of 2009. The ratio of direct investment to gross domestic product also hit a roughly 20-year low of 1.4% in 2018.

"I think that what is inevitable is that the Chinese and Western economies will start to decouple to some extent," Fukuyama said.

"The old relationship" of having all supply chains in China "is not a safe position to be in, to be that dependent on China," he said.

"China could invade Taiwan. ... You could have a big blowup in the South China Sea. ... There could be lots of scenarios in which you're going to be in open conflict with China, and if you're that deeply enmeshed with them economically, that's strategically a liability," Fukuyama said.

"I think the likelihood that there will actually be overt conflict in Asia is much higher than a lot of people imagine it. ... The biggest risk is actually Taiwan right now," the 67-year-old scholar concluded.

"Unfortunately, Taiwan has done very little to defend itself, and the American commitment to Taiwan is one that I would question ... if I were either in Beijing or in Taipei," Fukuyama said. "So I think there is a real danger there."

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