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Opinion

China-style authoritarian rule advances even as democracy fights back

Far from helping open societies, internet tech aids tough regimes in cracking down

Chinese officials use advances in facial recognition technology to identify potential "troublemakers."   © Reuters

In China, 30 years ago, an audacious public protest in the capital's central square pushed China's autocrats to the brink. Two years later, when the Soviet Union imploded, the ruling Communist party's most relentless internal critic became Russia's president and dominant political figure.

Ascendant America had no serious rival. In Europe, West welcomed East. Among the world's most advanced countries, there seemed little left to fight over. The end to a century of conflict appeared to ensure democracy had carried the day.

History had other plans. Today, most liberal democracies are more polarized than they've been in decades, and voters in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, and Brazil have rejected established political players in favor of hoped-for sweeping change. Common ground between political parties in these and other countries is disappearing. According to Freedom House, a rights advocacy group, public trust in government stands at record lows.

President Donald Trump's America could not be much more bitterly divided. The European dream of convergence and ever-closer union faces serious challenges from within that EU, particularly from Italy, Poland, and Hungary. In rising China, meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has consolidated power on a scale not seen since Mao Zedong and committed his country to an authoritarian, state-capitalist economic model. Many governments and citizens around the world see China as a source of security, stability, and opportunity while Europe and America represent political dysfunction and public disgust with government.

How much ground has democracy lost in recent years? On the one hand, governing institutions in Europe, the United States, and other advanced industrial democracies are extraordinarily resilient. The checks on power they provide help societies withstand shocks. In the United States, opposition lawmakers, the courts, the media, and the bureaucracy have all pushed back against Trump's restless push to get his way. In Britain, parliament has put the brakes on implementing Brexit plans that members don't want. In Western Europe, there are no elected leaders who can be sure their governments are built to last. Even in younger democracies like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, bureaucracies, courts, journalists, opposition parties, and angry voters can still call elected populists to account.

The recent history of Greece demonstrates democracy's resilience. This country has endured an economic depression that hit harder and lasted longer than even the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States. In response, a relatively new political party of the far left, Syriza, won power. But far-left or not, Syriza has kept promises to work with European institutions and the International Monetary Fund to restore confidence in the country's future.

But that's not the whole story, because even if democracy endures in countries where it's deeply entrenched, new technologies, particularly in communications and the harvesting of personal data, can help prevent democracy's spread to other countries. From Tiananmen Square to Soviet collapse to the fall of governments in the early days of the Arab Spring, many assumed advances in communications technology would make it impossible for autocrats to remain in charge. In a world, where they could no longer control the flow of information within their borders and limit the ability of citizens to communicate with one another, how, many wondered, could autocrats maintain their grip?

Instead, governments have found ways to use new technologies to protect themselves. Syria's civil war provides a compelling example. In the conflict's early days, Russia provided President Bashar al-Assad with a few hundred data engineers and analysts to help the Syrian military sift through the texts and social media accounts of Syrian citizens to spot and arrest those most likely to challenge their government. This low-cost project proved extraordinarily effective in helping the Syrian government deprive opponents of allies.

There are important areas of discontent within China. Among the most significant is Xinjiang in China's northwest, historically populated by a Muslim Uighur minority that has faced systematic political and economic discrimination and forced ethnic assimilation. Violent unrest in the region once led the Chinese government to shut down the Internet across that region. Today, Chinese officials use advances in facial recognition technology and big data to identify potential "troublemakers" and reduce the risk of large-scale public demonstrations. These and other surveillance technologies available to the Chinese and Russian governments are fast becoming more widely available.

Democracy, like technology, evolves. No one can say with confidence that any autocrat will govern for life. But for many governments around the world, lasting authoritarian rule is becoming a much more realistic option.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism.

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