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Global Perspective: Democracies still have edge over autocracies like China

Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks about distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, in the East Room of the White House, on Monday, May 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

By Akihiko Tanaka, President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

    Since the Biden administration came to power in the United States, solidarity among democracies has been emphasized more than ever. Although he does not use the term "Cold War," President Joe Biden says that there is a competition between democracy and autocracy with China, which he considers "the only competitor." In this camp of "democracy" propelled by the Biden administration, Japan is naturally the most promising partner as the country has advocated a "quad" summit of Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India, and has been the world's foremost proponent of the concept of a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

    On the other hand, democracy is said to be undergoing a crisis on a global scale. The coup d'etat in Myanmar and the ensuing chaos have been a setback for countries seeking democracy. The "one country, two systems" framework in Hong Kong has effectively been dismantled. Even among the European Union member states that make democracy an eligibility requirement for participation, there is a tendency toward autocracy, as in Poland and Hungary. To begin with, the U.S. itself was experiencing a crisis of democracy during the last months of the Trump administration. The Chinese Communist Party is boasting about the superiority of its own system in dealing with COVID-19.

    Leading organizations that have been compiling data on democratic trends around the world are also becoming increasingly concerned. The title of the 2021 annual report of the U.S.-based Freedom House organization is "Democracy under Siege," and the title of the annual report of the V-DEM Institute headquartered at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden is "Autocratization Turns Viral."

    According to V-DEM data, in 2010 there were 41 countries that were rated as liberal democracies, but by 2020 there were only 32. The number of countries rated as "democracies," which includes countries rated as "electoral democracies" that are not so liberal but still hold relatively fair elections, dropped from 98 in 2010 to 92 in 2020.

    Freedom House categorizes countries into three levels: "free," "partly free," and "not free." Its data also shows that the number of free countries fell from 89 in 2010 to 84 in 2020. Both organizations use their own measurements to make these assessments, but I calculated the correlation coefficient between the two organizations' original data before classification to be about 0.95, which is extremely high, so it would not make much difference in the analysis.

    The V-DEM report also points out that the population of autocratic countries accounts for 68% of the world's population, while the population of the 32 free democracies is only 14%. The reason the population of autocratic countries has reached 68% is that, under V-DEM's assessment, India has fallen from an electoral democracy to an "electoral autocracy" where elections are held, but people's rights are violated. The crisis facing democracy is evident in the fact that the "world's largest democracy" is now regarded as not democratic enough. (V-DEM classifies despotic countries that do not even hold elections as "closed autocracies," and refers to both "electoral autocracies" and "closed autocracies" together as "autocracies.")

    Under these circumstances, can democracies compete with the rise of China? President Biden says, "We have to prove democracy still works," but is that really possible?

    The challenges for democracies are great. Excessive optimism, as in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, was a mistake. But I think it is also a mistake to be overly pessimistic about democracy. First, I am sure that there are many people (perhaps more than a majority) around the world who want democracy. It is obviously the case if you look at the protests staged by people in places such as Hong Kong and Myanmar. People living in autocratic countries, 68% of the global population, do so not because they think autocracy is good. Some of them are actively resisting, while many others are putting up with it out of necessity.

    Second, if we look at the long-term trend from the 20th century to the 21st century, it is clear that the number of autocratic countries has been decreasing. It is true that the situation in many countries is worse than it was in 2010, but if we include electoral democracies that hold fair elections, there will still be more democracies in 2020.

    Third, if the specific challenge for democracies at this stage is to protect their freedom from the threat of autocratic countries, we must remember that democracies still have plenty of power. In the four categories of political systems defined by V-DEM, the gross domestic product in 2019 as a percentage of the world total was 17% for closed autocracies, 12% for electoral autocracies, 11% for electoral democracies, and 60% for liberal democracies. Most of the share of closed autocracies (13.6% of the total) comes from China. In other words, there are only 32 free democracies, but their economies still dominate the world. There is no reason to underestimate this market size and economic power.

    In the end, the only external threat to democracies is China. Even against China, the economies of the liberal democracies as a whole are overwhelmingly large: the GDP of the G7 countries alone accounts for 45% of the world's GDP. Dazed by China's remarkable rapid growth since the beginning of the 21st century, the Chinese people and much of the world have been under the illusion that the future lies under autocracy. It is quite possible for liberal democracies to prove the superiority of democracy as a system of governance if they earnestly work together.

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