The Legitimacy Crisis of 21st Century Autocracy

Although this blog was launched two years ago with Russia and Europe as the main focus, in coming weeks and months I’m planning to expand coverage to other regions where I work; emerging areas which are similarly stifled by the issues of rule of law, polemics of state-owned business, and civil society development. Case in point, I have been closely following events in China since the devastating Sichuan earthquake, which already claimed more than 68,000 lives and is testing the limits of the governing party’s ability to control the public outrage.


Photo: Parents hold portraits of their dead children during a memorial service at the ruins of Juyuan Middle School in the earthquake-hit Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, one of the concepts I found most interesting way back when I was a student was the deeply ingrained Chinese belief that natural disasters conveyed the displeasures of the heavens with those governing China. There was no clearer sign of “no confidence” in the present government than the flooding of the Yangtze or some horrendous earthquake.In light of these past experiences handling natural disasters, the fact that China has opened up to the international media to cover the terrible havoc and tragic death toll is nothing short of remarkable. Never before has the Chinese public been more informed about a natural disaster – observers are calling it a “new era in China’s history.”But the state’s experiment with transparency is quickly escaping their control. A Wall Street Journal editorial writes: “New media openness, such as it is, has also forced the government to rethink its response to the disaster. State leaders who are accustomed to public opinion as something to be “guided” and shaped through the careful control of information, have found themselves responding to messages from the public.“Among these new questions that the state is uncomfortably having to answer: Why was some infrastructure built of such shoddy quality and non-existent safety standards? Who is responsible in this or that district for inspecting the structural integrity of these buildings? Why was disaster relief so slow and inadequate? Who’s in charge in of this mess?The public outrage over the lack of information and answers on these subjects has been concentrated on a number of leveled schools, as grieving parents are holding rare and defiant protests to denounce the shoddy construction standards of schools – public contracts gone awry by corruption and graft.This lack of the “accountability loop” in 21st century autocracies such as China presents one of the key balancing acts constantly faced by these types of states: How to achieve and maintain legitimacy at home and abroad, while putting forward a convincing illusion of minimal freedoms to their subjects while controlling alternative pillars of influence. What makes this balancing act so difficult is the explosive growth of corruption in authoritarian capitalist systems, which, in the case of China, was detailed in the 2007 report from Transparency International as well as other sources. The Sichuan earthquake, plus an experiment in media openness, is providing a sneak preview of the potential of public discontent and outrage over the lack of accountability in the current system.We have repeatedly addressed the legitimation crisis in terms of Russia and the election of Dmitry Medvedev, and now in China we are again seeing the importance of the accountability loop and the desire of the 21st century autocrats to appear relevant and legitimate.One thing is for certain: the accountability crisis caused by corruption in these authoritarian countries means that it’s no longer quite so easy to govern only by fear.