Under cover of COVID there’s been troubling news about tyranny’s rise
Fifty-four per cent of the human race now lives under autocratic rule. “And with Hungary, there is for the first time an EU member state classified as autocratic,” it finds.
Freedom is in retreat. Tyranny is on the rise. The researchers find that every region of the planet is affected by what they call “the third wave of autocracy”. The first was the rise of fascism leading to World War II. The second was the consolidation of the Soviet empire in the 1960s and 70s.
Strikingly, this year’s report finds that “powerful G20 countries with a significant economy, such as the USA, India or Brazil, have slipped down the democracy index”. They’re not suggesting that these three are actually autocratic, but that they are on a downward slide.
A similar kind of study, the annual Freedom in the World report by the US group Freedom House, found the same outcome, measured differently. Its dashboard, also unveiled in March, found that last year was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
The case of the US commands global attention. As it should. The country that saw itself as the Atlas of democracy, the giant bearing the weight of the world’s freedom on its shoulders, is in a profoundly destabilising condition. Long a leader in the cause of progress, the US is now leading the regression of the democratic world.
Donald Trump last week again refused to commit to recognising the result of the US election due in a month. Worse, he has implied that violence could be an acceptable way of deciding a contested outcome.
Many Americans are preparing themselves accordingly. The number of requests for FBI background checks on new gun purchases was a record 12.1 million, up by 71 per cent, in the first seven months of this year. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the gun industry, estimated that 40 per cent are people buying a gun for the first time. That would be nearly 5 million new gun owners.
Kevin Rudd has labelled Xi Jinping’s regime ‘the enemy of liberal democracy’.
In his study of the history of violence, Harvard’s Steven Pinker found that the creation of the nation state “that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another” was the single greatest force in reducing violence in human history. The US has never truly enforced such a monopoly because of its historical gun fetish; it is now embracing the exact opposite, a free-for-all of democratised violence while the fringe political left campaigns to “defund the police”.
At the same time, the country doing more to crush human freedom than any other major nation, China, is extending some of its worst practices. Kevin Rudd has labelled Xi Jinping’s regime “the enemy of liberal democracy”. This year it extinguished the civil liberties it had promised Hong Kong. Beijing said it would honour the One Country, Two Systems principle for at least 50 years. It cancelled after 23.
Even more disturbing, Xi claimed that the National Security Law he imposed on Hong Kong is applicable worldwide. In other words, claiming extraterritorial jurisdiction over all the Earth and all its peoples. And last week we learnt that Beijing’s vast system for the repression of its Muslim population in Xinjiang province, which started in 2017, has expanded, while it had also started applying the same system of mass detention to its Buddhist citizens in Tibet.
A UN report estimated that the regime had rounded up about 1 million of its Uighur and other Muslim minorities into what Uighur activists call “concentration camps”. Xi’s officials said there were no such camps. They eventually dropped the lie, but said they were for vocational training only. The regime then said that all detainees had all “graduated” and the camps were being closed. Oh happy day! But the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last week published satellite images indicating that while eight centres had been closed, more than 60 others had been built or expanded over the past year. It counted a total of 380 detention centres in Xinjiang.
In the same week, the Jamestown Foundation in the US published research showing that about half a million Tibetans had been sent to similar military-style retraining camps. Far from retreating from this system that The Economist has called “apartheid with Chinese characteristics”, Xi has continued to expand it. We learnt from Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, that Trump privately had encouraged Xi to repress China’s Muslim minority. And so the decline of liberal democracy in one great power gives comfort to the tyrant waging brutal repression in another.
Australia turns out to be a beacon of liberty in a darkening world.
The topmost countries in the Varieties of Democracy report are Denmark, Estonia and Sweden. Australia ranks the 14th freest nation, the US No. 36 and China 174th out of 179. The only countries ranked lower are among the world’s hell holes of suffering and repression – Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and North Korea.
Australia turns out to be a beacon of liberty in a darkening world. But the metatrend towards illiberalism means that even the freest countries need to work on renewing their democracies. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are telltales of trends, “the first signs of a process of autocratisation”, say the researchers. On that score alone, Australia has work to do. Federal power over the press needs to be checked. Beijing-funded efforts to stifle free speech on university campuses need to be quashed. “Social” media needs to be made to respect free speech, not undermine it. We already know the price of liberty. Eternal vigilance.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
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Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.