Written by Victoire Tissinié, edited by Manuel Torres Lajo
A comparative analysis of Europe’s and China’s models
In 1989, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his famous essay “The End of History?” that liberal democracy was the ideal and ultimate form of government, thus marking the endpoint of history’s evolutionary process (p. 3). More than thirty years later, his predictions seem to have been proven wrong: not only does the democratic model seem to be having a hard time expanding, it also appears to be eroding from the inside. Europe, the very cradle of democracy (Tandonnet, 2019), is indeed facing a dual challenge as its quest for a further expansion of its model is being hindered by a legitimacy crisis, both internally and externally. Weakened from within and without, democracy is struggling to impose itself as a viable, universal model before the parallel emergence of alternative systems of government that are considered, more than its antithesis, as direct opponents. China has grown to be one of the most prominent (Small, 2020). Such observations raise concerns as to whether democracy, rather than being the final step of mankind’s ideological evolution (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 3), might have not already reached its peak, from which it can only decline.
This article analyses whether a renewal of democracy can be realistically envisaged and, if so, how. First, it assesses the current state of the democratic model and the challenges it faces. Then, it takes a closer look at China’s system as a systematic alternative and potential rival. Finally, it critically evaluates the prospects of democracy’s revival in light of these challenges.
Democracy in Europe: weakened from within and without
Western societies often attempt to spread their democratic model beyond their borders. They base their foreign policy on the theory of democratic peace, which emphasises the unlikelihood of war guaranteed by their form of government. Yet, though proponents of such a theory advance the spread of democracy worldwide as the ultimate solution to violent conflict (Grieco et al., 2019, p. 516), democratic peace fails on many levels, and democracy as a model nowadays faces major challenges (Grieco et al., 2019, p. 517).
On the one hand, the expansion of the democratic model is being undermined by the rise of alternative systems promoted by emerging powers. These, by means of their resources or economic power, are gaining influence in an era where the increasing interconnectedness and multilateralism of our globalised world makes them essential, non-negligible actors on the international scene (Baylis et al., 2020, p. 29). Through tools that democracies attempt to eradicate,such as censorship and propaganda, these rival regimes, often authoritarian, persuade their populations of the advantages of their models over the democratic one. This considerably hinders the spread of democracy by depriving it of its international appeal (Grieco et al., 2019, p. 519). Additionally, other challenges to the democratic peace theory imply the instability and hazardousness often resulting from the transition to democracy, or the fact that, even when successfully instilling its foundations abroad, this process, like any other, is not irreversible (Grieco et al., 2019, p. 519). On the other hand, and even more worryingly, Europe and North America appear as the worst-performing regions on the Democracy Index, illustrating the risk of reversibility, even in “the oldest and most developed democracies” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 24). The decline in civil liberties since the coronavirus pandemic, added to the alarmingly low public trust in democratic institutions and growing appeals for alternative forms of governance raised by the Democracy Index constitute evidences of the internal erosion of the democratic model (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 26-27)
Being on the one hand pictured as a disadvantageous model by rival powers, and on the other questioned by its own people, the democratic model therefore struggles to impose itself as a viable and legitimate alternative to other emerging systems. Due to this spiralling malaise, it does not currently seem capable of retrieving the support of bygone days, let alone to spread steadily and sustainably beyond its borders. Both from within and without, not only is the spread of democracy compromised, it is now its ability to survive that is put to the test. This undeniably leaves more room for emerging powers to impose their own views and gain influence. Among them, China has grown, in the past years, to stand as a redoubtable systemic rival.
China: increasing appeal as an alternative system
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted that “more than a third of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule, with a large share being in China” (2022, p. 4). Its size and increasing global influence lead China to be increasingly seen as a systemic rival in the narrative of the West’s struggle against the spread of authoritarianism (Small, 2020). Indeed, Western democratic regimes tend to condemn the lack of accountability, consequent corruption and considerable inequalities that characterise the Chinese political system (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 20-21). Charles Michel, current president of the European Council, even emphasised that Europe and China “do not share the same values, political systems, or approach to multilateralism” (European Commission, 2022). Though this may have spurred the European Union to adopt a tougher approach to its competitor, China yet seems to stand its ground, claiming the efficiency of its system which, thanks to the elimination of allegedly time-consuming mechanisms of participation and accountability, allows for “fast and efficient decision-making” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p.19).
While Europe has been critical of the Chinese model, finding fault in its economic and foreign policies and condemning human rights abuses, the claims and attempts at stopping its influence face a major obstacle: the trust of Chinese citizens in their own regime. Indeed, China achieves the maximum score on the EIU’s index for “public confidence in state institutions” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 20). This not only constitutes an obstacle in the struggle against the spread of authoritarianism, but also reveals a paradoxical and embarrassing contrast with Western states who, themselves, face an alarming decline in “popular trust in democratic institutions” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 27).
The role played by the state partly explains the public support for the Chinese regime. Standing above the people, it is exempt of any sort of accountability, yet maintains its dominant position through patriotic education, censorship, and an alleged “social contract” guaranteeing economic growth and social stability to its people in exchange (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 19-20). Moreover, duped by a careful control over the information spread by their government, Chinese citizens are taught to believe that democracy, rather than a saviour, constitutes in itself the real threat (C Politique, 2022). This makes the endeavour of Western democracies to decelerate the spread of authoritarian regimes even more vain.
Additionally, China tends to follow and act according to its own economic and political interests, regardless of the nature of the regimes it cooperates with (Weiss, 2019, p. 96). For that matter, the country even rules out any potential intention to export its model, which was developed in a unique historical and cultural context and thus retains low international appeal (Weiss, 2019, p. 94). However, China is aware of the advantages of its authoritarian regime, allowed by a “tradition of independent statehood, along with a sense of purpose of its elites, a strong national identity, and a unified country” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 22). In spite of not actively trying to impose its model beyond its borders, China is undeniably gaining influence in other regions of the world, therefore putting increasing pressure on opposing systems (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 22).
The future of democracy: hope for a revival?
While it is quite certain that China will soon become the world’s biggest economy, doubts remain regarding the sustainability of its political model (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 22). The public support is high, yet not irreversible. Although the EIU Democracy Index, back in 2021, stated that “the Chinese model of governance has survived all predictions of its demise” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 22), recent events might prove otherwise. For instance, the recent rebellion of Chinese citizens against the stringent zero-Covid policy and its social consequences puts into question the viability of the implicit social contract that the Chinese government has been maintaining with its people (Huang et al., 2022).
Even though China has extensively used censorship and propaganda to convey the idea of a failing Western system to its domestic audience and reinforce public trust in its government, it never explicitly claimed to stand as a direct opponent or alternative to liberal democracy (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 24). As argued by Weiss (2019, p.94), the West tends to misinterpret China’s strategy, which is mainly founded on advancing its own interests rather than rejecting any particular model, including the Western one. While it is true that China has gained increasing influence on the international scene—therefore indirectly challenging the legitimacy of the Western system and its struggle to impose itself as “the final step of mankind’s evolution” (Fukuyama, 1989, p.3)—, various scholars claim that such challenges “do not yet amount to an existential threat to the international order or liberal democracy” (Weiss, 2019, p. 94).
Some argue that although China’s policy choices do contribute to undermining the legitimacy of the democratic model, it is not their direct goal, as opposed to Western states intentionally aiming at countering the spread of authoritarianism (Weiss, 2019, p. 102). Undeniably, this democratic malaise paves the way for alternative systems to gain momentum as it “provides tools for leaders in China […] to boast comparative efficiency and popularity of their own system” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 27). Therefore, even though Western countries fear that China’s authoritarian model might spread and challenge liberal democracy globally, whether such endeavours will be successful largely depends on the strength of the democratic model itself (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 24).
Despite these weaknesses, democracy still remains universally appealing, including among citizens ruled by authoritarian leaders (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 28). Many scholars thus argue that the fate of this model lies in the hands of democratic leaders and mostly depends on their ability to reform it and reverse its decline (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 24). As stated by Weiss (2019, p. 102) “the best approach for those who wish to counter the spread of authoritarianism is to defend and restore democracy”.
Building upon that assumption, the main focus of Western states should be, firstly, to focus on strengthening and reinforcing their model within their own borders and aim at regaining trust and support from their own domestic audience (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2022, p. 31). In the meantime, emerging powers with diverging views such as China ought to be seen mainly as strategic partners rather than systemic rivals (Weiss, 2019, p. 94), for the globalised nature of today’s international order does not allow for unilateral approaches to global threats (Baylis et al, 2020, p. 29). Additionally, Europe continues to rely on China on many levels, as the latter constitutes an important source of critical raw materials necessary to the EU’s strategic and economic endeavours (Bourgery-Gonse, 2023). Being an essential trading partner, the necessity to cooperate with China on certain matters remains relevant, if not essential. European leaders should therefore aim at strenghtening the foundations of their own model, and seek the assistance they might need in fruitful cooperations with other stakeholders on the global scene, criticising their actions when falling short, yet recognising their increasingly beneficial role in multilateral responses to common challenges (Weiss, 2019, p. 102).
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