Russia, China and Taiwan: Autocracy vs. Democracy, 2022.

  Previous  |  Next  

Friday, April 29, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

As the COVID-19 virus takes its toll worldwide and the Russian invasion of Ukraine progresses, the world appears to be in the proverbial “interesting times,” namely the times of danger and uncertainty, as well as times that demand positive creativity. This challenge is especially strong for autocrats since dictatorships and democracies weather crises differently.

Autocrats need to justify their desire for continued control especially when economies stagnate. Finding an outside enemy or continued expansion often becomes the justification and preferred distraction.

In Asia, Russia and China’s autocratic presidents. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and Taiwan’s democratic president Tsai Ing-wen face this challenge differently. Will this year prove to be a high water mark and tipping point for any of them?

The backdrop of World War II provides relevant examples. Leading up to the outbreak of war in Europe, Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and German chancellor, Adolph Hitler, were rising autocratic stars. Each sought to restore his nation’s past glory but each also reached a point when he should have consolidated and governed but did not. As a result, disaster inevitably followed.

For Mussolini, the tipping point came in June 1940, when he decided to throw in his lot and join Germany in the war. Once he made that choice, his fate was sealed.

Hitler’s point of no return was different. After gaining control of Europe, he still sought additional lebensraum or “living space.” Instead of consolidating and ruling, he set in motion Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. That decision sealed his fate.

Democracies do face crises differently. If leaders do not rule well they are voted out in the next election. Contrast Mussolini and Hitler therefore with then British prime minister Winston Churchill.

Appointed prime minister in May 1940 after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation, Churchill successfully guided the UK through WWII only to surprisingly lose the position when his party suffered a major electoral defeat in July 1945. The war in Europe was over and people needed new thoughts for a new world. Churchill would later return as prime minister in 1954 when his party again won a majority but his glorious high point was his service during the war.

How then is this grist for the mill in Asia and why might this be the pivotal for Putin, Xi, and Tsai?

Russia appears to be handling the virus well, but Putin’s trouble is more in his ambition and decision that he alone knows what is best for Russia.

Putin, who has virtually been in power since 1999, has turned Russia’s alleged democracy into an autocracy. The question for this year is: Why has he decided to go all out in Ukraine and trade blood for land? As body bags containing Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians mount, how much land is he actually gaining and what worldwide reputation is he building? Whatever enters the Black Sea must still pass through the Bosporous Strait and the planned Istanbul Canal. Has his reach exceeded his grasp?

There will be no easy way for him to extricate himself or Russia from the results of this full-scale war in Ukraine and there will be no peace treaty. At home, Putin must also continue to silence and jail his political challengers; outside Russia, he is making few friends.

Xi on the other hand, does not have any external wars but plenty of troubles within. All this is happening at a time when he hopes to confirm a change in the rules in October to make himself president for life.

The weight needed to create his tipping point is piling up on the scale.

China’s economic growth has fallen below 4 percent; few can remember or even want to discuss the halcyon years when China’s economic growth was at least allegedly in double digit percentages.

The virus also presents a clear credibility problem. How can the most populous nation in the world and the one where COVID-19 originated still only have about 4,764 deaths?

In Hong Kong, Xi has shown that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) word on a promised democracy is not worth the paper it was written on. Hong Kong has already lost its glamor and it has exposed the CCP’s hypocrisy.

The draconian COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai; formerly one of the greatest cities in China is raising problems within. Are such draconian methods, the best way to handle the virus, especially as China strives to keep Taiwan and its expertise out of international health organizations? Other lockdowns are in the wings.

Xi definitely needs a distraction but it is also highly unlikely that he would try to justify that with a desperate attack on Taiwan. In the immediate year, he faces the challenge of whether he can maintain leadership within the party. There have been seven attempts on his life and he does not have the luxury or charismatic appeal of Mao Zedong. There are many within the CCP who could replace him and many who are not eager for him to have carte blanche for the remainder of his life.

Finally still in the wings of the CCP’s credibility for its one-party state, are the troubles in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.

This year threatens to be the high watermark for Xi. He must convince the CCP that he should be the leader for life all the while walking a fine path in his support of Putin as the Russian leader faces his time of trouble.

Finally, there is Tsai, the president of Taiwan. Tsai is in the safest position of the three; Taiwan has handled the virus well, and is economically stable.

Tsai has been democratically elected and barring any catastrophe, she will successfully finish her second term in 2024. She could remain to offer advice, but unlike Putin or Xi, she would not try to cling to power.

Politically Tsai has proven her worth. After losing the presidential election in 2012, she won in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020 by an even greater margin.

Nonetheless, Tsai remains indirectly linked to Putin and Xi in that Xi covets Taiwan and could form an alliance with Putin.

Whether Tsai achieves greatness will depend more on how she finishes her final two years. Her question remains that of legacy. Will she have a legacy like that of former president Lee Teng-hui?

Tsai has proven to be a good caretaker in troubled times, but she has not moved Taiwan far down the field in key areas like transitional justice, the country’s name, constitutional rectification and clear International identity. That is where her legacy will be.

This year will present a challenge as to how well her party does in Taiwan’s nine-in-one local elections.

Looking at Putin and Xi, Tsai becomes more explainable. She has focused on a limited scope and has not tried to expand Taiwan’s borders. History will be kind and measure her for keeping Taiwan on keel in troubled times.

As for Putin and Xi, they must continue to push the envelope as they wish to stay in power long beyond their two-term limits. Do they really believe they can make a difference? Or like true autocrats, do they cling to power for fear of slipping into obscurity and what their enemies might do if the tables were turned?

For these and other reasons, Taiwan and Tsai must all the more be on their guard since they will definitely be affected by the decisions of Putin and Xi in this year of interesting times.