The concept of ‘Liberal Democracy’ is perhaps the most ambitious form of government developed to date. It has, like all types of government, variations, some more directly ‘democratic’ than others. Despite their differences however, they all seek to achieve one sacred goal – to govern on behalf of their citizens rather than to govern despite them.
Since the fall of the Greek Republics democracy has never been in as much peril as it is now. I’m aware of the boldness of that statement. Many will quote the rise of Fascism or the Soviet Union as threats that could’ve ended democracy. Both were indeed a threat to world order and many democracies, including Germany itself. However during this time there were several ‘factors’ that held firm to resist those ideological extremes. Now those factors have since or will shortly perish.
The first factor is that neither the German Reich, Mussolini’s Italy, Imperial Japan nor Stalin’s Soviet Union were the most prosperous or powerful nation on earth. That title had been held by Britain and soon after the United States.
That quite nicely leads me to the second factor that safeguarded the ideal of democracy – America. That rebellious nation, born under the myth of establishing “these free and United States”, has held within its culture a belief in ‘Democracy’ and ‘Freedom’ above all else. It has no doubt failed to live up to the promise it made to its citizens and still fails to free them from crippling debt, mass murder and real political choice. However its very existence has in the past acted as a roadblock to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Asia and other places.
Make no mistake I do not admire the US or its tendency to use foreign policy and its military might to solidify its own resources and political dominance rather than providing support and security to nations in true peril. And like the empires of history (Roman, Spanish Empire, French and British) which grew fat on the wealth of others, prioritised their own needs over the security of the world and sacrificed the moral high ground of democracy.
Despite all of this, I would still always choose a democratically elected but flawed regime over the one which has been steadily rising in the east with virtually no resistance. I speak of course about China. Perhaps the most industrious and impressive nation to have risen in its industrial capacity since the British Empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To put the speed of its expansion in context from 2010 – 2013 China used more concrete that the US did in the entire 20th century and every two weeks a city the size of Rome is constructed. Chinese GDP has risen from $300 billion in 1980 to over $11 trillion in 2015 and in 2025 China is projected to overtake the US as the world’s most powerful economy.
Why does that matter? Well, it matters for two very distinct reasons.
The first is that China’s authoritarian single party state operates in a more ruthless and efficient way than any democratic nation could hope to replicate. The simple fact is that in a democracy the government will resist change if it is unpopular. The Communist Party of China has no such concerns. As such its adaptability is almost unparalleled.
The second is that China’s economic rise challenges the perception that only democracy can grow a nation into a prosperous, modern and technologically advanced state.
The third, is perhaps the most terrifying. No longer is this authoritarian state sponsored capitalism being confined or contained as the Soviets were in the Cold War. China’s influence carves through mountains, flows through rivers, burns in the world’s power sources and shoots through people’s very veins. I speak of China’s ever-growing influence and investment in the nations of the world. Their ‘Belts and Roads’ initiatives have given modern highways to Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Egypt to name a few of the 70 nation’s Beijing has invested in. Although the total cost of this initiative is unknown, it was estimated by China Global Investment Tracker to be $106 billion in 2017 alone and a staggering $838 billion since 2005.
China’s vaccine and immunity programmes have spread to over 40 African countries including Egypt and Nigeria and has been brought into sharp focus thanks to China’s export of over 1.5 billion Covid vaccines. Also Chinese investment in power stations and fresh water supplies have given prosperity, life and previously unimaginable comfort to many around the world, including many European nations.
These all sound like good things, right? Life is life and the more that are saved the better, the more people pulled from poverty the better right?
Of course, but, what if these projects are being organised not for those aims at all. What if they are simply a means of achieving Beijing’s true goals – to garner influence with the most vulnerable nations which, in 50 years’ time may be the most powerful in the world. Think of Brazil, where China has invested at least $74 billion, Egypt or Pakistan. Their tactic is to appeal to current or potential dictators, to indulge their innate corruption and to fuel the merits of the Chinese system in the minds of the people. After all, would you really care where investment was coming from if it prevented your child from starving? Prevented you dying from Covid? Or provided you with electricity and modern comforts?
The uncomfortable truth is that the number of democracies around the world consistently increased from WWII onwards, not simply because of they were governments operating with consent of the people, but because democracy showed itself to be the greatest enabler of prosperity and comfort. With that assertion now entirely shattered, the liberal democracies of our world must rise and compete with China and display to all nations that democracy and prosperity are indeed interlinked.
That means greater investment in Africa, Asia and South America, an increase in our aid budget not a decrease and a greater focus on education and democratic tradition. If we fail in this regard, the downward trend democracy currently experiences may not halt at the borders of Europe or North America but could indeed shatter the very world order we’ve come to know.