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Authoritarian Political Systems (Characteristics, Strengths, and Weaknesses) Evaluation Essay

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Updated: Jun 28th, 2019

Introduction

The augmenting importance in sobering the national and international governance has increasingly become a contemporary issue that has consumed the global political realm, with studies focusing on national civilisation and democratic development processes.

For several decades, the world has undergone a transition within the political paradigm with human beings coming to the realisation of their political freedom and rights that remained undermined from the traditional political regimes.

Literature confined to international political principles has evolved and managed to identify systems of governance employed in the modern national governance with distinct characteristics, their divine strengths, and explicit weaknesses, thus enabling citizens to classify their political bosses.

Each of the systems of governance has proven equally imperative in managing human resource, based on certain conditions or structure entrenched in organisations.

Despite comprehensive literature existing in systems of national governance, much remains unknown. Authoritarian political systems have distinct characteristics and like other systems, they have strengths as well as weaknesses.

China and authoritarian rule

Authoritarianism is a concept that is traditional to many countries with a majority of them having it at a given period in their history. As opposed to libertarianism and individualism, authoritarianism is a form of leadership where the subjects submit to authority constituting of a handful of people exercising the authority.1

One of the states that have long preserved its authoritarian rule is the People’s Republic of China, with the Communist Party here exercising the authoritarian rule. Policies in this country are created without consulting the public, and this aspect makes China a modern day authoritarian state.

With this form of a political system, China has experienced the negative and positive effects of the same with the most remarkable one being the maintained economic boom. The freedom of the citizens remains a major challenge in the country and this element constitutes the biggest problem for them.

For the Communist Party in China, the moral and ideological standings hit an all-time low in 1989, “in the wake of the crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square”2.

As is common with authoritarian rule, complaints of corruption in the system were the major contributing factor to the social outcry with some people even claiming that the elite enjoyed special privileges at the expense of the ordinary people who struggled to earn a living.3

The suppression associated with the system even led to the murder of some protesters by the so called “people’s army” in the same square, and this move demonstrated the ease with which the government could kill its own people4.

Aside from the negative associations at the time, the agricultural economy was a major beneficiary of the system. However, this aspect was overshadowed by the notion that the “urban economy still seemed locked within the iron framework of a work-unit system that was both inefficient and corrupt”5.

Therefore, it is important to consider the origin of authoritarian rule in the country, and the contemporary negative and positive effects.

Historical Perspective

The People’s Republic of China was established in the late 1949 under the leadership of the Communist Party supported by the then USSR after the defeat and retreat of the Kuomintang which had the support of the west.6 Mao Zedong established the communist rule in the country, with Beijing as the capital.

As Cheng claims, the leadership went through difficulties in the 60s and 70s, which was largely seen as ideological breakdown.7 Consequently, Mao instituted a series of changes and these evolved to what was popularly known as the Cultural Revolution in China or Maoism elsewhere.8

His death in 1976 led to a change in policy in the nation with the leader after him adopting a Chinese variant of socialism with accompanying economic reform.9 Accordingly, from these reforms, the modern day economic boom emerged.

The protests described above in the Tiananmen Square were during the rule of Deng Xiaoping whose economic reforms led to economic growth with the main challenge being the differing ideologies held by the Maoists and progressive liberals.10

A number of social factors also contributed to the social unrest seen at the time. However, his vision was popular in the nation with the party’s constitution adopting it.

Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji who picked up after Deng continued with the economic goals and visions held by him, and it was during their time that Chinese nationalism emerged.11

During Mao’s rule, the authoritarian rule in China was harsh, and thus the economy was mainly agrarian with socialism being the main ideology.

This aspect led to the manifestations associated with authoritarian rule including social unrest, poverty, and torture for those who opposed the rule and struggles for power both within and without the party.

The Communist Party also continued its monopoly in ruling the nation with the same consequences being experienced under Deng’s rule. Some of the marked positive contributions of the rule in China were also experienced during this time with economic gains being the main thing.

Contemporary Rule in China

The Communist Party remains the ruling party in the country and it exercises social and political authority in the country as a monopoly. More than 20 years after the Tiananmen killings, “the prestige of the CCP has risen dramatically on the twin geysers of a long economic boom and a revived Han chauvinism”12.

The positive effects associated with authoritarian rule in China are being experienced with the economy being the main pillar for the existence of the rule.

There has been immense wealth creation under the watch of the Communist Party in this country and many of the foreign nations have long held the “idea that more wealth in China would lead to more democracy”13. However, this expectation has remained a mirage with the party remaining as the sole authority in the country.

Despite the wealth creation, which has resulted from the exploitation of the country’s resources, Cheng states that the wealth created still remains in the hands of political and economic elite “that has successfully co-opted business and intellectual circles”14.

This insight means that there is the creation of contemporary poverty, which can be compared to what existed before the rise of the party.

The social dissatisfaction, which was largely seen during Mao’s rule at the leadership of the Communist Party, has been skilfully countered by the use of nationalistic theories advanced by the leadership.

As Vogel states, “the CCP has also deliberately stoked and shaped Chinese nationalism, and many Chinese inside China now feel pride in the CCP’s model of authoritarian development”.15

Strengths and Weaknesses

Though the Chinese system of governance is considered as the most successful of its kind in reference to economic growth, the authoritarian rule has had both negative and positive effects on the region and the world at large, and this aspect then demonstrates its weaknesses and strengths.

As opposed to the free-market economies of the world where competition drives the pricing of items and operating costs of industries, the Chinese ruling party has single-handedly created the business and manufacturing environment in the country to suit its own desires.

Consequently, government support and protection for industries and small-scale enterprises has led to an economic boom.

Some of the countries around China and those in regions perceived to be a third world have also tried to adopt the system in China, “with the other authoritarian elites who seek modern formulas for maintaining their power while also growing their economies”16 trying to emulate the Chinese.

The system has also had impact internationally by providing an alternative to the traditional centres of global power, which have mainly been considered as the Western superpowers.17

Since decision-making in the nation is reserved to the ruling party and the ruling class, Beijing has been in a position to influence international decisions to its favour or that of its perceived allies since it is capable of offering aid and investment without any stings such as human rights demands attached to it.

This form of administration has attracted attention the world over, with McGregor stating, “Even in some democratic or recently democratic developing countries, including Thailand, the appeal of the China model has started to grow”18.

As a weakness to this form of leadership, the view that democracy is a competitor and a danger to the authoritarian rule has resulted in international support for other authoritarian systems elsewhere, even where these practices may be contravening human rights.

Given that it is a member of the Security Council in the United Nations, China has veto powers, which means that it has used this position to propagate international authoritarian rule by protecting nations perceived to be allies, but applying repressive tactics.19

McGregor explains this aspect by stating, “China offers diplomatic cover to repressive regimes at the United Nations and elsewhere”20. This practice has assisted in slowing democratic transition in nations that were initially under authoritarian rule with marked economic losses due to poor leadership.

One of the weaknesses of authoritarian rules is evident in China, which is repression of the citizens and denial of their rights. In recent times, the People’s Republic of China has experienced social unrest directed to the government with the main grievance being the absence of basic human rights in the country.

The Communist Party is consequently very frightened of the citizens, which is mainly, as Weller puts it, a result of the citizens becoming more “Rights conscious”21. Authoritarianism does not encourage the concept of rights consciousness, hence the reason for panic in the republic.

Some of the measures in place to prevent escalation of the effects of rights consciousness include the use of secret police, use of propaganda, promotion of nationalism through film and other cultural events, torture of those prosecutes, and stern punishment for the activists22.

Censorship is among the most important methods that have been used to ensure complete dominance and rule of the country by the CCP. According to Weller, “the CCP’s thought work is certainly censorship, but that is only half of its role, with the other half entailing the active cultivation of views that the government favours”23.

This assertion effectively means that the public in China is misinformed, with the government dictating what it would like people to know. The media is thus state-controlled with the industry recording poor growth due to interference.

Some of the other negative effects and weaknesses of the Chinese form of authoritarian rule include lack of accountability, widespread land grabbing in the country, human rights issues, and inequality in income amongst the various classes created by the system24.

The Internet has created a virtual system of enlightening the people in the country, and this aspect has ensured that the government has been exposed over wrongdoing on several occasions.

Therefore, this element is a contemporary worry for the authoritarian system in the country, as measures put in place to censure that the Internet exposures and complaints are widely unsuccessful.

Some of the issues that have caused widespread social unrest in the past include the selling of land that had been seized by local authorities with the intention of clearing their debts25.

Corruption, as discussed above, is also rife in the country and as Persson and Savulescu state, “Activists like Chen Guangcheng (Economist), a blind lawyer who exposed forced sterilisations, raised public flags around human rights violations stemming from local corruption”26.

The government had to change some of its policies especially after the exposure of the melamine-tainted milk scandal that poisoned thousands of babies27.

With the reduced control and professional oversight on the production processes, the government has been in a position to increase its output. However, the working conditions have always been a cause of worry for the international community with workers dying frequently due to work-related accidents and conditions.

The above weaknesses and strengths of the authoritarian system of governance in China demonstrate some of the positive contribution that such a system may have on society.

The overall effects that the Chinese system of governance has had on the living standards of her citizens are positive, but authoritarian rule does not always have the same effects. Therefore, it is important to consider some of the other authoritarian systems in existence elsewhere, so that an effective comparison may be plausible.

North Korea

North Korea is among the few remaining communist states in the contemporary world.

The resilience of the authoritarian system in the region has continually baffled many political analysts and economic planners, since the system has only been associated with negative effects on the economy and all the social avenues of life in the country.

Following the establishment of the state after the war with the democratic south, the country has undergone a series of hardships, which have contributed to the notion that the country is at the brink of changing its authoritarian form of governance.

However, as stated above, the authoritarian regime in the country has often managed to resist change even when faced with the most catastrophic of tragedies such as the famine that killed over a million people28.

Historical Perspective

The occupation of the Korean island by the Japanese led to the emergence of communist and other movements designed to fight for the independence of the nation, and after the defect of the Japanese, the north was occupied by the Soviets with the south being occupied by the Americans.

With the exit of the common enemy after the end of World War II, the Cold War began with Korea being at the middle of it. The northern communist regime attacked the south, with the South Koreans fighting alongside the Americans and the Chinese fighting alongside the Korean army29.

With the formation of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the two Koreas have been separated since then and the north has embraced communism, but the south practices democracy.

Some of the challenges of having a communistic leadership in the North include the curtailing of the basic freedoms coupled with the fact that North Korea remains one of the most censored states in the world.

Freedom of expression is almost non-existence in the country and the government has complete control of all the systems in the country.

As Horak notes, “Kim’s regime established a socialist command economy, with priority development of heavy industry…agriculture was collectivised…a Marxist-Leninist political model of autonomy and self-reliance (chuch’e/juch’e)—was popularised”30.

Bennet and Lind also state, “By 1956, Kim Il Sung had achieved unchallenged supremacy in the KWP…with tight control over all aspects of the North Korean polity and society, Kim IL Sung became the ‘Great Leader’ and the object of a pervasive personality cult”31.

Unilateral unification talks collapsed between the two neighbouring countries in the year 1979 after the US refused to pull out its forces in the south. This move marked the beginning of heavy militarisation of the North.

Contemporary Rule in North Korea

The authoritarian system of governance has barely changed in the country, even with the latest change in the head of the communist regime. Some of the challenges that the authoritarian leadership has gone through include the withdrawal of Russian aid and the resulting economic meltdown associated with it32.

The leadership was also met with expectations of collapse following the rise to power of King Jong-il after his father’s death in the year 199433. This sad event was followed by the famine, which killed over a million people shortly thereafter and analysts thought this was the end of authoritarian rule in the country.

As Zook states, “Contemporary accounts warn that the regime is threatened by the growing flow of information into the country or by popular outcry touched off by the government’s 2009 bungling of currency reform”34.

Despite these predictions and challenges, the authoritarian rule in the country is as strong as it was in the beginning and social problems are a characteristic.

Strengths and Weaknesses

A major strength of the authoritarian rule in North Korea is the creation of nationalism in the country and provision of cheap labour that has enabled it to expand its militarisation35. However, the authoritarian rule has ensured that the country stays in abject poverty for only the ruling class enjoys the wealth of the country.

Though information on the living standards of the people living in this country is largely unavailable, the country ranks high among the nations with the highest number of people living below the poverty line.

The country has also been hit by an economic crisis, which has affected all avenues of life for the citizens. The country is also frequently faced by the threat of social unrest like the one seen in the North African countries, and this aspect has informed the censuring of information by the government agencies.

The country also spends much of the hard-earned money in the development of security systems at the expense of the necessary developments, which means that the growth in the economy is hardly enough to support the survival of the system.

Corruption, as in the Chinese system, is also a problem in this country and the major players are those in leadership positions. The information flows in the country from the foreign nations are making the citizens to become more and more enlightened, which means that the possibility of social unrest looms36.

Therefore, there is a likely loss of life in the event of such an occurrence, and this aspect is a weakness in the leadership.

Conclusion

As demonstrated above, authoritarian political systems have negative and positive contributions to any country with the net effects being largely negative.

The People’s Republic of China stands out as an example of such an authoritarian political system and the reign of the communist regime has ensured a strict economic environment where the country has emerged as one of the economic heavy weights of the world.

This element has not been without its challenge with the main one being the uprisings experienced in opposition to the rule.

North Korea is another country with an authoritarian form of leadership, and all citizens have felt the negative effects of this leadership. Authoritarian political systems are thus a risky way of governing a nation, as in most cases, the results are always negative and unpredictable.

Bibliography

Bader, Max. “Hegemonic political parties in post-Soviet Eurasia: Towards party-based authoritarianism.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 44, no.3, (2011): 189-197.

Bennett, Bruce, and Jennifer Lind. “The Collapse of North Korea.” International Security 36, no. 2 (2011): 84-93.

Byman, Daniel, and Jennifer Lind. “Pyongyang’s Survival Strategy: Tools of Authoritarian Control in North Korea.” International Security 35, no. 1 (2010): 44-74.

Cheng, Li. “The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? A Tripartite Assessment of Shifting Power in China.” China Quarterly 211, (2012): 595-623.

Horak, Sven. “Challenges to system stability in North Korea.” Journal of Asian Public Policy 4, no. 1 (2011): 121-25.

McGregor, Richard. “5 myths about the Chinese communist party.” Foreign Policy no. 184 (2011): 38-40.

Persson, Ingmar, and Julian Savulescu. Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Shambaugh, David. China’s Communist Party: atrophy and adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Vogel, Ezra. Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011.

Weller, Robert. Responsive Authoritarianism and Blind-Eye Governance in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Zook, Darren. “Reforming North Korea: Law, Politics, and the Market Economy.”Stanford Journal of International Law 48, no.1 (2012): 131-33.

Footnotes

1Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, Authoritarianism and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 200-241.

2Max Bader, “Hegemonic political parties in post-Soviet Eurasia: Towards party-based authoritarianism,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 44, no.3 (2011): 191.

3Robert Weller, Responsive Authoritarianism and Blind-Eye Governance in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) 267-71.

4Ibid, 268

5Ibid, 270

6Li Cheng, “The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? A Tripartite Assessment of Shifting Power in China,” China Quarterly 211 (2012): 596.

7Ibid, 6

8Ibid, 6

9David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: atrophy and adaptation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) 84-99.

10 Ibid, 89

11 Ibid, 99.

12Cheng, 599.

13 Ibid, 611.

14 Ibid, 614.

15Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China (Cambridge, Belknap Press, 2011), 111-119.

16Ibid, 155.

17Ibid, 119.

18Richard McGregor, “5 myths about the Chinese communist party,” Foreign Policy no. 184 (2011): 38-40.

19 Ibid, 38

20 Ibid, 40

21Weller, 271.

22 Ibid, 269

23 Ibid 271

24 Ibid 268

25Persson and Savulescu, 239.

26 Ibid, 240.

27 Ibid, 238.

28Sven Horak, “Challenges to system stability in North Korea,” Journal of Asian Public Policy 4, no. 1 (2011): 121.

29 Ibid 122

30 Ibid, 121

31Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Lind, “The Collapse of North Korea.” International Security 36, no. 2 (2011): 84.

32Ibid, 87.

33 Ibid, 88.

34Darren Zook, “Reforming North Korea: Law, Politics, and the Market Economy,” Stanford Journal of International Law 48 no.1 (2012): 131.

35Byman, Daniel, and Jennifer Lind. 2010. “Pyongyang’s Survival Strategy: Tools of Authoritarian Control in North Korea.” International Security 35, no. 1 (2010): 49.

36Horak, 121.

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