Ruling by Law: Ambitions and Limits of the 21st Century Authoritarian Model | Freedom House

Ruling by Law: Ambitions and Limits of the 21st Century Authoritarian Model

Read a Country or a Territory Report

by Christopher Walker and Sanja Kelly

“There’s no quick fix.” These shrewd words were spoken by a senior World Health Organization official commenting on the food and product safety scandals that broke in 2007 and drew the world’s attention to two of China’s several emerging crises.[1] A steady stream of news reports chronicled the thousands of products requiring recall, ranging from tainted pet food to lead-laced children’s toys. But the observation on the absence of “quick fixes” for complex problems has far wider implications for Chinese society, which now faces development challenges on a range of fronts.

Explosive growth, for example, has brought with it catastrophic environmental damage, apparently costing hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives each year. The tens of thousands of local protests bubbling up across China, an expression of increasing expectations and frustrations, are testing officials’ capacity to respond with better governance. Meanwhile, Chinese officials are under pressure for improved performance from other quarters. International nongovernmental organizations have seized on China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 as an opportunity to shine a bright light on the less desirable aspects of the Chinese system, including dreadful records on civil liberties and political rights.

This intensive and, for China’s leaders, unwelcome scrutiny has moved the leadership from its “comfort zone” – delivering economic growth – and is slowly putting pressure on the government to focus not only on growth, but to deal with its byproducts. This includes mounting demands for government responsiveness to ordinary citizens’ needs.

To date, the Chinese authorities have executed a finely calibrated balancing act, seeking to offset emerging calls for political accountability with continued economic expansion. Recent events, however, suggest that this task is becoming increasingly more difficult. The relatively incremental and often cosmetic reforms the Chinese have pursued so far appear inadequate for meeting the unyielding demands that accompany integration in the global economic system, the ever-more probing attention of international watchdogs, and most importantly, the inclinations of ordinary Chinese citizens, who no longer seem quite as ready to accept the corrupt and substandard governance that the Chinese Communist Party has offered to date.

The stakes are exceptionally high in this endeavor. Stewardship of the country’s natural environment has emerged as a potential Achilles’ heel. The environment is, however, only one of a number of significant and growing challenges. The Chinese government is being scrutinized for its management of the country’s fraying social safety net; the fallout from major, periodic public health crises; and its response to the massive demographic dislocations that have accompanied booming economic growth.

The piecemeal, clumsy, and sometimes brutal manner in which the authorities have dealt with these issues calls into serious doubt whether a system that is economically dynamic but whose political leadership is unaccountable to public opinion can survive over the long haul. The ability of China’s leaders to pass this formidable test will determine not only the survival of China’s authoritarian-capitalist project; it will also signal whether this system remains an attractive model for other developing countries to emulate.

The Russian Model

The emergence of a 21st Century authoritarian-capitalist model is not limited to China. Russia, another regional power with ambitions on the global stage, is developing a model of governance that denies basic political rights for its citizens and shuns democratic accountability, while charting an economic course that is capitalist, albeit with deep state involvement in economic affairs. President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin presents what it calls “sovereign democracy” as its paradigm for governance. This concept, which in practice contains little in the way of genuine democratic governance, is also held out as an example for hybrid regimes and autocracies on the Russian Federation’s periphery.

Russia, too, is facing a number of daunting societal challenges: a looming HIV/AIDS scourge, a withering demographic crisis manifested by a rapidly shrinking population, and runaway corruption that touches virtually every sector and gnaws at society’s fabric. In Russia, as in China, a system whose leadership operates by hoarding power and strictly controlling politics, policy, and information finds itself at a severe disadvantage when managing simmering societal grievances.

In order to acquire a deeper understanding of the forces at work in leading powers such as China and Russia, along with a set of other strategically important states, Freedom House examines their governments’ performance in Countries at the Crossroads, its annual survey of democratic governance.

Countries at the Crossroads provides detailed written analysis and comparative data on 60 critical, policy-relevant countries. The polities evaluated represent a range of systems: traditional or constitutional monarchies; one-party states or outright dictatorships; oil-rich “petrostates;" and states where democratic reforms have stalled. A new edition of Crossroads is published each year, with one set of 30 countries analyzed in odd-numbered years and the other 30 in even-numbered years. In this way, Crossroads covers an extensive set of countries while offering readers useful time series data, as well as comprehensive narrative evaluation of the progress and backsliding in each country.

Crossroads’ methodology examines in fine detail issues that illuminate the degree to which government authorities are meeting basic standards of democratic accountability. The survey examines four core dimensions of governance: public voice and accountability; civil rights; the rule of law; and anticorruption and transparency. Within these main thematic areas, 18 specific sub-areas are evaluated.

Corruption in the Absence of Democratically Accountable Institutions

The deficiencies the Crossroads analysis identifies in the Chinese and Russian systems do not by themselves suggest that either regime is in imminent danger of breakdown or implosion. Strong economic growth in both countries provides a considerable cushion for the state in the near to medium term. Russian and Chinese leaders are also quite adept at using the levers of state power to repress independent voices and institutions —with lethal brutality when necessary.

However, the reports do suggest that the inability of critical institutions to play a meaningful and independent role in these societies raises fundamental questions about whether genuine and enduring reform can be achieved, particularly in combating deeply entrenched corruption. Self-policing or reform by decree holds dim prospects for success in the absence of a well-functioning, independent judiciary, civil society, or news media, all of which are currently sidelined as independent actors in China and Russia.

The 2007 Crossroads report on China notes that over the past three decades, “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been reshaping the PRC into a market-based and globally integrated economy, society, and culture. It labels this project ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’” The report further observes that “while producing gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates that are among the world’s highest, the party’s strategy has led to the sort of severe inequality, weak social-welfare system, worker exploitation, job insecurity, and environmental degradation that is associated with capitalism at its worst.”

The Russian authorities’ current governance experiment is also built on soft sand. The Crossroads report on Russia observes that “by 2005, having endured significant rollbacks of electoral rights, Russia could no longer be considered a democracy at all according to most metrics,” and that “the country has come to resemble the autocratic regimes of Central Asia more than the consolidated democracies of Eastern Europe that have recently joined the European Union.”

One of the stubborn threads that runs through the Chinese and Russian systems is the hard line the authorities consistently take toward news media. The precise methods for controlling politically consequential media content differ somewhat in the two systems, though the effects are quite similar. The ability of news organizations to report independently on the performance of officials and other powerful interests, scrutinize policies, and cover public health and other critical issues is severely limited.

Control of information and politically consequential discourse is a dominant feature of both systems. In Russia, “the media remain tightly controlled by the presidential administration, and over the last seven years Russia has been one of the three most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist (behind Iraq and Colombia).” Under President Putin’s leadership, the news media, especially television, have been brought under the sway of the authorities in some ways reminiscent of the Soviet era.

In China, “the CCP views the media as an instrument to articulate and support its policies; to mobilize, unite, and divert the people; and to manage the impressions it gives to its own citizens and the outside world.”

With the Chinese and Russian economies deeply integrating into the global system, it is not enough to control domestic media. International reputation matters, too. Both China and Russia have enlisted the help of high-powered Western public relations firms for image management purposes and, in certain cases, to deal with looming crises. China in particular has sought Western consultancies to help manage the scrutiny that accompanies the hosting of the 2008 Olympics. The recent consumer-product scandals’ threat to the “Made in China” brand has also caused Chinese officials to enlist the help of outside image managers. PR management alone, however, is unlikely to ameliorate the deep, structural challenges these two systems confront.

The limits of cosmetic approaches to reform are visible in the pervasive corruption that has defied reform edicts and state-directed media campaigns in China and Russia. Not surprisingly, official corruption is one of the greatest burdens to the two systems—and one of the greatest threats to the leadership in these countries.

Corruption is often a symptom of other systemic pathologies. Since dominant powerholders wield effectively unchecked authority, existing mechanisms tend not to be sufficient for addressing corrupt practices. Crossroads findings note the glaring gap in the efforts to combat corruption at all levels, especially the grand corruption that finds its way into the countries’ most lucrative, strategic sectors. The judiciary, which should be one of the frontline defenses against corruption, is kept on a short leash. The Crossroads China report notes that the country’s “judiciary remains a tool of the CCP, and it rarely shows signs of independence or autonomy. The courts, including the Supreme People’s Court, are answerable to the National People’s Congress.”

Russia’s judicial system has been subjected to an increasingly harsh campaign of manipulation and control in which executive branch interference in political or economically consequential cases is a regular occurrence. President Putin’s “dictatorship of law” has not made headway against the corruption and bribery that pervade the judicial process and drain sound judgment and impartiality from court rulings. As a result, average Russians have little faith in the system and see little reason to address grievances through the courts. This lack of faith has prompted many Russian citizens to seek justice beyond Russia’s borders—in the European Court of Human Rights—where by mid-2007, 22,700 of the pending 99,600 cases, or 22.8 percent, were Russian, a 400 percent increase over figures from 2000.

Authoritarian Projection of Influence Abroad

China and Russia are also actively exerting influence abroad. China, for example, provides material and political support to odious regimes in Sudan, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe. Russia, for its part, works to undermine nascent democratic reform in neighboring countries such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Energy plays a pivotal role in these countries’ international approaches. Russia, rich in crude oil and natural gas, exerts influence in neighboring former Soviet states by using its energy resources to subsidize politically friendly, autocratic countries and pressure states that display disloyalty to the Kremlin. Energy hungry Beijing, on the other hand, is scouring the globe in pursuit of oil and gas to fuel its economy, and is willing to do whatever it takes to enter into energy deals with some of the world’s worst governments. There is little to suggest that the government in either one of these countries is yet prepared to act consistently as a “responsible stakeholder” on the international stage.

At the same time, both China and Russia crave the cachet of membership in Western and international organizations. The China report notes that China “sought to export revolution in the 1960s [but] now revels in its prestige as a prominent member of the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organization (WTO), its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.” Russia, for its part, in 2006 held the presidency of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations and the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, whose mandate is to promote human rights and democracy and uphold the rule of law in Europe. The country was recently selected to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

The Chinese and Russian models are being viewed carefully by leaders in a host of developing countries. Leaders in China and Russia have looked at each other’s experience, as well, and drawn certain conclusions about how most effectively to pursue their development and bolster regime security.

The challenges that China and Russia confront are complex and daunting. The authorities in these countries do their societies no favors by denying ordinary citizens and critical domestic institutions the opportunity to play a meaningful and sorely needed role in their countries’ political life. The governance of these countries is relevant not only to their citizens, however. In an integrated world, no country or person is entirely immune from the problems of its neighbors. In China’s case, public health pandemics, such as SARS and HIV/AIDS, do not respect national borders. The fallout from China’s polluted environment wafts over neighboring countries in Asia and as far as the west coast of the United States. The international community therefore does not have the luxury of remaining a passive observer on the fundamental issues of democratic governance in these two critical and strategically important countries.

Regional Review Of Select Countries From Crossroads 2007

Middle East and North Africa

In Iran, President Ahmadinejad was elected on the promise of bringing Iran’s oil wealth to the “dinner table” of ordinary Iranians. Instead, unemployment has risen along with inflation, and Iran’s small refining capacity—the country imports 40 percent of its gasoline, at $4 billion each year—has forced an easing of long-standing subsidies at the pump. Rationing implemented in 2007 now limits cars to less than a gallon a day. Meanwhile, Iran is in the throes of the harshest crackdown since the 1979 Islamist revolution, with women and student activists, media, and Iranian American scholars and aid workers in the crosshairs. The Crossroads 2007 evaluation of Iran noted the ongoing problem of interference in the democratic process by unelected bodies. The dominance of the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians was evident in the vetting process of candidates. The report found erosion in several areas from what were already weak scores. On rule of law, a decrease was registered on the basis of increased political interference by the executive branch and especially harassment and detention of lawyers for political activists or people charged with offenses supposedly endangering national security. Iran’s civil liberties record also deteriorated. National security is used as grounds for political arrests or surveillance. In 2007, four Iranian American dual citizens were arbitrarily detained in cases that attracted worldwide attention.

Egypt saw declines across a number of sectors. This was reflected in not-so-subtle manipulations of the electoral process in both the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005. The country also suffered a decline in effective and accountable government due to extralegal pressure and a constitutional change that resulted in the decline of the power of judges to monitor the executive (especially during elections). A repressive 2006 media law that sets forth 35 offenses punishable by prison, as well as restrictions on internet reporting, pulled down Egypt’s media freedom score. A decline in freedom of association was registered, the result of the heavy-handed tactics of security forces during the 2005 elections. These included imprisonment of Muslim Brotherhood members and particularly aggressive suppression of protests, with reported sexual battery of female protesters.

Sub-Saharan Africa

In Ethiopia, the past two years have featured a mix of advances and setbacks. Prior to the 2005 elections, Ethiopia saw a dramatic increase in civil society and media activity. Despite accusations from the opposition of fraud, intimidation, and disappearances, the run-up to the elections was more open than in previous instances, resulting in a small increase in the accountability and public voice score. The aftermath, however, sent the country back toward repression. Opposition-led protests concerning electoral grievances resulted in nearly 200 deaths by late 2005, along with mass detentions and the arrest of journalists, activists, and opposition members on allegations including treason and genocide. Since April 2007 many of these people have been released, acquitted, or pardoned. Nonetheless, repercussions are still felt by the press, civil society, and would-be opposition supporters. Media freedom remains highly restricted and most outlets now exercise self-restraint to avoid attention from the government. Meanwhile, corruption has been on the rise, as weak checks on the actions of public officials, conflicts of interest between the private and public sectors, and a lack of transparency impede progress in reducing graft.

Mauritania enjoyed the most significant positive change among the 30 countries examined in the survey. The country’s bloodless coup in August 2005, which ousted Colonel Maaouya Sid Ahmed Taya, initiated a transition to democracy that has the potential to fundamentally alter the political system. Since the coup, the conduct of elections and press freedoms have improved, and a liberalized political environment accounts for significant improvements in all of the country’s scores. Whether liberalization will be sustained or advanced remains uncertain, however. Mauritania still confronts a legacy of weak civilian control of the military, pervasive clientelism, and the marginalization of the country’s non-Arabic speaking communities. The most significant improvement was registered in the accountability and public voice section, where pre-election reforms, including a new electoral commission and census, as well as new rules for voting by the military, enhanced the process. Moreover, the state relaxed restrictions on civil society organization beginning in 2005. Media freedom improved based on a 2006 media law that eliminated some of the harshest previous forms of censorship and state control.


Bangladesh underwent a sharp drop in the accountability and public voice category as a result of the stalemate over parliamentary elections that developed in late 2006 and culminated in the military takeover of January 2007. Further erosion was registered due to the weakening of effective separation of powers during the coverage period. This included a concerted effort by political parties to increase their influence over judicial appointments and processes. Civil liberties also underwent a decline as a result of increased party beatings and mass arrests combined with decreased effectiveness in citizens’ means of redress.

In the Philippines, despite competitive elections over the past decade and a half, several features of the political system tarnish the quality of freedom, including rising concerns about the integrity of electoral institutions, civilian killings, and military unrest. These negative trends account for the declines the Philippines suffered over the Crossroads coverage period. Pressure on the media is among the challenges the country confronts. Although the Philippine media are free of official state censorship, journalists have faced increases in harassment by local politicians and powerful business interests. Killings of civilian activists, leftists, and church personnel continued between 2005 and 2006.

Democratic advances achieved in Thailand since the end of military rule in 1992 were abruptly reversed in September 2006 when a military junta, calling itself the Council for National Security (CNS), ousted the country’s divisive prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The CNS selected a former army commander, Surayudh Chulanont, as prime minister, abrogated the 1997 constitution, and established an unelected parliament. Although the coup leaders initially enjoyed popular support, promising a new constitution and elections, the country remains in crisis as Thaksin’s allies persist in their protests and the new government has not yet followed through on re-establishing democracy. Thailand underwent a significant drop on the Crossroads elections indicator due in large part to the coup but also to the progressive enfeeblement of democratic institutions earlier under the Thaksin regime, including the dominance of the Thai Rak Thai party and the dissolution of parliament in 2006. Between 2005 and 2007, political violence continued in Thailand’s southern border provinces, where the majority of citizens are ethnic Malay Muslims; by early 2007, over 2,000 people had been killed by either security forces or Islamist extremists.

Latin America

In Peru, institutional weakness continued to be a primary factor inhibiting more rapid development. The 2006 election did not result in substantially improved political party dynamics. Although the justice system began to show signs of improvement—reflected in a small boost in the rule of law category—Peruvians’ faith in such institutions as the police and judiciary remained very low. Anticorruption enforcement, although vastly improved from the 1990–2000 regime of Alberto Fujimori, was not strong enough to act as a credible deterrent to corruption. Impunity also remained the norm for human rights violations that occurred during the internal conflict of 1980–2000. Despite the difficulty of institutional reform, Peruvian GDP continued to climb rapidly, reaching 8 percent in 2006, and as of March 2007 President Alan Garcia’s approval ratings remained high.

In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe’s 2006 reelection victory, which followed a constitutional change in 2005 allowing him to run for a second term, was approved by international observers as free and fair. However, later in 2006 information emerged that seemed to provide proof of long-rumored links between paramilitaries and government officials. Subsequent investigations discovered paramilitary influence in the Congress, the national prosecutor’s office, the military, and the judiciary, highlighting the threats to the rule of law stemming from Colombia’s ongoing battle with rebel groups. These discoveries detracted from Uribe’s otherwise notable efforts to improve security and contain paramilitary factions, and caused Colombia’s scores to fall somewhat. In order to deal with its internal conflict, the government initiated talks with the National Liberation Army guerrillas and completed the demobilization of 30,000 members of the paramilitary known as the United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia. The demobilization occurred under the terms of the 2006 Justice and Peace law, which offered reduced sentences for former paramilitaries in return for the surrender of weapons and ill-gotten assets. Nonetheless, serious questions remained about the legislation’s perceived leniency and whether prosecutors were given enough time and resources to conduct adequate investigations.


Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Sanja Kelly is managing editor of Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance.


[1]. Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization’s top representative in China, quoted in David Barboza, “China Moves to Change Damaged Global Image,” New York Times, July 29, 2007.