By Kumar David –
The resilience of authoritarianism occupies much of political discourse today. Discussion spreads from Trump’s debasement of American electoral democracy, to Modi’s barefaced Hindutva intolerance, to a spate of dictators, most recently Belarus’s dictator-incumbent for life Lukashenko. The growing list is thrown into bold relief by the backdrop of Trump, Modi, Putin and Brazil’s Balsonaro. Despite common features every case is different and specifics are as enlightening as generalities. Today’s column features Chinese history, Lanka, and US developments. I will dwell on the strong centralised state across dynasties in China and the continuity of this into the Communist present. I have benefitted from the first three chapters of Lee Kwan Yew’s One Man’s View of the World, Strait Times Press, Singapore (2013). At times I have accepted and at times rejected his insights but it is not possible within the confines of this column to point out which is which. I urge readers to read the book because LKY’s grasp of the ‘big-picture’ is unequalled among post-WW2 leaders.
This quote, edited a little for length, gives LKY’s approach to the history of China. “For millennia the Chinese have believed that the country is safe only when the centre is strong. A weak centre leads to confusion and chaos, a strong one to peace and prosperity. Every Chinese knows this cardinal principle drawn from history and there will be no deviation from this. This mindset predates communism”. From this premise LKY concludes that a strong centralised state (called authoritarianism in modern discourse) is endemic to Chinese civilisation and psyche. He sees Western style democracy as unlikely to take root and expects the one-party PRC system to last for long. Participatory government may evolve sui generis but “China will evolve its institutions and systems in a distinctly Chinese way. Whatever their reforms one thing will not change; it will retain a strong centre”.
Let me pick two graphs from Ray Dalio’s chapter 9 of an online series “The Changing World Order”. The graphs measure dynastic power in China. Fig.1 is “relative”, that is progress through time. Numerals 1 to 6 stand for stages in evolution. Stage 1 is the beginning of a new order, stage 2 consolidation, 3 is peace, prosperity and the dynasty forging ahead, followed by 4, profligacy, overreach in resource use and spending. Stage 5 is when the economy enters a tailspin and internal conflict begins. Finally stage 6 denotes civil strife and collapse. Every civilisation has its peculiarities and no two can be expected to replicate each other but in a rough way we can say that the USA today is between stages 4 and 5. I have referred to Trumpism as proto neo-fascism many times before. Well we can drop proto now; armed Trump instigated neo-fascists have starred attacking the homes of electoral officials.
The more interesting illustration is Fig.2 which is an “absolute” scale relating the dynasties to global power. A word about the scales; in both graphs, presentation begins with the Tang Dynasty (618 to 900AD) called the Golden Age, well after the earliest dynasties and does not include Confucius (551-479 BC). RC stands for Republic of China after Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 democratic revolution which ended Dynastic rule. What is relevant to my discussion of Chinese authoritarianism are the peaks and troughs. The vertical scale is all-time rank. I presume that 1.0, the all-time max, would be the British Empire or US Imperialism at their global zenith. The USA, if sketched into the graph, would be at 1.0 from the end of WW2 to the mid-1970s, then it would slide down, with a pip-up from 1989 for five years after the end of Soviet an East European communism, and then resume its decline, ranking between 0.8 and 0.9 today.
Fig 2 underlines LKY’s point. The end of the Tang Dynasty due to war-lord uprisings and peasant revolts, wrecked the centralised state leading to a chaotic Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The calamity caused suffering, sorrow and hunger until, out of this chaos, Song Emperors fused a new dynasty half a century later. Yuan, the rule of the Mongols, began with Marco Polo’s fabled Great Khan, Kublai, grandson of legendary Genghis. Despite the achievements of the Mongols, Dalio rates it as bad because it was a foreign occupation and Kublai’s military exploits caused big losses of life and wealth. The downfall of the Qing (Manchurian) Dynasty is in part due to a weakening of the centre from about 1830, but also due to foreign (Western) invasions; the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) humbled China. This storyline underlines why hopes of prosperity and fear of chaos drive the desire for a strong centralised state. In conversations with Chinese in Hong Kong and the Mainland, I know of no one of any political hue, who wishes to see a weaker less cohesive China.
Only fools extend the experiences of history to countries or periods to which they have no relevance. My aim is to illustrate the difference of China’s dynastic story from Lanka. From the end of the Polonnaruwa period, about 1300AD, our history is incomparably different – that is a difference spanning 700 years. From middle-late Anuradhapura period, through Chola rule and in the Polonnaruwa era there were similarities; a hydraulic civilisation, though on a far smaller scale – a quarter of Lanka’s landmass – and the similarity of a centralised sate. Colonisation changed it all, and Lanka after independence is a diametrically opposite political milieu from before. Our ethos of the last half-century has been liberal democracy. JR’s brief Bonapartism and Gotabhaya’s effort to impose authoritarian rule are deviations within the big picture. The former failed, the latter will fall flat when the masses now toadying to racist and religious muck awake. Gotha’s cack-handed attempt to dismantle the Public Utilities Commission and his Health Minister’s highhanded sacking of Medical Council members, undoubtedly in consultation with him, have caused outrage. He is now on the backfoot, attempting to force resignation of PUC members because he has no power to abolish it and his attempt is anti-democratic. I have had plenty of differences with PUC decisions but attempts to abolish it unconstitutionally and anti-democratically must be resisted. Gotha’s authoritarianism is coming a cropper; the masses may be asses but past practice is missing
Given 70 years of liberal democracy, comparison with the time-honoured central state in China makes Gotha’s authoritarian exertions seem like farting against thunder. Apples don’t flourish in ground prepared for oranges. Nonetheless it is not a cockeyed President throwing his weight around but livelihood issues that will finally agitate the masses. China’s economy is doing well and more than six hundred million have been pulled out of poverty. People see no reason to upset the applecart and endanger prosperity. China’s authoritarians and bureaucrats (Communist Mandarins) are smart, but Gotha has surrounded himself with jackboots and blockheads. The outlook for Sri Lanka is grim. It’s very different tunnels that the two are peering into. The authoritarian cock won’t fight in this corner.
What could falsify my projections is a massive and catastrophic annulment of secularism and democracy in India if Hindutva fascism overruns the country. The chips are down, the gloves are off, the Modi-Amit Shah faction of the BJP and a cow-belt religious-opium besotted, Muslim-hating, secularism-spurning populist mass is mobilising. Unification and organisation of opposition to Hindutva neo-fascism is nowhere near what is needed. Therefore, external circumstances that could facilitate authoritarianism in Sri Lanka cannot be ruled out.
I have argued previously that “Trump is the last warning” meaning Trumpism augurs neo-fascism. He is an incubus who, with his Republi-can’t toadies (the party majority) and goons reminiscent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts (Sturmabteilung or Stormtroopers), is trashing electoral institutions, seeking to subvert polls and subjecting the country to an unending stream of Gobblesian lies. Is my last warning too late, is a fight to the finish already upon America? Yes and no. The final fight in on for sure; but a majority of people and constitutional institutions are probably strong enough to throw back the challenge. If the results of a bourgeois democratic presidential election are overthrown in America it would be mana from heaven for authoritarians and authoritarians-in-waiting in all continents. Institutions and courts have been resilient so far and stood up to the wrecking-ball, but damage is being done. Though the US seems to have weathered the storm so far, the bigger setback is not Trump who can be written off as bonkers, but tens of millions of Republi-can’ts who live in an alternative universe. They damn the very ideals they deem precious in the land of the brave and the home of the free. It is not Chinese dynasties but the grip of the incubus, tightening on the American throat and serving as an example to copycats elsewhere, in societies pledged to bourgeois-democracy and a liberal ethos, that is the peril.