As race riots engulf US and coronavirus toll soars, arc of history bends towards rise of authoritarian China

Sreemoy Talukdar

The arc of history is bending towards the rise of China. As 27 states and at least 200 cities including New York and Washington DC go under curfew in the United States, impacting more than 60 million residents, the collapse of the liberal democratic order in its bastion is happening right before our eyes.

On Thursday, an unprecedented 75,000 paramilitary forces €" called the National Guard €" were deployed across 31 states in the US. In contrast, there are roughly 9,000 US troops currently stationed in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq, as per ABC News.

While more than 10,000 have been arrested so far for protesting against racism and police brutality, the world has also seen widespread scenes of rioting, looting, violence, destruction of public and private properties on American streets. Allegations abound of police excesses against protesters and media.

Meanwhile, more than 1.8 million people have been affected by the coronavirus in the US, with 1,000 new deaths reported on Friday taking the overall death count to 1,08,000. There is widespread apprehension that nationwide protests will push up those numbers exponentially. 

The pandemic or the death of George Floyd may not have caused the bending of the arc away from "the American Century" but these epochal events would certainly hasten the global ascendancy of autocracy.

This is because the rise of liberal democracy as the world's most preferred political system was based not only on economic logic, but also on a moral foundation that now lies shaken.

As democracy thrived in the world after World War II championed by the influence, wealth and power of the United States, liberal hegemony rode on the wings of economic success, geopolitical appeal as well as in the notion that it is not necessary to trade political freedom for economic welfare.

The core appeal of liberal democracy, therefore, lay in its ability to foster astounding economic progress while preserving the values of freedom, political equality and civic rights.

As Yascha Mounk from Harvard University and Roberto Stefan Foa from University of Melbourne wrote in Foreign Affairs, "If citizens in India, Italy, or Venezuela seemed loyal to their political system, it must have been because they had developed a deep commitment to both individual rights and collective self-determination. And if Poles and Filipinos began to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy, it must have been because they, too, shared in the universal human desire for liberal democracy."

It is hard to argue in favour liberal democracy's 'moral superiority' when a US Senator recommends unleashing the 101st Airborne Division on protesting American citizens to tackle the "anarchy, rioting and looting" and President Donald Trump publicly endorses the idea on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Was Trump aware of the irony? Difficult to tell. The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on 4 June, 1989, when the Chinese authoritarian regime sent troops, tanks and butchered unarmed civilians who had gathered peacefully in Beijing (and also elsewhere) to demand democratic reforms.

The mowing down of civilians €" leaked documents reveal more than 10,000 were killed  €" has remained a permanent blot on China's history and a marker of the atrocities committed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Together with the crumbling of the USSR, it seemed as if the US and its political system has secured a decisive economic, cultural and ideological victory over the authoritarian system.

United States was thought to be global rule-shaper and the 'indispensable nation'. As the then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said in 1998, "We are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future€¦"

History moves in mysterious ways. Images of cops using tear gas and flash bangs to clear the crowd assembled near the White House so that Trump may walk over to a nearby church and pose with the Bible tear down America's moral authority.

When the US president threatens to "dominate the streets" and deploy US military to "defend the life and property of the residents"; when the credibility of Black Lives Matter movement is threatened by widespread images of looting, destruction and vandalism; when far-Left group Antifa unleashes violence €" the message that goes across is not just of the world's most powerful nation descending into chaos, but equally of a nation that has no legitimacy to preach the values of liberty and equality to the world.

It reveals the dark underbelly of a nation that has chosen to gloss over rather than honestly confront its racist past.

 

Structurally, militarily, financially, the US is still immensely powerful but current events are gnawing away its right to set standards for others. Unlike other nation-states that share its values of liberalism and democracy, what set the US apart was its evangelical eagerness to cast the world in its shadow.

Its leadership of the free world is now in question as it comes under relentless attack from the presumptive superpower and its well-organised propaganda machinery.

China has two motives. As the superpower-in-waiting, it wants to win the ideological battle and present itself as the custodian of a better culture. Two, it wants to strip the US of its discursive power. The second has become increasingly easier. The Trump administration has already come under criticism for its role and failure to lead a coordinated global response against the pandemic.

Images of protests and race riots in the US have sparked not only global outrage, but has also triggered copycat protests in many parts of the western world against racism in their own societies. As London, Berlin, Paris or Vancouver see huge demonstrations, it has become easy for China to call the liberal democratic system a failure, and American attacks on China for its decision to impose national security laws on Hong Kong instances of "hypocrisy". China can now fend off criticism for subverting autonomy in Hong Kong and oppressing pro-democracy protesters by drawing an equivalence with what's happening in the US. It is a false equivalence, but the US is losing the argument.

 

From @PDChina "Beneath Human Rights" #USAProtest#StandWithMinneapolis#dcblackoutpic.twitter.com/KyiG6BAk7M

€" Qingqing_Chen (@qingqingparis) June 1, 2020

The New York Times quoted a French journalist as saying "Beijing could not have hoped for a better gift€¦ The country that designates China as the culprit of all evils is making headlines around the world with the urban riots."

Chinese trolling betrays a sense of schadenfreude. To a certain extent this pushback is to be expected from a nation that has been at the receiving end of US animosity in diverse fields such as trade, technology, security, financial system and ideology.

The US not only identifies China as its strategic competitor, anti-China sentiment might be the primary agenda in upcoming US presidential polls. Understandably, China takes pleasure in US discomfort with an additional bonus of taking away its discursive power. After all, when American citizens are up in arms against their own government, tales of racial discrimination practiced by China become easier to deflect.

Beyond this trolling, Beijing has a deeper aim. It wants to also delegitimise America's role as the global superpower by also questioning the efficiency of its system. Winning this ideological battle against the champion of liberal democracy is its primary aim.

China has an opportune moment to build a narrative.

The pandemic has exposed the chinks in Beijing's armour, but it has exposed the western world's inefficiencies even more. The Trump administration's shambolic response to the pandemic stands in contrast with China which has recovered faster and been able to tame the virus and kickstart its economy. 

China knows well enough that with presidential elections around the corner, the US will be even more distracted than ever with domestic politics and it may give Beijing further chance to show how the liberal democratic system fosters division as opposed to its authoritarian model that seeks to bind the party, state and society as 'one'.

As Farah N Jan and Justin Melnick argue in The National Interest, China is rapidly gaining structural power to rival the US through a combination of "critical strategic partners" and "Sinocentric initiatives" such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and global infrastructural projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.

Finally, the very economic logic behind the liberal democratic order €" where nations wanted to copy American model and replicate its economic success €" has been put to doubt by a version of market economy and globalisation that has fostered inequality as businesses pursues economic efficiency at the cost of everything else.

Having benefitted by gaming the system, China now has turned the logic on its head.

The great western argument that economic openness will lead to political openness in China has been breathtakingly inverted by Beijing to show that democracy is not a prerequisite for economic prosperity, and authoritarianism may not only address income inequalities but also achieve a more harmonious society.

The contrast with a polarised,> unequal American society is laid bare for all to see. Right at this moment, the US seems to be the biggest advertisers of the Chinese system.

Also See: George Floyd protests in US: With Donald Trump in the White House, the fight for racial justice gets nastier

George Floyd protests: Curfew imposed, more police personnel deployed in New York City as protesters loot stores across Manhattan

George Floyd killing: To bring about real change, politics and protests are both needed, writes Barack Obama in blog post

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