Lionel Blackman reviews ‘Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes’ edited by Karrie J. Koesel, Valerie J. Bunce, and Jessica Chen

13 January 2021

By Lionel Blackman

Lionel Blackman reviews Citizens and the State in Authoritarian Regimes. Comparing China and Russia edited by Karrie J. Koesel, Valerie J. Bunce, and Jessica Chen Weiss. 344pp ISBN-9780190093488 (Oxford University Press USA, London, 2020)

The main title of this collection of academic essays suggests an examination of more than two authoritarian regimes. However, as the sub-title states, the contributing Russia and China expert authors analyse only Russia and China. Nevertheless, the tools of analysis herein deployed are undoubtedly useful in an examination of the nature of other authoritarian regimes around the world.

The editors chose to compare Russia with China as these States are the most powerful authoritarian regimes in the world. The ones that have the greatest capacity to shape the future of civilisation. In analysing the relations between citizens and the Putin regime in Russia and the CCP in China are we seeing alternative futures for today’s Western democracies? It may be scaremongering to suggest the West is vulnerable but as the recent anarchic dance with democracy in the United States shows, the citizens of the West cannot take constitutional democracy for granted. The power of social media (and elements of traditional media) to instil resolute mass belief in lies is a pathway to authoritarian rule.

Though I would rather not live under either authoritarian regime analysed the book draws the reader into a journey of exploration with the question, under which regime would you prefer to live?

November 2020. The Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department published a paper entitled “The Elements of the China Challenge: ‘Home to an extraordinary culture and to moral and political traditions stretching back thousands of years, China today is a great power governed by an authoritarian regime modelled on 20th-century Marxist-Leninist dictatorship’.

The different authors vary in emphasis but overall I was left with the sense that the analyses rest on present facts and realities with less emphasis on enduring  characteristics of the different peoples living centuries long in these two neighbouring territories.

The introduction argues: Authoritarian leaders need two things from the societies they rule. First, autocrats need their support, or at the very least their acquiescence. If citizens rebel, the leader can lose her job— and sometimes even her life. Authoritarian rulers, like their democratic counterparts, can be held accountable by their citizens, though different mechanisms are at work. In authoritarian states, leaders govern knowing that the public can rise up and depose them at virtually any time.

As events in Belarus in 2020 demonstrated you can have the IF fulfilled but the rise up needs to be really massive to be effective. So, I find the idea that authoritarian regimes necessarily are taking care of and listening to their people, to avoid their own revolutionary removal, as possibly unlikely. Is it possible that Russian and Chinese rulers seek to take care of and listen to their States’ majorities (at least) because it is their job to do so? The motivation being a positive one not a negative one.

The book undertakes its object in four chapters each containing several essays. The ground covered includes how threats to the regimes are pre-empted, the management of the media, the use of law (‘foreign agent’ and NGO laws with which readers of Rights in Russia are familiar) and labour rights of State workers in China, building public support and conclusions about the embrace of globalization.

The essays were completed before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the world and an interesting addition would be a comparison of how these distinct authoritarian regimes have responded. China appears to have been very successful. Bringing to bear on the problem its full authoritarian-socialist capabilities. But would I prefer to live there? 

Leave a Reply