Biden’s summit on democracy – briefing notes for Scott Morrison

Aug 16, 2021
 There was a longstanding view nurtured in the 60s and 70s that Western liberalism would inevitably take hold and reform our regional totalitarian states as prosperity rose and the capitalist system encouraged greater individualism. This hasn’t happened.

Dear Prime Minister, this is a complex issue.

A bit of background 

There was a longstanding view nurtured in the 60s and 70s that Western liberalism would inevitably take hold and reform our regional totalitarian states as prosperity rose and the capitalist system encouraged greater individualism. This hasn’t happened. To add insult to intellectual injury the assumption that a growth of totalitarianism in government would run interference with the free market and crimp economic growth hasn’t happened either. Here are some ideologically tough facts. Singapore has had impressive growth over a period when the democratic infrastructure has been thoroughly compromised. The west’s vainglorious attempt to save Vietnam from communism has ironically been followed by the creation of yet another Southeast Asian economic tiger. China under a communist regime has delivered the most spectacular of all economic growth. And even Malaysia notwithstanding monumental governance issues has achieved remarkably high rates of economic growth.

A regional alternative to democracy? 

There is therefore something of a model emerging here which you may wish to discuss with Joe. It could be characterised perhaps as a regional alternative to the democratic system. You could describe it to Joe as “Authoritarian free-market capitalism” (AFC). You might have to admit this critically important development has hardly been the centre of our attention in Australia obsessed as we are with issues of security. You might refer Joe to Geoff Miller’s article (P and I 5 August) which points out that fear of regional armed conflict has become somewhat overblown and that the real issues for the US should be regional governments’ “….ideas, competence and effective governance”…..just what this meeting is designed to discuss. For openers you can make the following points:

  • It is clear that for countries such as China, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam authoritarianism has not meant an absence of sensitivity to changing societal views and needs.
  • The Chinese government is an incessant poller and processor of public opinion.
  • China has a number of think tanks that are able to feed upwards their exploration of radical ideas and policies not necessarily open to public discussion.
  • China and other AFC governments’ strict control over social media no doubt assists them in avoiding the sort of rogue coagulation of extremist views which social media is delivering in western democracies.
  • In Singapore, an elite corruptionless public service has ably provided a level of sensitivity to public demands and views.

How important is culture for AFC governments? 

You could also note that in all four regional AFC countries the Chinese culture (and its Vietnamese derivate) is one that can be drawn on by the authoritarian governments in their forging of the underlying growth/ individual liberty trade-off which prioritises the longer term.

AFC downsides

You will of course want to raise AFC’s downsides. You can list three key issues.
  1. Rising income inequality is manifest in all four countries. But you will need to be honest and admit this is no less the case for most Western democracies and certainly for Australia. If you can, throw in a quick lesson in economics. To do so first (re?)read the groundbreaking work of French economist Thomas Piketty (and most other reputable economists) who are now showing that income inequality is a more or less inherent characteristic of the capitalism system. If it’s not too uncomfortable for you to share with Joe, also pick up the insights of Carl Marx who saw that capitalism embodied the very same trend. You can make a good deal out of the fact that AFC in the region hasn’t made much progress in addressing this issue. In doing so, make the following points. While Xi Jingping recently admitted a greater sharing of prosperity needed to be achieved, how exactly this would achieve was not spelt out. Similarly, the Vietnamese government has identified rapidly rising income inequality as an issue of concern but not how to address it. In the case of Singapore, income inequality is not much discussed perhaps reflecting in part inequalities generated by its dubious role as the hot money capital of Southeast Asia. Of course, do not get into the lack of any strategies in Australian and US to reduce income inequality. Suggest we give Western democracy and AFC equal marks on this.
  2. The second key issue is corruption which is can be said is systemic in Malaysia, Vietnam and China (and Singapore but only if its role as a hot money processing and tax avoidance centre is counted). You can be on a roll here by pointing out that, as for income inequality, there are as yet few indications these governments are putting in place policies that seriously address corruption. Of course, you may wish to avoid reference to the serious fracturing of our democratic systems through monetisation by powerful interest groups and that there is no reform agenda in sight for either Australia or the US.
  3. Thirdly there is some high moral ground to be taken by arguing that, for China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, the balance between repression and persuasion is by no means always achieved. You can also point out that much depends on the calibre of the authoritarian states’ leaders in the extent to which they overreach in exercising this power. You will no doubt want to throw in reference to Xi Jingping’s suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and of the Uighur minority as examples of this overreach. But for God’s sake don’t dilute the force of this powerful point by referring to BLM, pesky first nation issues and the four years of destructive overreach by Trump and certainly don’t get into how the US democratic system allowed this to happen.

AFC’s future performance 

Despite all these inherent problems with AFC systems you may have to explain why, in our region, it has delivered sustained and rapid economic growth with few signs this will not continue. You could point to the fact that in Vietnam and China the communist parties have acted as effective counterbalances to overreach by increasingly wealthy and powerful commercial sectors. For Singapore point to the balancing role played by the Prime minister and public service which dominate the power structure. For Malaysia note that while governance is poor indeed economic growth which is largely in the hands of the Chinese minority – has been generally quarantined. Finally, you might need to deal with, if raised, the fact that in countries such as China, public opinion polls show strong levels of overall satisfaction with the Government’s performance. If you wished, you could seek to counter by finding examples of how well in comparison you see our Australian Western democratic system delivering on what is, after all, the underlying raison d’etre of democracy – the wants of the vox populi. Of course, avoid any reference to COVID, integrity commissions,  tax reform, long term growth strategy or demands for an Australian climate change policy.
Good Luck.

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