The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that actually chooses the leader. In today’s China (as in the old Soviet Union), it consists of all voting members of the Communist Party; in Saudi Arabia’s monarchy it is the senior members of the royal family; in Great Britain, the voters backing members of parliament from the majority party.
Strange as it may seem, the same ideas and subtle differences that held true in San Francisco can be applied to illiberal governments like Zimbabwe, China, and Cuba, and even to the more ambiguous sorts of governments like current-day Russia or Venezuela or Singapore.
For example, a married couple in the United States pays no income tax on the first $17,000 they earn. At that same income, a Chinese couple’s marginal tax rate is 45 percent.
A few civic-minded autocrats slip a little into secret accounts, preferring to fend off the threat of revolt by using their discretionary funds (the leftover tax revenue not spent on buying coalition loyalty) to invest in public works. Those public works may prove successful, as was true for Lee Kwan Yew’s efforts in Singapore and Deng Xiaoping’s in China. They may also prove to be dismal failures, as was true for Kwame Nkrumah’s civic-minded industrial program in Ghana or Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, which turned out to be a great leap backwards for China.
中文版P45：处理方式删除，Great Leap Forward 即大跃进。
Equally, he and many others must have known that it was much better to cross swords with Gorbachev, an intellectual reformer, than with such contemporaries as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire or even Deng Xiaoping of China. Deng, after all, used ruthless force to end the prodemocracy uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the United States, for example, a couple with one child and an income under about $32,400 pays no income tax. If their income were, say, $20,000 they would receive $1,000 from the federal government to help support their child. In China, a family with an income of $32,400 is expected to pay about $6,725 in income tax.
His Chinese counterpart, Huang Guangyu, also known as Wong Kwong Ku, fared little better. Starting with nothing but $500 and a street cart, Guangyu created Gome, the largest electrical retailer in China. He was repeatedly ranked as China’s richest individual—until he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for bribery. It is likely that he was guilty since bribery is commonplace in Chinese business dealings. It is also likely that he and others who have been prosecuted for corruption in China were “chosen for political reasons.”
Hobbes was only half right. It is true, as Hobbes’s believed, that happy, well-cared-for people are unlikely to revolt. China’s prolonged economic growth seems to have verified that belief (at least for now). Keep them fat and happy and the masses are unlikely to rise up against you.
Indeed, a common refrain among small-coalition rulers is that the very freedoms, like free speech, free press, and especially freedom of assembly, that promote welfare-improving government policies are luxuries to be doled out only after prosperity is achieved and not before. This seems to be the self-serving claim of leaders who keep their people poor and oppressed. The People’s Republic of China is the poster boy for this view. When Deng Xiaoping introduced economic liberalization to China in the 1980s, experts in wealthy Western countries contended that now China’s economy would grow and the growth would lead to rapid democratization. Today, more than thirty years into sustained rapid growth we still await these anticipated political reforms. Growth does not guarantee political improvement but neither does it preclude it. The Republic of China (aka Taiwan) and the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) are models of building prosperity ahead of democracy. Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China certainly is not fond of promoting either of those countries’ experiences.
A far better measure of leaders’ interest in education is the distribution of top universities. With the sole exceptions of China and Singapore, no nondemocratic country has even one university rated among the world’s top 200. Despite its size, and not counting universities in Hong Kong, which were established under British rule before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the best-ranked Chinese university is only in 47th place despite China’s opportunity to draw top minds from its vast population. The highest ranking Russian university, with Russia’s long history of dictatorship, is 210th.
A smart democrat, of course, tries to avoid such troubles, using eminent domain only when it benefits many people, especially members of the democrat’s constituency (the influentials). It is incredible to see how easily leaders can take people’s property in the People’s Republic of China and how hard it is to do the same in Hong Kong. When essentials are few, pretty much anything goes.
Massive construction projects, like the Aswan Dam in Egypt and China’s Three Gorges Dam, are very much like Mobutu’s power grid.
中文版P178：处理方式删除，Three Gorges Dam 即三峡大坝。
The comparison of Iran and Chile is far from unusual. China, like Chile, suffered a 7.9 earthquake of its own. It struck in May 2008, bringing down many shoddily constructed schools and apartment buildings, killing nearly 70,000. Even accounting for variations in Chile’s and China’s populations and incomes, it is impossible to reconcile the difference between China’s death toll and Chile’s, except by reflecting on the incentives to enforce proper building standards in democratic Chile—incentives missing in autocratic China and Iran. And lest it is thought these are special cases, it is worth noting that democratic Honduras had a 7.1 earthquake in May 2009, with 6 deaths and Italy a 6.3 in April 2009 with 207 deaths.
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in China mirrored Khrushchev and Gorbachev, but with an important difference. All of these leaders seem to have been initially motivated by the sincere desire to improve their economy. All seemed to have recognized that failing to get their economy moving could pose a threat to their hold on power. But unlike Mao, Mikhail, and Nikita, Deng belongs squarely in the hall of fame. Like them, he was not accountable to the people and, like them, he was not hesitant to put down mass movements against his rule. The horrors of Tiananmen Square should not be forgotten. But unlike his fellow dictators, he actually had good ideas about how to improve economic performance.
Deng and Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew are surely among the contemporary world’s two greatest icons of the authoritarian’s hall of fame. They did not sock fortunes away in secret bank accounts (to the best of our knowledge). They did not live the lavish lifestyles of Mobutu Sese Seko or Saddam Hussein. They used their discretionary power over revenue to institute successful, market-oriented economic reforms that made Singaporeans among the world’s wealthiest people and lifted millions of Chinese out of abject poverty.
At first, a few especially bold individuals may rise up in revolt. They proclaim their intention to make their country a democracy. Every revolution and every mass movement begins with a promise of democratic reform, of a new government that will lift up the downtrodden and alleviate their suffering. That is an essential ingredient in getting the masses to take to the streets. Of course, it doesn’t always work.
The Chinese communists, for instance, declared the formation of a Chinese Soviet Republic on November 7, 1931. They said of their newly declared state,
It is the state of the suppressed workers, farmers, soldiers, and working mass. Its flag calls for the downfall of imperialism, the liquidation of landlords, the overthrow of the warlord government of the Nationalists. We shall establish a soviet government over the whole of China; we shall struggle for the interests of thousands of deprived workers, farmers, and soldiers and other suppressed masses; and to endeavor for peaceful unification of the whole of China.
Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of Kenya’s independence movement and its first head of state, likewise declared during a meeting of the Kenya African Union (KAU) on July 26, 1952:
Many revolutions end up simply replacing one autocracy with another. On some occasions the successor regime can actually be worse than its predecessor. This might well have been the case with Sergeant Doe’s deposition of Liberia’s True Whig government or Mao’s success against Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang government in China.
中文版P280：处理方式删除，Chiang Kai Shek 即蒋介石。
As might be expected, given these facts and the incentives they suggest, instances of 200 or more people dying in earthquakes is much more common in autocracies than democracies.
Not all disasters are equal in the eyes of autocrats. Dictators are particularly wary of natural disasters when they occur in politically and economically important centers. Disaster management in China emphasizes this point. When an earthquake struck the remote province of Qinghai in 2010, the Chinese government’s response was, at best, halfhearted. In contrast, its handling of disaster relief in the wake of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan won the approval of much of the international community. The differences are stark and driven by politics. The Sichuan quake occurred in an economically and politically important center where a massed protest could potentially threaten the government. Qinghai is remote and of little political importance. Protest there would do little to threaten the government. The government did much less to assist people who could not threaten them.
Common threads run through each of these democratizers—common threads that are absent from revolutions that replaced one dictator with another, such as occurred under Mao Zedong in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya.
Sure, places like Singapore and parts of China prove that it is possible to have a good material life with limited freedom—yet the vast majority of the evidence suggests that these are exceptions and not the rule. Economic success can postpone the democratic moment but it ultimately cannot replace it.