A military junta seized power in Myanmar in February, triggering ongoing popular protests met by violent force, U.S. sanctions, and now a special summit on Saturday by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Meanwhile, an increasingly autocratic China is cracking down harshly on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, arresting 36 activists in March and sentencing nine of them to prison in mid-April. Thailand’s military-dominated government proposed a new law this month to exert greater control over civil-society organizations. Across Southeast Asia, the resurgence of authoritarian rule only makes it more likely that Freedom House will in 2021 record a decline in its global measures of democracy for a 16th consecutive year. Is democracy failing in the world?

According to Christian Welzel—a professor of political science at Leuphana University in Germany, the former president of the World Values Survey Association, and the author of a recent study of authoritarianism’s long-term prospects for the Journal of Democracy—it isn’t. Even though we’re seeing multiple examples in Southeast Asia of a trend toward expanding authoritarianism and contracting democracy, this trend appears to Welzel to be a predictable step backward in the course of a much longer and more durable arc of democratic progress. Data from values surveys reveal that people worldwide express more and more support for emancipative values: freedom, individual choice, and equality of opportunity. And as Welzel sees it, when younger people adopt these values, they tend to keep them throughout their lives.

Michael Bluhm: What’s really going on in Southeast Asia?

Christian Welzel: We have a wave of “autocratization” right now in the world. There’s a democratic recession. Over the last 120 years, we clearly had a democratic ascension—an upward rise. But it was always happening in waves, so there were setbacks. You go two steps forward and one step back. And now we are in a cycle where we have a step-back period.

It’s connected to changes in the international scenery, with Russia’s anti-Western turn under Putin and China now becoming more aggressive in promoting its own ambitions. The international scene has changed dramatically from the situation that we had after the Cold War.

After the Cold War, Western countries were dominant in also defining how international aid is scheduled and then tied to conditions of electoral contestation and human-rights performance. You had this phase of international democracy promotion, which led to some countries democratizing where this was not backed by the culture. It was the structure of the international system that incentivized many elites in many countries, to get access to international aid and polish their international reputation and world public opinion. Many countries democratized which were not mature for this, given the condition of the population. What we see now is a regression to the mean.

In a book I published with Ron Inglehart in 2005, we plotted the level of democracy against what we already called emancipative values. And there were a couple of outliers—countries like Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania—that were more democratic than the emancipative values in these countries would otherwise suggest. These are exactly the countries that are backsliding.

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Now we have autocracy promotion. China’s Silk Road initiative has primarily economic motivations, but the countries that are getting trapped into the Silk Road initiative are also getting supported in their regime when it’s autocratic.

Now we have a completely different situation, so that leaders in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines—everywhere where we have populists in power—feel emboldened by having an alternative source of support, so they do not have to rely on Western powers so much anymore. There’s China or Russia as an alternative ally.

We nevertheless observe that the emancipative values are on the rise in all regions in the world. When we look at younger to older generations, we know for sure that this is not just the lifecycle pattern, in the sense that younger people are always more enthusiastic and idealistic, and, as they turn older, become more conservative and then drop off their emancipatory ideals. This is not what we see in our data at all.

Bluhm: Is it just the strengthening of China and Russia that explains the trend toward authoritarianism? Are there other current conditions that are causing the decline in democracy and the resurgence of authoritarianism?

Welzel: One thing is the international scenery, with Russia and China becoming more prominent—and they are autocracies. This emboldens autocrats all over the world.

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