China Review News, Beijing, June 22. (Commentator Tian Wenlin) The Middle East is presently immersed in political turmoil. Particularly the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell and those in Libya and Yemen are in jeopardy. Political transformation of the Middle East has become an agenda item. Many believe that Middle Eastern countries transitioning to democracy will create a better future for the Middle East, so that seems good, but in reality, it is overly simplistic.
Recently I went to a meeting at the Institute of World History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to discuss the situation in West Asia and North Africa. Concluding the discussion, Zhang Shunhong, Director of the Institute of World History, raised a very interesting question: in order to maintain its world hegemony the United States has always been hiding good things that can help it to maintain its hegemony such as high-tech and advanced weapons in fear that others may learn how to use them. The only exception is “democracy.” If “democracy” is really the secret of its national prosperity, why has the United States suddenly become so generous, always sparing no effort to promote democracy everywhere? This question is indeed thought-provoking.
Democracy is a good thing in theory. We discuss everything before taking action, and we respect and follow the majority opinion. Obviously it is much better than one person being arbitrary and going his own way, but in fact, the risks and costs when Third World countries rush to democratize are far greater than its potential benefits.
According to statistics, there are more than 220 countries and regions in the world. Except for very few socialist countries, almost all of the rest engage in capitalism following the Western democratic system, and a new round of so-called “democratization.” However, it is always the same twenty-some countries that are relatively affluent. The rest of over 190 countries remain largely the same and even descend further into turmoil and poverty.
This is related to the specific historical background of Third World political development. In Western countries, industrialization, political modernization, and national integration arrived one by one. However, most Third World countries face these challenges almost simultaneously. In general, before a country really solves the livelihood problem of its people, its priority has to be committed to economic development and to emphasizing collective discipline and hard work. The development of democracy is connected to personal freedom. Therefore promotion of democracy and the resulting increase in personal freedom, in fact, means the dispersion of political authority and deviation from the major task of economic development.”
In other words, democratization is not the most urgent task for these countries. Thus, political development is often listed behind economic development, national unity, and the security of the regime. It is not difficult to understand why authoritarian regimes are mostly concentrated in third world countries.
In fact in almost all Western powers, during their rise, it was the class that represented advanced productivity that dominated. Invariably they all established a “strong government” to provide powerful political protection. Looking back at world history, one will find, without much difficulty, that almost all of the countries in the second round of industrialization achieved modernization under authoritarian regimes. Black people in the United States won the right to vote in 1965. In Switzerland, it was not until 1971 that its women gained the right to vote and Switzerland truly achieved universal suffrage.
In modern times, some scholars have compared the historical experiences of South Korea, Brazil, India, Nigeria, and other countries.  They concluded, “Effective states in the late development regions generally were established prior to the rise of an industrialized economy. This was because state intervention for the purpose to support profiting by investors has proved to be the prerequisite for the industrial rise of late developing countries.” The democrats therefore, who know nothing but to copy the Western political system without the patience to allow history to accumulate, are those that Lenin described as “wanting to wash the fur but not putting the fur into the water.”
From a practical point of view, in most cases the Third World countries eager to transition to democracy have not only failed to expand political participation, but have dragged the country into a state of political decay. In this regard, the lessons of the former Soviet Union and Iraq are the most profound. The Soviet Union was founded in accordance with Lenin’s principle of democratic centralism, setting up a centralized government where the political party and the state were one entity. Despite repeated criticism, the indisputable fact is that this model allowed Russia, “the weakest link in the chain of capitalism,” to rise to the status of a superpower neck and neck with the United States. Especially, Stalin’s iron fist rule “transformed a vast backward agrarian country into a modern industrial power.”
Churchill once commented with fairness on Stalin, saying, “Stalin came to Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons.” Instead, Gorbachev came to power preaching “democratization” and “new thinking.” Starting in l989, he held free elections, which, as a result, “precipitated the cumulative and irreversible erosion of the core of the Party-State system,” and provided an opportunity for the Baltic Sea and the Caucasus republics to mobilize the national independence movement. Eventually it led to the disintegration of the country.
“Democratic transformation” in Iraq is also a political tragedy. Before the Iraq war, the main problem of Saddam Hussein’s regime was that its ruling base was narrowing but the country’s political effectiveness remained strong. “This regime is different from the Shah of Iran, the Saudi monarchy, and even the Egyptian regime, in that it had a formidable discipline over those in power.” With this advantage of effectiveness, if one day Iraq were to go back to the path where the regime works with the people, it would still have the possibility of a comeback. However, the so-called parliamentary democracy established after the U.S. occupation of Iraq has apparently taken care of the interests of the various Iraqi factions, but it greatly destroyed the government’s administrative efficiency.
That country is in urgent need of development, iron rule, and centralization, but the current administration is trapped in religious conflicts and unable to make any decision on major issues. The best scenario for the future would be nothing more than maintaining a weak regime. It would be difficult to restore the powerful position it previously held.
It has become more and more difficult to maintain strongman politics in the current tide of political change in the Middle East. The “fourth wave” of democratization apparently cannot be stopped. However, look at the current war-torn Liberia, as well as political unrest in Yemen. No matter how you look at its future, one feels immensely pessimistic. There is not the slightest indication that these countries will become better and better.
If lack of democracy is considered to be lesions in one’s body, then the rise and fall of a country would be the life and death of a person. Of course it is a good thing to remove the lesion, but the premise is not to take life. This improvement is the so-called “Pareto optimal.” It is the same for democratization. If the price of democratization is the decay of a country, we would rather not to have it.
 China Review News, “We Would Rather Not Have Democracy that Leads to a Country’s Decline,” June 22, 2011. http://gb.chinareviewnews.com/doc/1017/3/6/6/101736673.html?coluid=1&kindid=0&docid=101736673&mdate=0622001856.
 It appears to refer to Atul Kohli and his book, State-Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery (2004). The quote is translated from the Chinese; it is not the original English from the book.