NEW DELHI – Hopes for change have been aroused by Barack Obama’s history-making visit to Cuba, the first by a U.S. president since that small island-nation’s revolution established the first communist state in the Western Hemisphere in 1959. The United States and Cuba reopened their embassies in 2015, four years after Cuban President Raul Castro began incrementally implementing limited economic reforms.
Some analysts are hoping that democracy will follow capitalism into Cuba. But can democracy and communism go together?
Where communists monopolize power or dominate the political scene, a transition to democracy needs more than capitalism to proceed. Nothing better illustrates this than the world’s largest and oldest autocracy, China, which has risen dramatically as a world power by blending market capitalism and political monocracy. The Chinese Communist Party — which boasts 88 million members, more than Germany’s total population — dominates the country’s political, economic and social life.
With its ideological mask no longer credible, the party employs various instruments to preclude the emergence of any organized opposition. In fact, a 2013 party circular known as “Document No. 9” listed seven threats to the party’s leadership that President Xi Jinping intends to eliminate, including espousal of “Western constitutional democracy,” promotion of “universal values” of human rights, encouragement of “civil society,” “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s past, and endorsement of “Western news values.”
Unlike China or Cuba, the Himalayan country of Nepal, led by a communist-dominated government, boasts national elections. Communist parties have secured the largest share of the popular vote in elections since Nepal reached a peace deal with Maoist rebels a decade ago and then became a federal democratic republic by abolishing the monarchy and converting itself from a Hindu kingdom into a secular state.
Yet Nepal illustrates the insufficiency of national elections and economic liberalization for ensuring a successful democratic transition. Thanks to its prolonged political and constitutional crises, Nepal remains in a state of such political flux that it risks turning into a failed state.
Political freedom is unlikely to come to Cuba or China as long as the highest priority there remains on maintaining a Leninist one-party state.
Vietnam and Laos — two other countries that, like China, officially claim to be communist while practicing capitalism — have also dashed hope for market forces to create a freer flow of ideas and to gradually open up autocratic political systems thriving on private enterprise.
Vietnam and Laos began decentralizing economic control and encouraging private enterprise in the late 1980s, and now rank among Asia’s fastest-growing economies. Yet their one-party systems have maintained tight control on political expression.
Political repression persists in Vietnam, a member of the 12-country, U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. Vietnam’s reform-minded Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung recently failed in his bid to become the party general secretary (the country’s supreme leader), with the 12th National Congress reelecting incumbent Nguyen Phu Trong to a second five-year term.
Capitalism actually strengthens a communist state’s capacity to more effectively employ technology and other resources for internal repression and information control. One classic example is the notorious “Great Firewall of China,” a government operation that screens and blocks Internet content, creating a politically sanitized information realm for citizens.
China’s fixation on weiwen, or stability maintenance, has resulted in it becoming the world’s only important country whose official internal-security budget is larger than its official national-defense budget.
Since assuming office, Xi has further tightened the flow of information. He has increasingly muzzled the media and suppressed data that could hurt Chinese stocks or currency at a time when China confronts slowing economic growth and turbulent markets.
Economic travails indeed are serving as justification for Xi to tighten his grip on power in the face of potent political enemies at home. Xi recently asked journalists to pledge “absolute loyalty” to the party and closely follow its leadership in “thought, politics and action.” A state-run newspaper, warning that “the legitimacy of the party might decline,” said the “nation’s media outlets are essential to political stability.” Meanwhile, the risk-taking Xi has shown utter disregard for international norms in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
The point is that, in countries where communists call the shots, a free market for goods and services does not generate a marketplace of ideas.
There is no linear parallel in a communist state between rising prosperity through economic liberalization and political pluralism. Countries that liberalize economically do not necessarily liberalize politically, especially when political conditions remain adverse to change. This suggests that democracy and communism cannot go hand-in-hand.
As an ideology, communism may have lost its moorings, yet it remains antithetical to democracy, because it is centered on monopolizing political power. In all the communist-governed states, cloistered oligarchies have emerged as the original ideology has given way to new means to retain political power, including family lineage, network of connections, corruption and ruthless self-promotion. Indeed, as underscored by China’s Document No. 9, communists view democracy as their biggest threat.
Let’s be clear: China’s spectacular rise as a global power in just one generation has spawned a new political model that represents the first direct challenge to liberal democracy since Nazism’s rise — authoritarian capitalism.
Communism was never a credible alternative to liberal democracy but authoritarian capitalism is. Through its success story, China advertises that authoritarian capitalism is a more rapid and smoother path to prosperity and stability than the tumult of electoral politics and the constant tussle between the executive branch and the legislature in democracies. Other autocratic states draw encouragement from the Chinese model.
More broadly, at a time when democratic and free-market principles have come under pressure, there is a need for an international debate on a fundamental issue — why the global spread of democracy has stalled.
Obama’s Cuba visit, like his historic 2012 Myanmar trip, has marked the end of an imprudent U.S. policy to keep the country punitively isolated. And just as his Myanmar trip led to the relaxing of U.S.-led sanctions, his Havana visit could open the way to easing or lifting the 55-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. But politically, Cuba has little in common with Myanmar, a military-dominated state that this month appointed a civilian as its president.
To believe that the Obama-initiated rapprochement with Cuba would help to usher in open politics there amounts to learning no lesson from the mistake the U.S. made on China since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War.”