Can autocrats tolerate citizen participation?
What are the lessons the world’s dictators are drawing from the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East? The most obvious and the most depressing is to shoot first and ask questions later. As in Tiananmen in 1989, and Tehran in 2009, the lesson of Bahrain and Syria — at least so far — is that regimes that have the will and the political unity to crack down on protesters can stay in power. (That bitter conclusion, by the way, is one reason the battle in Libya is so important: if Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal repression of his own people works, autocrats around the world will have more evidence of the efficacy of massacre.)
Robert B. Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, is urging us all to learn something quite different and more cheering from a political transformation he believes is as profound as the 1848 “springtime of nations.” In a powerful speech he delivered in Washington this week and in an interview afterward with me and my colleague Lesley Wroughton, Zoellick argued that even dictators must empower their citizens — or risk facing their wrath in their local Tahrir Squares.
“Let’s take it to the ground in the Middle East and North Africa,” Zoellick said. “If you’re a transition leader or somebody that is going to be trying to run for election in Tunisia or Egypt, doesn’t it make sense to try to figure out, ‘How can I engage these people that were in the street? How can I connect them to the development process?”’
Zoellick admitted that reaching out to the rebels might not be every autocrat’s immediate impulse: “Now, the first instinct for some might be, ‘I don’t want to cause any turmoil. So, in a sense, let’s go back to government-controlled systems.”’ But knee-jerk repression, he argued, was the wrong reaction — even from the point of view of an authoritarian ruler intent on staying in charge.
“The lesson is that it’s been very expensive, and it hasn’t really worked,” he said. “It certainly didn’t work in the socialism of Central and Eastern Europe. So, if that is a dead end, if the idea is that top-down development, getting the macroeconomic statistics right, that by itself doesn’t work, how do you move beyond what I referred to as partial modernization?”
If you believe in democracy as a just political system, as well as one that delivers good economic results, there is something more than a little dissatisfying about Zoellick’s suggestion that autocrats can save their bacon through “citizen participation” — a milquetoast phrase that offers, at least if you are a dictator, the seductive promise of all of the economic efficacy of democracy, without the pesky need to compete for political power.
Zoellick does not shy away from that possibility. “This observation applies regardless of one’s political system,” he said. “I gave examples from Mexico and Uganda and Senegal and China, all different political systems, to recognize how each in their own way have tried to figure out how to have better development by involving citizens.”
In his speech and interview, Zoellick singled out China — land of the imprisoned Nobel laureate and state-imposed family planning — as a model of “community-driven development.” “In China, ‘deliberative polling’ has been used in rural communities to consult on the price of water, or electricity, or the relocation of farmers,” he said in his speech. “Some Chinese officials have instituted polls to assess performance.”
At a time when Beijing is imprisoning its bravest dissidents with renewed zeal, it is stomach-churning to think of China as a star practitioner of citizen empowerment. But before you accuse Zoellick of appeasement, remember that he is the president of the World Bank, a multilateral institution with 187 member countries, many of whom think democracy is a dirty word. In that context, Zoellick’s speech is both subversive and really smart.
It is subversive because ideas like “citizen participation” — soft-edged as that term may sound to civilians — amount to an upraised fist when spoken by the head of the World Bank. And it is smart because Zoellick has figured out a way to connect something as political as civil society with the explicitly apolitical agenda of the World Bank.
“We’re in the business of trying to overcome poverty and create opportunity and growth on the economic side,” Zoellick said in the interview. “My own view, which I’ve stated, is that some issues that people might consider political — corruption, transparency, gender, citizen involvement — we’ve learned and are learning are an important part of the economic development process.”
Cunningly, Zoellick makes the connection between development and civil society in a way designed to sell that idea to the group of people — dictators — least likely these days to take a sunny view of vocal and engaged citizens.
Shooting protesters may work in the short term. But Zoellick’s argument is that even autocrats must find ways to listen to their people if they want their economies to grow, and hence their governments to be stable, in the longer run.
Read this way, Zoellick’s reference to China is particularly sly. The real threat to the idea of democracy isn’t posed by murderous tyrants like Colonel Qaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The truly dangerous example is that of China, with its robust growth and unapologetic suppression of political dissent. By praising Chinese apparatchiks for using polls to assess performance, Zoellick is arguing that even the world’s most effective authoritarian regime needs to democratize from within to prosper.