It was a noteworthy week for despot-watching. Chinese President Hu Jintao played host at the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, a club of nations that boasts such authoritarian heads of state as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central Asian leaders-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also in Beijing as an “observer” to the SCO. After griping at length about how things like human rights and democracy were Western contrivances designed to undermine their rule, the strongmen again made clear their support for the violently flailing regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Dictators supporting dictators, some will say. But that one word fails to capture the range of autocracies that have developed in the post-Cold War era. It’s not fair to use the same term for Mr. Hu, Mr. Putin, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. al-Assad. Russia in 2012, where there are opposition newspapers and radio stations, a relatively unfettered Internet and even some tolerance for anti-government protests, is a far freer place than today’s China.
Mr. Hu and his Communist Party, meanwhile, seem positively enlightened when held up alongside a thugocrat like Mr. al-Assad or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who deprives half his population of even the most basic rights. And then there’s North Korea.
We need some new categories.
A 21st-century checklist of the new autocrats
1.0 False democrats
a) Club members: Russian President Vladimir Putin; Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas; Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak; Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika; Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
b) Ex-members: Slobodan Milosevic; Hosni Mubarak
c) Key characteristics: They hold elections but have no intention of giving up power. Serious political rivals are jailed and their parties are outlawed on legal technicalities. Mr. Putin’s spin doctors call it “managed democracy” – giving voters the appearance of choice while ensuring they have very little to choose from on election day.
d) Reason for hope: Because they allow the trappings of democracy – opposition parties, some independent media, the very process of going through an election every few years – these false democracies create the possibility of change. Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Mubarak were ousted because citizens used the political space allowed them in a false democracy. Russia’s opposition has similarly been on the advance over the past seven months. The next election in Malaysia promises to be interesting.
e) Reason for despair: False democracies give the impression of being freer than they really are, which means they rarely face the kind of international pressure that the really nasty regimes get.
2.0 Mad egotists
a) Club members: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko; Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev; Uzbek President Islam Karimov
b) Ex-members: Saddam Hussein; Hafez al-Assad; Joseph Stalin; Nicolae Ceausescu; Kim Jong-il; Fidel Castro
c) Key characteristics: These men (and they’re all men) preside over totalitarian systems in which no dissent is tolerated, though some hold referendums every few years just to remind everyone how “popular” they really are. Mr. Hussein once claimed to have won 99.6 per cent of the vote in a referendum on his rule. Mr. al-Assad, meanwhile, won 98 per cent in a similar vote in Syria a few years later. That lead to a popular joke in Syria: Q. What’s the difference between Saddam and Bashar? A. 1.6 per cent. More often than not, a cult of personality is built around the leader.
d) Reason for hope: Not much. These men rule by fear, turning people against each other so that neighbours report on neighbours in hopes of currying favour with the regime. Citizens have almost no rights at all and the repression is suffocating.
e) Reason for despair: When these regimes fall, there’s often plenty of bloodshed, as in Iraq after Mr. Hussein and now in Syria. Often, the only thing holding these societies together is the madman himself.
3.0 Violent populists
a) Club Members: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir; Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
b) Ex-members: Adolf Hitler; Moammar Gadhafi; Idi Amin; Mao Zedong
c) Key characteristics: These men are rabble-rousers in the nastiest sense. They tend to have a hard core of wildly devoted followers who will do whatever – intimidate, maim, kill – their leader asks of them. They sometimes come to power through the ballot box, which can make them even more dangerous. More often than not.
d) Reason for hope: These characters are so reprehensible that the rest of the world tends to turn against them. Cold comfort for those fighting to change the system from within, but it’s nice to know the international community is with you.
e) Reason for despair: Dictators of this class aren’t the sort to be dislodged by economic sanctions or condemnations at the United Nations. Again, their downfall tends to be bloody.
4.0 Callous capitalists
a) Club Members: Communist Party of China (Deng Xiaoping era to present); Communist Party of Vietnam; the House of Saud
b) Ex-members: South Africa’s apartheid regime; Myanmar’s military junta
c) Key characteristics: These regimes are run by groups of businessmen and are capable of withstanding the death or downfall of a senior leader. They pursue wealth, rather than ideology, but defend their power just as ruthlessly as other types of autocrats. Just ask China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – or the women of Saudi Arabia, who are deprived of nearly all rights so that King Abdullah can keep the loyalty of religiously conservative tribes.
d) Reason for hope: Callous capitalists understand that they need to free their people, at least economically, if they want to maximize their own profit. As a result, prolonged economic sanctions can force these same businessmen to reconsider the whole political model, as in South Africa in the 1990s and Myanmar (better known as Burma) now.
e) Reason for despair: The market doesn’t care about human rights or personal freedoms. No one is going to slap economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia as long as the West needs the House of Saud’s oil. And China has become such an important part of the global economy that the Communist Party is arguably now “too big to fail.”