Authoritarian Leaders of East Asia and The Middle East

February 15, 2018
by Cesar Rios

On February 15, 2018, the Asian Studies Program and Center for Contemporary Arab Studies co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the nature of authoritarian rule in Asia and the Middle East. Examples from the region are numerous: from Kim Jong Un’s brutal dictatorship in North Korea to Xi Jinping’s attempts to reign in free speech in China, to the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in Iraq,Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership, and the refusal to relinquish power by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In spite of global trends like the Arab Spring or internal disruptions, authoritarian rule retains its grip on many countries in the two regions.

Reemergence of Authoritarianism

Moderator Michael Green, Director of the SFS Asian Studies Program and Chair in Modern and Contemporary Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy, began with the question: “Why is it that softer variations of authoritarianism are emerging in Turkey and China, both of which two decades ago seemed to be heading on a more democratic path?” Dennis Wilder, former Senior Director for East Asian Affairs on the NSC and current SFS professor, pointed towards the United States as the key variable. He suggested that the U.S. was at one time too powerful, which gave birth to previous authoritarian governments who wanted to directly challenge the democratic model. Now, it could be argued that the U.S. is not as powerful as it once was, making the appeal of democracy no longer as compelling.

Joseph Sassoon, Associate Professor and al-Sabah Chair in Politics and Political Economy of the Arab World, attributed the democratic backsliding in Turkey and China partially due to grievances against the West and the United States. Sinan Ciddi, Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies and an expert on the domestic and foreign policy of Turkey, agreed. He explained that even though Turkish President Erdoğan came to power through a democratic election, he has recently moved to consolidate his power. Ciddi suggested that some of Erdogan’s motivation came from his belief that the downfall of other leaders in the region such as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt was due to Western influence. Now, “at least half the country hates him, another 20 percent would probably, if given a credible alternative, would vote for someone else,” Ciddi said. Wilder sees this attitude towards the West as not only limited to the Middle East. China and Russia also believe “the West is always out to get them.”

Similar Characteristics of Authoritarian Leaders

Although the authoritarian leaders and dictators discussed are geographically distant from each other, they all share similar characteristics and maintain power over their people by three common techniques: first, bullying; second, buy-in; third, inspiration and convincing rhetoric, according to Green.

Sassoon explained that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was “not just a republic of fear, this was a republic of fear and reward.” While in China, Wilder explained the illusion of freedom the government grants by allowing economic protests: “Economic protests are seen as useful, because it allows them to see where the system is failing people, however, if the protest moves in the direction of talking about any challenge to the one-party system of China, that kind of protest gets shut down very quickly.”

Both Sassoon and Green concluded that Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin has left a legacy in both of their respective regions, with the modern authoritarian leaders dealing with clashes with their very own militaries. Wilder summarized using China as an example, “The party needs the gun, and it has to make sure the gun is under its control.” Finally, the speakers agreed that as political scientists “the only thing we’ve been able to prove is absolute power corrupts absolutely.”