Our democracy recession
Only 20 percent of the world’s population is “free”
One week before key world leaders gathered in Cornwall, England, for the first G7 meeting of advanced economies in two years, another unnoticed but landmark gathering began not far away in London.
The independent Uyghur Tribunal was a different sort of effort to promote human flourishing through free and open societies. It didn’t major on tea with the royal family or fist bumps among vaccinated wealthy-nation leaders, but highlighted the value of a free society by showing what happens where freedom is lost.
The testimony documented the Chinese Communist Party’s blatant atrocities against the country’s ethnic Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslims. Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British prosecutor who has presided over war crimes trials before, said what he heard from the tribunal’s first panel of witnesses was “indescribable.”
One nurse at a hospital in Xinjiang province said she saw Chinese doctors perform five forced abortions a day on Uyghurs. “Some babies were born, and they started crying and from this we knew they were alive,” she said. “But we knew all babies would be given the injection so we knew they would die before they got home.”
A former Uyghur detainee recounted wires pushed into his penis. Another wrapped himself in chains before the watching tribunal to show how Chinese authorities beat him and hung him from a ceiling.
These testimonies are the tip of the iceberg, according to a new dataset from the Oxus Society. It documents 1,151 cases of Uyghurs detained in countries outside China. That represents a black network of co-opted states rendering or extraditing Uyghurs back to China—a country that’s no rogue nation but among the world’s wealthiest, once welcomed to the G7 summits.
Such assaults are part of what Freedom House calls the world’s “democratic recession.” Its annual report is a flagship barometer that has tracked global trends for more than 40 years. The 2021 findings marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom—the largest downturn ever recorded—and summarizes: “The long democratic recession is deepening.”
China and Russia lead the charge, according to Freedom House, “cheering the breakdown of democracy and exacerbating it.” The report highlights declines also in Hong Kong, Belarus, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Turkey. Meanwhile dictators from Venezuela to Cambodia have exploited the pandemic to restrict liberties.
The report shows gains in freedom in diverse countries like Malawi, Taiwan, Montenegro, and Bolivia. Yet its conclusion is staggering: “Less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a Free country, the smallest proportion since 1995.”
Besides a drastic rise in authoritarian rule, the report attributes declines in freedom to “the fading and inconsistent presence of major democracies on the international stage.” Democracy is failing not because it doesn’t work, but because its most prominent practitioners aren’t doing enough to protect it.
India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party targets Muslims and Christians. Europe is awash in statist bureaucracy while witnessing a rise in nationalism, with divides some compare to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. The United States is gridlocked by partisan divisions, too, with democracy weakening as Democrats move further left into socialism and Republicans to nationalist Trumpism. The United States lost points in the Freedom House index for its lack of transparency, corruption, and the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, which disrupted congressional certification of election results.
Democracy is not our idol, just a demonstrably better system of government than all the others. It’s also hard. “Democracy in its essence is kind of improbable,” said author Anne Applebaum recently. “It demands things of human beings that are almost inhuman.” Election winners sustain institutions that allow their opponents to beat them next time. Compromise on all sides is essential. “All that demands this incredibly high level of consensus as well as a shared reality,” Applebaum said.
Recovering shared reality and shared truth in America is perhaps the most pressing hard work. This Independence Day, seeing the dread dangers in all the alternatives can spur that work. It’s great work for Christians, who stake their freedom in Christ, whether living in a democracy or an authoritarian state.
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