In recent years, China has emerged as the poster child for a new economic “model,” commonly known as authoritarian modernization or state capitalism. The idea that economic development is best managed top-down by a wise, paternalist state has become especially fashionable in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Lilia Shevtsova
Shevtsova chaired the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, dividing her time between Carnegie’s offices in Washington, DC, and Moscow. She had been with Carnegie since 1995.

To many observers, this crisis has not only exposed the weaknesses of the advanced Western economies, but also called into question the value of democratic liberalism itself. Set against the failures of the West, the continued economic success of China and, to a lesser extent, Russia appears to suggest a more promising path of development.

Bobo Lo and Lilia Shevtsova rebut such assumptions. They argue that the notion of authoritarian modernization is in fact a self-serving illusion. In Russia, there has been a significant increase in authoritarianism, but very little modernization. Meanwhile, China has experienced a remarkable transformation, yet one driven largely by economic liberalization and bottom-up reform.

The authors conclude that the real threat to democratic liberalism comes not from competing value-systems such as a putative “China model,” but from within. Political and economic stagnation, moral complacency, and a selective approach to values have led to the current crisis of Western liberalism, and helped build up the myth of authoritarian modernization.