The long arm of the state

Authoritarian states are brazenly challenging the liberal order

Updated - November 07, 2018 05:04 pm IST

Published - November 06, 2018 12:15 am IST

Chinese actor Fan Bingbing.

Chinese actor Fan Bingbing.

We live in strange times. While discussions about ‘global disorder’ mostly pertain to U.S. President Donald Trump’s penchant for challenging the established liberal order and institutional frameworks, there is another side to this as well, reflected in the way authoritarian states are now more empowered than ever to challenge norms that the world was taking for granted until recently.

Empowered states

Last month, the Interpol chief and Chinese Vice-Minister for Public Security, Meng Hongwei, vanished after taking a flight to China from France. Beijing later revealed that Mr. Meng had been detained and was being investigated for corruption. His wife has denied these allegations and has made a public appeal for his safety, suggesting that even her life could be under threat.

Mr. Meng is the latest high-ranking official to fall victim to sweeping anti-corruption measures under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi’s presidency has seen more than 1.5 million officials being punished as part of an expanding crackdown on graft in public office. He remains focussed on an extraordinary concentration of power in his own hands, underscoring the supremacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at every level. Central to ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, which is China’s new official political doctrine, is the idea that fealty to the party is no longer a choice but a duty, much like what it was in the Mao era. Mr. Xi enhanced his powers further this year by forming a National Supervisory Commission, which has sweeping powers to investigate not only CPC members but also state-owned companies, hospitals, schools and even sports teams.

China’s record of disappearing human rights activists and political dissidents is quite extraordinary by global standards, but under Mr. Xi, it has taken an altogether new dimension. In July, Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most well-known actresses, vanished for three months only to resurface with a statement in which she not only apologised for evading taxes but also underscored her loyalty to the CPC.

Saudi Arabia has gone a step forward in the Jamal Khashoggi case. The prominent journalist and vocal critic of the Saudi Arabian government was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last month. After denying any wrongdoing for days, Saudi Arabian officials finally blamed his death on a “rogue operation”. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the murder was executed by people who operated “outside the scope of their authority.” He called the killing a “tremendous mistake” that was worsened by the “attempt to try to cover [it] up”. He insisted that the action had not been ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a line that no one is willing to buy.

Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is called, was seen by many in the West as the great hope in Saudi Arabia. His reforms included lifting the ban on women driving, reintroducing public entertainment and curbing the power of the unpopular religious police. His ambitious undertaking to wean the country off its dependence on oil income by building a $500 billion futuristic city in the desert was hailed by many, but his political instincts remain as autocratic as his predecessors: he locked up dozens of princes and business figures last year in a luxury hotel on charges of corruption and even detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and allegedly forced him to resign on television.

Then there’s Russia, which turns its own political killings of Kremlin critics into something of an art form. Killings outside Russia of those accused of “extremism” were even given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006. According to various estimates, Russia is suspected to have organised the killings of at least 15 people on British soil alone over the past two decades. The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal earlier this year was a state-sponsored Russian assassination attempt.

Gasping for breath

As Western liberal states get mired in their own domestic problems and start focussing inwards, authoritarian states like these are brazenly challenging long-held global norms, even creating new ones by the sheer force of raw power. The idea once held so dear by global liberal elites that economic and technological globalisation would undermine authoritarian systems by empowering the individual is being challenged as authoritarian states are now using the same forces to their own advantage. The long arm of the state is getting longer. No wonder the liberal order is gasping for breath.


Harsh V. Pant is Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor at King’s College London

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