Freedom in the World 2018: Global Democracy Crisis Reaches Asia as China Influence Expands
Washington – January 16, 2018 — Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America’s democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace and authoritarian regimes like China’s increase international influence, according to Freedom in the World 2018, the latest edition of the annual report on political rights and civil liberties, released today by Freedom House.
The report finds that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, with only 35 registering gains. Hong Kong’s diminishing political rights received another blow as four prodemocracy lawmakers were expelled from the legislature, protest leaders were sentenced to jail time, and pro-Beijing authorities worked to stamp out a movement calling for local self-determination.
“Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Democracy’s basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under siege around the world.”
Freedom in the World 2018 reports on how China has taken advantage of the retreat of leading democracies both to increase repression at home and to export its malign influence to other countries. To maintain power, the regime acts beyond its borders to squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions.
A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy. While Freedom House has tracked a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties in the United States for the past seven years, the decline accelerated in 2017, owing to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.
Although U.S. institutions like the press and the judiciary have remained resilient in the face of unprecedented attacks from President Trump, the attacks could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious implications for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s place in the world. Meanwhile, the abdication of the traditional U.S. role as the leading champion of democracy is of deep concern and potential consequence in the ongoing struggle against modern authoritarians and their pernicious ideas.
“The core institutions of American democracy are being battered by an administration that has treated the country’s traditional checks and balances with disdain,” Abramowitz said.
“The Trump administration has made a sharp break from the political consensus of the last 70 years by casting aside democracy as the animating force behind American foreign policy,” Abramowitz added. “The hastening withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to supporting democracy overseas makes the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes all the more powerful and threatening.”
In another significant development, the recent democratic opening in Myanmar was permanently damaged by a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority.
Over the period since the 12-year slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.
- Of the 195 countries assessed, 88 (45 percent) were rated Free, 58 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 49 (25 percent) Not Free.
- TheUnited Statessaw declines in its political rights due to:
o Growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration either to condemn or to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling
o Violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, including the president’s failure to divest himself of his business empire, his hiring of family members as senior advisers, and his appointment of cabinet members and other senior officials despite apparent conflicts of interest
o A reduction in government transparency, including an unusual pattern of false statements by the administration, the president’s failure to disclose basic information such as his personal tax data, policy and other decisions made without meaningful input from relevant agencies and officials, and the removal of information on issues of public interest from government websites for political or ideological reasons
- InChina, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping further consolidated his hold on power at the 19th Party Congress in October, as internet censorship and surveillance reached new heights during the year. A multi-year crackdown on civil society continued with numerous criminal prosecutions of bloggers, activists, human rights lawyers, and religious believers and the death of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Already intrusive restrictions on religious freedom and technological surveillance in Tibet and Xinjiang intensified, and thousands of Uighur Muslims were sent to extralegal political indoctrination centers.
- The Communist Party leadership in Beijing also continued to expand its international influence by building up a propaganda and censorship apparatus with global reach. It used economic and other ties to influence democracies like Australia and New Zealand, compelled various countries to repatriate Chinese citizens seeking refuge abroad, and provided diplomatic and material support to repressive governments from Southeast Asia to Africa.
- China ramped up its efforts to suppress democracy in Hong Kong, where four prodemocracy lawmakers were expelled from the legislature, protest leaders were sentenced to jail time, and pro-Beijing authorities worked to stamp out a movement calling for local self-determination.
- Despite ongoing concerns of Chinese government efforts to influence policymaking, media coverage, and certain sectors of the economy, Taiwan remained home to a vibrant and competitive democratic system, among the freest in the world.
- Hopes for democracy in Cambodia were dashed as Prime Minister Hun Sen oversaw a decisive crackdown on the country’s beleaguered opposition and press corps.
- North Korea put global stability at risk by perpetuating long-running regional conflicts, fueling humanitarian crises, and rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal.
Worst of the Worst:
- Of the 49 countries designated as Not Free, the following 12 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties, earning less than 10 points on a 100-point scale (beginning with the least free): Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Libya.
To view the summary of findings, see the report here: www.freedomintheworld.org.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.