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Absolutism and Social Reforms

The Seventh New Buds Salon of the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS) was held on July 9 at the School of International Studies, PKU. Professor of Political Science Dan Slater at the University of Michigan and Assistant Professor of Political Science Iza Ding at the University of Pittsburgh were invited to deliver a lecture entitled “Liberal Absolutism.” The session was moderated by Assistant Professor Xu Liang from PKU's School of International Studies.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed the emergence of many hybrid regimes, including both those that hold democratic elections but whose people's freedom is limited, and those that do not have democratic elections but whose people enjoy a greater extent of freedom. Iza Ding elaborated her point by taking the new constitution passed by the Cuban parliament in February 2019 as an example and pointed out that the new constitution vests rights to the Cuban people that they did not enjoy before, such as property rights and equality between men and women, while still maintaining the party's rule. She contends that a “democratic” system based solely on elections cannot guarantee the full freedom of the people in many cases. In fact, many countries in Europe and North America that boast of their democracies have witnessed their people's freedom decay in recent years. On the contrary, some regimes that we consider as absolutist have begun to give more rights to their citizenry and society and allow a larger extent of freedom.

Ding and Slater's research question is: Can an authoritarian government coexist with a society that enjoys a certain extent of freedom? Have there been such countries in history? First, the two scholars offered a definition of liberal absolutism: politically conservative and not open while certain freedom is allowed in the private sphere. The ruling class of a liberal absolutist state allows a limited extent of freedom for civil society under its rule but does not tolerate any challenger in politics. Several key political philosophers in history have discussed whether liberalism could coexist with absolutism. For example, Locke contended that absolutism and civil society cannot coexist. Hegel argued that a complete liberalization of society cannot be beneficial to the state and rational liberty is the safeguard of civil society. Therefore, the state should also set its own rational goals in politics, but allow for freedom in people's private life. Ding and Slater highlighted three possible outcomes of the liberalization of an absolutist state: conservatives weaken and liberals revolt; conservatives retaliate to retrieve lost ground; conservatives cooperate with reformists. These outcomes correspond respectively to the Qing Empire amid the early stage of the 1911 Revolution in China, the Soviet Union during Khrushchev's reforms until his removal from power, and Britain and its imperial colonies after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Scholars see Middle Eastern monarchies (Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco), Vietnam during economic reforms, and Hong Kong under British colonial rule as typical examples of liberal absolutist states and regions. Ding and Slater's conclusion is that absolutism and liberalism can coexist. They discovered through case studies that absolutist states and their leaders would allow society under their rule a certain amount of freedom on the condition that the stability of their regime is ensured.

After the lecture, PhD candidates among the audience raised questions from original and creative viewpoints. As many of the masters and doctorate students among the attendees are doing research in comparative politics, each of them shared their own research interests and concept of research with the speakers, and engaged in in-depth discussion with them.