The growing chumminess between Beijing and Moscow, on display last weekend at the meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, is nothing but bad news for democrats around the world. Though Westerners like to believe that the cause of self-government is ever on the march, democracy has actually been retreating across much of the developing world in recent years. In its latest index of Freedom in the World—a rigorous measure of political rights and civil liberties—the global monitoring group Freedom House (for whom I serve as a consultant on Southeast Asia) notes that 2012 was the seventh consecutive year that the survey has found more declines than gains. For democratic progress around the world, it is the longest losing streak in the past 60 years.
There are many reasons for this decline in self-government. For one, citizens in countries such as the Philippines and Malawi had been led to believe that democracy and prosperity necessarily marched together hand-in-hand, but their dreams of expanding economic opportunity have faded—along with their trust in popular government. Meanwhile, relatively new democracies such as India, Brazil and South Africa have done little to promote themselves as political models, and the U.S. and Europe have been preoccupied with their own military and financial problems.
Unfortunately, the world's most powerful autocracies are filling the vacuum. Over the past decade, with the crises of the Tiananmen protests and the Yeltsin era long behind them, China and Russia have become far more assertive on the global stage and now, increasingly, are working together to promote what they see as common interests.