Among the tools that these regimes have used to further their interests internationally, the promotion of “win-win” economic arrangements and “no-strings-attached aid” stand out. In April, we addressed this issue in a blog post about China’s aid policy towards Africa in particular. At the time, we discussed the dangers of championing China’s unique development model, along with the pernicious effects that China’s offers of unconditional aid can have for governance. Because Beijing’s foreign assistance isn’t conditioned on the adoption of reforms and a general respect for human rights, it opens the door for corruption and neglect of the rule of law. Undermining Democracy includes a more comprehensive analysis of China’s foreign assistance efforts, along with those of other authoritarian regimes, analyzing the modern strategies and methods used to project authoritarian influence.
As Undermining Democracy explains, China’s is systematically developing its own brand of “soft power.” After becoming aware of the necessity of increasing its clout in an increasingly interdependent international system, China began to ramp up efforts to promote its own model of political and economic development in its international relations. Due to China’s impressive economic development, the model is often touted as a superior alternative to Western prescriptions.
As it happens, Undermining Democracy has been released on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. An article in the Financial Times last week traced China’s political trajectory since the crackdown, explaining how China’s Communist Party weathered both extensive criticism and countless predictions of its demise to propel its country to a leading role in the world sphere. As it notes, Chinese officials have ceased to adopt an outwardly apologetic stance towards their more repressive political policies, instead becoming increasingly confident in their model’s superiority over its Western counterpart. Most importantly, it argues that China’s remarkable ability to persevere and prosper can be attributed to its willingness to adapt and modernize. In other words, whereas mere repression might not have been enough to counteract the pre- and post-Tiananmen calls for change, China has survived and flourished due to its policy of economic opening. While these reforms have boosted growth and ameliorated some citizen complaints, more fundamental reforms of accountability and transparency have been absent.
China’s economic success has created a major dilemma for advocates of good governance. This success has obvious appeal as a formula for economic prosperity for struggling developing countries. Nevertheless, there are some important points to consider. First, by championing the undemocratic Chinese model, the benefits in terms of basic ethics and justice of democratic rule in comparison to China’s oppressive political regime are ignored. The coercive nature of China’s political regime cannot be underemphasized. China is a highly repressive state, which is evidenced by the regime’s dismal human rights record. China has, every year, by far the highest number of executions of any country and has consistently and arbitrarily applied state power to restrict basic freedoms including freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Secondly, it is important to realize that the Chinese model of adaptation is not the norm. As the Financial Times article notes, China was successfully able to learn from the Soviet Union’s mistakes and to become aware of the need to “adapt and change or atrophy and die.” If any lessons are to be learned from the past, however, China’s adaption method is the exception: authoritarians are often drawn to the repressive part of the model while ignoring the technocratic, adaptive element. Some but certainly not all developing countries will be able to follow China’s trajectory. For example, in the past few months, Hugo Chavez has frequently praised the comparative advantages of the Chinese model over the Washington Consensus at the same time that he has ramped up his efforts to curb trade union autonomy and freedom of the press in the country. In addition, Kremlin officials have frequently evoked the Chinese success story to justify Russia’s autocratic policies. In addition to providing these leaders with validation for their despotic ventures, the opportunities the model provides for corrupt practices are extensive, as is evidenced by China’s ranking of 72 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Moreover, it is not just the model in conceptual terms that is a threat to the democratic order, but also China’s means of promoting it. Most notably, China has sought to facilitate the model’s advancement by offering “win-win” economic arrangements to foreign countries and coupling its aid provision with a promise of “non-interference” in domestic affairs. Apart from the African countries listed in our previous post, China has provided unconditional assistance to numerous Latin American countries and several Asian countries, most notably Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, many of which have questionable or downright execrable human rights records. As we noted in our previous post, the negative consequences of providing unconditional aid are a real threat to democratic governance. As Undermining Democracy argues, these arrangements also threaten democratic development on a greater scale. By framing these new economic relationships in “win-win” terms, China seeks to tarnish the legitimacy of the Western development model, and more particularly the traditional Western requirement that aid be conditional upon reform and respect for human rights standards.
Other contemporary authoritarian regimes have used foreign assistance of one sort or another to exert influence. Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, for instance, have used their oil wealth to court developing nations, leading them to ignore governance reform. While these active efforts are providing new competition to reform-based assistance, the authoritarians’ approach is not perfect. As Undermining Democracy notes, China’s increasingly powerful position – and even more so the other states – has its own inherent flaws. The global economic crisis, along with other factors, could hamper its efforts to propel the new model; alternatively, discontent at home could herald a loosening of the authoritarian reins. In any case, 20 years after Tiananmen, the Chinese authorities have modernized their authoritarianism and, for the time being at least, offer a serious challenge to the notion that economic growth in China would inevitably lead to political liberalization and sounder governance.