China's relationship to democracy is closely watched on the world stage. As the largest authoritarian nation, and within a decade potentially the largest national economy, China exerts significant influence on the balance of democracy across the developing world.
For decades, foreign observers and many Chinese reformists have focused on China's own internal political movements, watching as it alternately becomes more open to dissent and competing voices, then clamps down. These days, China actually appears to be regressing, despite its capitalist economy and some recent protests in cities like Dalian. Over the past year, the government has cracked down hard on protest groups, and it has increasingly monitored and filtered the Internet and microblogging sites. According to Yasheng Huang, a China specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, China's political system was more liberal in the 1980s than today.
While observers have focused on China's internal politics, however, an important and worrisome change has been taking place outside its borders: Beijing increasingly appears to be thwarting democracy in surrounding countries. Local officials from Cambodia, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, and other Asian nations increasingly receive training in China, where they learn repressive Chinese judicial, policing, and Internet control tactics. China has pushed neighboring nations to crack down on activists there who criticize the People's Republic. In Central Asia, meanwhile, China has helped create a regional organization to prop up authoritarian rule.
China's challenge to democracy constitutes a significant shift from the global status quo over the past two decades. After the end of the Cold War, no major nations posed a serious challenge to the spread of liberal democracy. Chinese officials, hewing to a maxim coined by former leader Deng Xiaoping, generally avoided intervention in global affairs, declaring that China was still a developing nation with much to learn from other countries.
But in recent years China has become much more assertive internationally — and the stakes for global democracy are high. If China helps shift the balance against democracy in its neighborhood, it will complicate US policy, strengthen authoritarian regimes, and do serious damage to rights activists, journalists, and other people pushing for democracy in developing nations.
Over the past four years, as China's economy booms and Western economies stagger, China's “soft power” — or cultural and economic influence — has grown, and it has gained a new ability to influence political life within other countries. The most recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey of global democracy found that the global financial and economic crisis “has increased the attractiveness of the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism for some emerging markets.”
Beyond simply serving as an example of success, however, some Chinese officials have sought to actively promote the Chinese model abroad. Beijing has invited local officials from across Southeast and Central Asia — at least several thousand officials each year — to come to China for training in legal and police procedures. As attendees at the Southeast Asian and Central Asian training sessions told me, these sessions seem designed to draw distinctions between China's model of development and that of democracies. Indeed, Chinese trainers explicitly credit Beijing's ability to take decisive action with the country's success, contrasting that regime with what they describe as the failed policies of Western democracies. Some officials from Thailand and Cambodia reported to me that their Chinese trainers discussed judicial strategies that help preserve “stability” — and keep the government in power.
In Cambodia, according to a number of Cambodian activists and human rights specialists I've spoken to, members of China's Communist Party have advised Prime Minister Hun Sen's party on how to use laws for libel and defamation to scare the independent media, create a network of senior officials who can control major companies, and instill loyalty in special police and bodyguard forces. And, in recent years, Hun Sen has indeed utilized libel laws to suppress opposition, built up his personal bodyguard, and used these tactics to help ensure his continued rule, despite the fact that Cambodia technically has regular elections.
“You already don't have a lot of strong democratic values here,” said Roland Eng, a longtime senior Cambodian official and diplomat. “You have [government] people seeing how well China has done, going to China all the time. What they come back [to Cambodia] with is how much faster and easier China has had it without having to deal with an opposition...and they have learned from that.”
In other cases, China has worked to shore up autocrats facing popular pressure, or even helped authoritarian rulers track down and arrest their own dissidents and critics. In one notable example, after large-scale demonstrations in Uzbekistan in 2005, the authoritarian Uzbek regime cracked down hard on protesters, killing at least several hundred in the city of Andijon by firing indiscriminately into crowds. In response, Uzbek activists called for foreign governments to pressure the Uzbek government to own up to the massacre and to reform. Many governments complied, including not only the United States but also other Asian nations. China took the opposite approach: Not long after the massacre, Beijing praised the crackdown as necessary and then welcomed Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in Beijing with a state visit and a gun salute, showing that China would stand firmly behind him. More dangerously, China then worked with other nations to deny asylum to any refugees fleeing Uzbekistan, and quickly announced a new energy deal that would provide the Uzbek government with millions in revenues.
Similarly, after last fall's elections in Burma, another state on China's borders, Beijing helped shore up an authoritarian government. At the polls, where the Burmese government did not allow international election monitors, military-dominated parties won decisively. Beijing quickly endorsed the questionable results, providing legitimacy to the Burmese regime.
Working with Russia, Chinese leaders have even created an international organization to push back against democracy. In 1995, the two authoritarian giants founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group linking the two powers with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The organization was ostensibly designed to promote regional trade and diplomatic ties. Since the pro-democracy revolutions of the mid-2000s, however, Moscow and Beijing have used the Shanghai group to argue that such revolutions, and democratic change in general, are illegal violations of national sovereignty. Under China's influence, the organization portrayed electoral democracy as a kind of Western — that is, foreign — idea, one not necessarily suited for Central Asia or other developing regions. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, wrote political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, was attempting to be not another intergovernmental talk shop but “the embodiment of a new set of [nondemocratic] values and norms governing the future development of Central Asia.”
Finally, China is even exerting influence on the foreign press, using its diplomatic relationships and rising economic and trade clout to push neighboring nations to crack down on activists and journalists who offer a critique of Beijing. In Indonesia, for example, China reportedly pushed the Indonesian government to shutter a radio station, Era Baru Radio, that sometimes broadcast information about Falun Gong, an organization that has criticized the Chinese government and is effectively banned in China. According to reports by monitoring organization Reporters Without Borders, Indonesian police subsequently forcibly closed the station. China has used similar tactics to attempt to silence critics of Beijing in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries.
Through these efforts, China is exerting real influence on democracy in Asia. In a study of Southeast Asia, Indonesian scholar Ignatius Wibowo found that with only a few exceptions, each country's political model has moved toward China and away from liberal democracy over the past decade, because of both China's advocacy and its success, as contrasted with the West's failures. Wibowo found that many Southeast Asian leaders and top officials are implementing state strategies modeled on China's, including taking back national control of strategic industries, recentralizing political decision-making, reestablishing one-party rule, and using the judicial system as, increasingly, a tool of state power — all changes that undermine democratic development.
China's antidemocratic policies are only one piece of a global trend. The international monitoring organization Freedom House found that global freedom plummeted in 2010, for the fifth year in a row — a decline most pronounced among what it called the “middle ground” of nations, primarily in the developing world, that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies. One of the major reasons for the drop, the organization noted, was the increasing aggressiveness of China.
In many places, China's influence adds pressure to democratic backsliding that is already occurring. In Cambodia, for instance, where the government of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen has become increasingly authoritarian, China's rising influence means that countries such as Japan or France, which have pushed for more openness, are finding themselves marginalized. Hun Sen himself has said as much. In a speech to inaugurate a new road funded partly by Chinese aid, he lauded Beijing for offering him assistance with little pressure, contrasting this with democratic donors. “When China gives, it doesn't say do this or that. We can do whatever we want with the money,” Hun Sen said, according to wire service reports.
What's more, a weakening of democracy in a vital region like Asia may make multilateral cooperation more difficult and conflict more likely. Historically, the United States has cooperated most effectively with other democratic nations, whose style of leadership and decision-making are more open and more understandable to American politicians. But when the United States has tried to cooperate with China — two years ago American officials even talked of a “G-2” of the United States and China ruling the world — collaboration has been hindered by the opacity of the Chinese government, which even many savvy American officials find hard to comprehend.
A more active China also presents American policy makers with another challenge: how to confront China's influence directly. In a report released two years ago — for which this writer contributed a chapter — Freedom House outlined how China was undermining democracy on its borders, and proposed that the United States and other democracies make their engagement with China more contingent on countering Beijing's antidemocratic tactics. Other human rights groups and democracy experts argue that the United States needs to counteract China by reengaging with international democracy organizations, like the Community of Democracies, and working more closely with emerging powers like Brazil and India to promote democracy in their neighborhoods.
Similarly, many US and European officials have pushed for China to be included in meetings on donor aid to certain countries, so that leaders like Hun Sen might be less able to play China off against democratic donors. Sometimes, as with Cambodia, China has agreed to join donor meetings. But in other cases, Beijing has refused to coordinate its assistance with other donors — for now, retaining all the leverage it has, and adding to the fears of democratic nations that the world's biggest economic success story is also becoming their largest political rival.
Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book on the challenges to democracy will be released next year.
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