from Asia Unbound

China’s Soft Power, Part 3: Why A Global Rise of Strongmen Won’t Boost Beijing’s Appeal

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 15, 2017. (Etienne Oliveau/Reuters)

May 19, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte prior to their bilateral meeting during the Belt and Road Forum, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China May 15, 2017. (Etienne Oliveau/Reuters)
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As I noted in previous blog posts, China has in recent years embarked upon a global soft power offensive. This charm offensive has included an expansion of Xinhua and other state media outlets into many new markets, as well as professionalizing these news services and hiring many capable reporters. The new charm offensive has included vast increases in aid, much of it part of massive new concepts like One Belt, One Road. It has included an increase in assistance for educational exchanges, new programs for training of foreign officials coming to China on short courses, and an overall effort by Xi Jinping and other senior leaders to portray Beijing as a kind of defender of the global order—at least on trade and climate change, two issues where U.S. leadership appears to be retreating.

This attempt to portray Xi as the new defender of the global order was most evident during his visit to Davos, in January. There, he told attendees at the World Economic Forum that Beijing would protect free trade rules and norms, warning that “no one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”

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In my previous post, I wrote that, at least in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, China’s massive soft power offensive is not likely to succeed. A decade ago, when I wrote a book on China’s then-rising soft power, it might have; Beijing was perceived more favorably by its neighbors back then, in part because it had been relatively modest in exerting its hard power influence in Southeast Asia. Now, after a decade of squabbling over the South China Sea and East China Sea, and a rising Asian arms race, China’s hard power has become significant, and threatening to neighbors. This hard power, delivered in a manner many Southeast Asian nations view negatively, undermines the entire soft power effort.

But, globally, China’s image is better than it is these days in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, in part because nations in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East do not have to think as much about China’s rising hard power. The current partisan dysfunction in Washington also potentially makes China more appealing. But will the global democratic regression—Freedom House has now recorded eleven straight years of democratic regression in its annual Freedom in the World report— somehow boost China’s soft power?

On the surface, the idea seems to make sense. If democratic leaders are failing to address major challenges like economic inequality, climate change, immigration, terrorism, technology’s impact on work and the job market, the rising cost of health care, and other issues, is it possible that an alternative model of governance would work—or at least might become more popular among citizens in many nations?  

The fact that voters in democracies around the world are increasingly turning to strongman/strongwoman style candidates suggests that there is some pent up demand for an alternative model of governance, even if those strongmen are elected—which China’s leaders really are not. (The groundbreaking work of Yascha Mounk at Harvard suggests that, especially among younger men and women in many democracies, there is a greater willingness than in the past to consider alternative forms of government.) As the thinking goes, perhaps an elected strongman, like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or Hungary’s Viktor Orban, can break through political roadblocks, and use the popular will to make important progress on issues like economic inequality, or environmental threats, or sensible immigration? Certainly, strongman-style politicians, many of them using populist rhetoric, have made gains globally in the past decade—from Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand to Duterte to Orban to many others.

So, if voters in democracies are choosing strongman-style politicians, wouldn’t they also warm to China’s own authoritarian leaders, who are supposedly delivering the goods at home? Not necessarily. China, too, has in its own way succumbed to this strongman trend. Xi Jinping is now probably the most powerful single leader of China since Mao Zedong. He has built a formidable personality cult around himself—a cult that harkens back to that of Mao Zedong. He also has cracked down hard on all forms of dissent, within the Party and in society at large.

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But while Xi may indeed be the most strongman-style leader China has had in decades, his style of governance is not necessarily going to boost China’s soft power around the world. Remember that in most countries that have flirted with or voted in strongmen-style leaders, these politicians were still elected. Polling by the Barometer series shows overwhelming support, in most of these countries, for the idea of electing leaders. In other words, citizens of Thailand or Hungary or the Philippines may have voted in what I have called elected autocrats, but they still overwhelmingly prefer to elect their strongmen.

This point cannot be overstated. Electing modern strongmen like Thaksin or Orban is dangerous to the future of democracy—they can undermine democratic institutions even while winning elections. But the Orban/Thaksin/Duterte/Erdogan model is probably going to remain more appealing than a China-style approach, which does not really give the public a voice—not even a voice in choosing a leader who could undermine democracy.

A model of an unelected strongman, chosen through opaque and byzantine political maneuvering, is indeed unlikely to be more popular than voters choosing an elected autocrat. Choosing an elected autocrat allows for the possibility that voters can eventually turn against and remove the elected leader—although, as Turkey shows, this gets harder over time. China’s system does not allow for that possibility.

In my next post, I will address a second major flaw in China’s authoritarian model that undermines its global soft power.

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