Shadow Government

Is China a new ideological superpower? Don’t bet on it.

By Dan Twining Today’s Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking piece by Marcus Walker asking whether, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, China’s model of authoritarian capitalism presents a new ideological challenge to the West, one comparable to that of communist totalitarianism during the Cold War. Some Western thinkers now ...

578000_091029_chinab2.jpg

By Dan Twining

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking piece by Marcus Walker asking whether, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, China’s model of authoritarian capitalism presents a new ideological challenge to the West, one comparable to that of communist totalitarianism during the Cold War.

Some Western thinkers now argue that democracy is in a new competition with unexpectedly robust authoritarian regimes over which form of government can better deliver prosperity, security and national strength. …

Today, history is back, according to writers such as Israeli military historian Azar Gat. In his new book, “Victorious and Vulnerable,” he says that although democracy is the most benign system in history, it will have to demonstrate its advantages all over again in the face of its latest rival: authoritarian capitalism, as practiced by self-confident powers such as China and Russia. …

Neither China nor Russia is actively promoting its system of government the way the U.S. does. But China’s recent growth in particular is feeding a conviction in parts of the world that democracy isn’t necessary, or even helpful, for prosperity, say some analysts.

“There are hundreds of millions of people, especially in Asia, who believe that democracy usually means more bickering, more indecision and less economic efficiency, and that it requires a trade-off with prosperity that they’re not prepared to pay,” says Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a nonpartisan foreign-affairs think tank in London.

Mr. Eyal argues that the backlash against Western-style democracy began while 1989’s democratic revolutions were still under way — thanks above all to the way Beijing reacted to that year’s convulsions.”

This is certainly true of China, where constraints on freedom of political expression were far looser in the 1980s than today, demonstrating how the country’s inexorable economic march has been accompanied by tighter limits on political speech and action. But most of Asia has been marching in the opposite direction. More Asians live under democratic rule than in any other region. Democracy has an Asian face; it’s no longer considered a Western privilege or export but something Asians earned themselves — from dictators often supported by the United States during the Cold War.

Chinese authoritarianism actually has a reverse “demonstration effect” in many countries. Just look at the numbers: despite its miraculous growth, China enjoys less “soft power” in Asia than either the United States or Japan. China’s neighbors want to be part of its economic miracle, but they don’t want to organize their societies along Chinese lines. Asians want to buy Chinese goods, but they don’t want to be part of any new “Middle Kingdom.” This debate played out at a summit of Asian leaders last weekend, where key countries resisted efforts to put China in the driver’s seat of closed regional institutions that exclude America and other friendly powers like India.

Rather than a political model for its region, China is in some respects an outlier: its closed political system puts it in the company of Burma, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. This is a minority camp in Asia, and is in many ways a defensive grouping compared to the confidence pluralism inspires in giant democracies like India and Indonesia, and rich ones like South Korea and Taiwan. While the region certainly suffers from weak institutions, Asia is arguably the world’s democratic trendsetter, rejecting the embrace and export of authoritarianism of the kind that characterizes, say, Russia. 

Check out Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition and Susan Shirk’s China: Fragile Superpower to plumb the depths of Chinese leaders’ greatest source of insecurity: their own people. It will be hard to run the world with that handicap.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Tag: China

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola