Daniel W. Drezner

If this is an example of Chinese power, I’m unimpressed

Sorry, students — Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage took up my challenge earlier this week to explain "what were the key factors that determined a country’s decision not to attend Lu’s Nobel [Peace Prize] ceremony?"  Click here and then here — there are cool graphs.   [Then why not replicate them here?–ed.  Because more of my ...

Sorry, students — Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage took up my challenge earlier this week to explain "what were the key factors that determined a country’s decision not to attend Lu’s Nobel [Peace Prize] ceremony?"  Click here and then here — there are cool graphs.  

[Then why not replicate them here?–ed.  Because more of my readers should be reading The Monkey Cage anyway.] 

What’s interesting is that, in the end, a few countries that originally signaled their intention to abide by China’s wishes reversed course in the end.  In particular, some of the anomalous countries — Colombia and the Philippines, for example — reversed course and sent representatives. 

In doing so, Voeten found a pretty straightforward correlation between domestic press freedoms and attendance.  That is to say, the countries that declined to send a representative were the countries that censored their domestic press the most.  Foreign policy alignment, as represented by UN votes, does not appear to play a role. 

Voeten cautions that this does not mean that China’s political and implicit economic pressure played no role, however: 

All of this does not mean that international pressure is irrelevant to the story. China can probably credibly threaten small punishments to most countries for attending but not big ones. So, the cost of attending may be pretty similar across states. There is much greater variation in the domestic cost for giving in to Chinese pressure. So, press freedom does a pretty good job in accounting for the variation in who attends and who does not. Yet, without China’s ability to credibly threaten repercussions, the whole thing would not have been an issue.

Voeten is correct that China’s power was in some ways a necessary condition for them to even consider organizing a boycott.  Looking again at the list of attendees and non-attendees, however, I’d mildly disagree with Voeten on China’s ability to pressure others.  Voeten assumes that Beijing’s ability to apply "small punishments" was constant across countries.  Looking at the list of target countries, however, there were quite a few with significant export dependence on the Middle Kingdom.  China is either the largest or second-largest export market for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Iran, Japan, and Kazakhstan.  One would expect both Thailand and the Philippines to also have a pretty strong desire not to ruffle China’s feathers. 

In the end, however, the only countries that complied with China’s request were the countries that already shared China’s domestic policy preferences on this issue.  Strictly in terms of assessing Chinese power, it is to Beijing’s credit that it was able to get these countries to comply.  The country’s inability to use implicit and explicit threats to compel other countries well within its power orbit to change their minds, however, is… let’s say interesting

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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