China Has No Room for Dissenting Friends

Small nations know they can break from Washington—but not from Beijing.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, right, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 26. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

In July this year, 22 Western-aligned countries issued a joint statement to the high commissioner of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council objecting to China’s abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. That’s not unusual: The reports of human rights abuses in the province are coming out thick and fast, and Western countries are more than happy to raise concerns against such abuses, whether out of genuine concern, domestic virtue signaling by political leaders, or the use of any available stick to whack a geopolitical rival.

What was remarkable was the 37 countries issuing a counter letter praising China’s human rights record, from humanitarian luminaries including such as Syria, Myanmar, and North Korea. More interestingly, about half of the signatories of this letter were Muslim-majority countries. If the issues had been about Palestinians or even the Rohingya, one might expect the usual cynical domestic virtue signaling by political leaders around the well-worn claims of Muslim solidarity. Instead, they chose to loudly broadcast their support for Beijing’s policy of eradicating the old Islamic culture of the ancient Silk Road gateway to the Chinese heartland in Xinjiang.

The calculation of such leaders, from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto head of government of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is well understood and publicized: “Muslim solidarity” is a convenient and effective slogan to be thrown at domestic audiences, but if your national economy—and the personal profits of the elite—depends on the goodwill of Beijing, then you must defer to China’s supposedly sovereign right to do as it pleases within its borders, and forget about the umma.

In a sense, none of this is surprising. Political hypocrisy is the bread and butter of strongman leaders of marginal states. But what’s curious is that the very same leaders and countries would have no compunction voicing objections to any real or imagined ill-treatment of Muslims by Western countries. Many of these countries, and certainly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, owe their security and their regional power and prominence to U.S. and NATO guarantees. There is no sense in which many of these countries are more dependent on China than they are on the United States. The asymmetry comes out of China’s expected response.

Unlike the West, China has a much lower tolerance for disagreement and criticism. In part, this is down to the political system. Western democracies are built upon disagreement and criticism. A Western government can hardly complain to Ankara or Riyadh about comments they make on domestic affairs when that country’s political opposition, media, and public opinion would have already raised those points. That ability to take criticism and hopefully respond by improving is one of the key strengths of the West’s political culture.

However, as much as the Chinese Communist Party has changed in the last four decades, its default is still control. Dissent under President Xi Jinping has been ruthlessly quashed, with even the limited space available for mild criticism in the 2000s now eliminated. Beijing maintains the habits of 20th-century socialist dictatorships. Criticism is not taken as an opportunity to learn and improve. It is taken as an attack on the party and consequently a deliberate assault upon the obviously correct and harmonious social order.

When translated to foreign affairs, the contrast between these two cultures is stark. Britain and America’s other key Western allies could all sit on the side in the Vietnam War, criticizing through popular mass protest and government resistance U.S. policy and war conduct. There was never, therefore, a question of Washington withdrawing economic and military support from Western Europe in response. The most famous incident of Washington threatening to pull economic support was for an anti-imperialist cause—when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised devastating measures if Britain and France didn’t pull out of the self-created Suez crisis.

When Washington invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, U.S. allies came through, but when the United States sought war in Iraq under the same pretext, many of those allies had the latitude to step back and say, as well-meaning friends, that it was the wrong thing to do. They were, of course, right—and if Washington listened more, it would make better decisions.

But as China builds a sphere of influence, its newfound friendships are of an entirely different nature. China’s friends are expected to acquiesce unquestioningly to Beijing’s higher wisdom and present ostentatious displays of public fawning whenever Beijing comes under any criticism. And as Beijing’s crackdown shows no sign of ending, foreign leaders in China’s sphere of influence will be under continued pressure to come to the defense of Beijing in public forums, regardless how awkward that might turn out to be for them.

But if that is how Beijing and their friends want to transact their friendship, what is the problem? We do not need to like it, but it is not for us to decide how these countries organize their relationships to one another, right?

Well, the problem is that Beijing is, in effect, building a gang. China’s sphere of influence is not going to be a just a group of pals. It will be an in-group organized around currying favor with the gang leader, but, crucially for everyone else, also the performance of hostility toward the out-group as a display of loyalty to the gang and the leader. China is cultivating an us versus them attitude in the foreign outlook of their clients, and the West is the “them” to be hostile against.

For the time being, this tendency has not yet produced any obviously absurd displays of hostility. Even though many of these countries are increasingly moving toward the warm embrace of China, they still have vital relationships with the United States and the West more broadly. So when asked for rhetorical support by Beijing on issues such as the Uighurs or even Hong Kong, these countries will calculate that China will not tolerate dissent, their Western partners will, and so the logical middle ground is to sign Beijing’s letters and leave things at that.

But as the United States, and consequently the Western alliance, are increasingly withdrawing from many areas of the globe, those vital relationships for many of these countries will wither and increasingly be replaced by relations of dependency toward Beijing. In fact, there are already countries where this has happened, most obviously and starkly in Pakistan. When these countries begin to have deeper and more essential relationships with China than they do with the West, China will ask for more than just rhetorical support. And these countries will oblige, even if that means attacking Western relations, interests, and assets.

All this is compounded by the current crisis in Washington. The difficulty for the United States in criticizing China for its demands on its friends, and in raising these issues with their common friends, is that the current U.S. leadership is significantly more thin-skinned and unreliable as a friend than previous occupants of the White House. The United States may not threaten to withdraw support over national criticism, but President Donald Trump will do so over personal criticism. So it is only natural that more and more countries will drift ever closer to China, quite apart from considerations of geographical proximity and expectations of future economic opportunities.

China will continue to build an anti-Western bloc, which whether by design or accident will consolidate the world once more into two camps facing each other in a cold war. The United States needs to show itself to be a global leader and reliable friend—either to avert this, or to prepare for it.

Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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