The West Turned a Blind Eye to China’s Threat to Democracy

Hubris drove failed engagement policies. Now, the democratic world must fight back.

By Nathan Law, a former student leader, elected representative, and political prisoner in Hong Kong, now resident in London.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials attend a flag raising ceremony to mark China’s National Day in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1, 2020.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials attend a flag raising ceremony to mark China’s National Day in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1, 2020. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, theorists once thought democracy was both optimal and inevitable. After decades of democratic backsliding, this proved far too optimistic. So was the global perception of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) future path. The champions of engagement policies thought that by interacting with China, enhancing economic ties, binding them with international agreements, and then coupling them with a stronger middle class and the pursuit of the rule of law in the country, China would be free and democratic eventually.

It has not happened. On the contrary, China moved the world toward a much more autocratic system. Even so, the world has been reluctant to face reality: Western democracies’ wishful thinking led to the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy. Theorists who once advocated appeasement strategies bear the responsibility of mending it and redirecting the free world to a position far more capable of combating authoritarianism. This starts with a proper strategy toward China and by treating the crisis of democracy as a global problem that demands coordinated global action.

The 2020 Varieties of Democracy report found that 2020 was the first time since 2001 that the world has more autocratic institutions than democratic ones. Increasing autocracy threatens the rights of people in every corner of the world. This is a global emergency that awaits a coordinated response from the free world.

The decline in democracy means the lack of democratically accountable governments, resulting in increased corruption, human rights violations, and conflict. Like poverty, hunger, and climate emergencies, citizens suffer under autocratic systems. Yet the world lacks the willingness to tackle it like other global problems. Although there is humanitarian assistance worldwide to fight hunger and internationally orchestrated actions to decrease carbon emissions, the international community has not found a vision for how democracy can prevail after the delusional dreams of the “end of history” failed. The West walked the wrong path and fed the rise of authoritarianism by engaging them without accountability—it’s time for action to repair these mistakes.

When the military coup took place in Myanmar, global leaders joined hands to condemn it and demand democratic rights for people. At the same time, China defended the coup by claiming it “a major cabinet reshuffle.” The Thai junta also claimed the coup was an internal affair and others should not intervene. Authoritarian countries have abused the concept of sovereignty to evade the most basic monitoring from the rule-based international community and commit appalling human rights violations without being held accountable. Countries that are similar support one another, hence why autocracies grow. With China leading the way and Russia following closely, the world is faced with a camp of tyrants who despises universal value.

To tackle authoritarian expansion, the free world and its supporters have to consolidate their efforts and align their goals. It comes with a shift in perception: China is a threat to democracy, and the decline of democracy affects everyone, the same as with climate emergencies and public health crises. Democratic leaders must form alliances to discuss possible policies that can effectively curb the influence of these authoritarian regimes, including blocking their infiltration and propaganda.

When it comes to policy aimed at the CCP, policymakers have to understand how the regime’s legitimacy is built. The two major sources of legitimacy are nationalism and economic benefits, instead of a popular mandate. In China, where a large part of the population has enjoyed material gains and is caught in the fanatical rhetoric of patriotism, the public invisibly signed a social contract and tacitly allowed the autocracy to grow. Occasional resistance movements have occurred in China but with, at best, limited influence.

But with the economy slowing and the prospect of being caught in the middle-income trap apparent, the CCP has to develop a new source of legitimacy to compensate. Nationalism must be boosted for the party to survive, and the best way to do it is by creating mythical, glorified national narratives and establish enemies. Thus came the emergence of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and a leader, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who ranks unifying (or annexing) Taiwan as the primary mission of “achieving national rejuvenation” and revoking a “century of humiliation.” Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of biding China’s time has gone, and a nation that aims at creating an authoritarian global order has arisen.

When China becomes more aggressive on the international stage, the sole correct response is not appeasing the country but standing firm.

When China becomes more aggressive on the international stage, the sole correct response is not appeasing the country but standing firm. This barbaric conduct, including genocide in Xinjiang and the suppression of Hong Kong, must result in economic punishment. This can create a vicious cycle for the CCP; the weaker the economy is, the more aggressive the nationalism will become and the greater the party’s isolation will grow, sparking more economic problems. When the cycle spirals, the CCP will need to find a different source of legitimacy, an additional incentive for the people to support the intangible social contract.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese peasant workers would face unemployment problems when the country is stuck in the middle-income trap. The overloaded social benefits system with its aging population, originated by the one-child policy, would start to crack. And the extreme wealth gap has driven more conflicts across social strata. Even though the party declares it has lifted the country from poverty, more than 600 million people still live with an income under $155 per month, and Chinese incomes are below the global average per capita.

Its seemingly invincible economic engine, fueled by the successful transition to modernity over the last four decades, has disguised the genuine face of China. Yet, a country is always fragile when it has to rely on its economic performance to suppress people’s voices. The West should separate the hardworking and honest Chinese people from the regime and trust they will pursue freedom when the time and conditions have come. When the people realize there is a need for them to reshape their relationship with the CCP, that will lead to reform and to a more democratic and freer future.

To reverse the decline of global democracy, the first step is to hold the strongest authoritarian regime accountable, putting pressure on it to seek a new popular mandate from its own people. Democratic leaders should form alliances and implement coherent strategies that put human rights policies as preconditions of further engagement. Trade agreements should be signed only after China has demonstrated tangible and visible enhancement on its human rights record, such as abolishing all the concentration camps in Xinjiang. Divide and conquer efforts run by China, such as the 17+1 initiative, should be reviewed rigorously and opposed if necessary. Chinese state actions should be scrutinized or banned if they threaten core interests in democratic countries, and individuals affiliated with the CCP should be treated as their complicit colluders.

In this intertwined and globalized world, it’s impractical to form wholly detached blocs. But for the sake of the Chinese people and the future of democracy, the free world must do its best. Whether through decoupling or divergence, the regime’s legitimacy must be continually challenged and have limits set on its influence. International bodies like the World Health Organization and the United Nations should be reformed as most of them are compromised by China’s infiltration and have abandoned universal values in favor of acting in Beijing’s interests.

I still believe that democracy prevails, but it relies on consolidated efforts from individuals and institutions that believe in it. If we don’t walk the walk, we will regret handing future generations a more autocratic world. Perception drives actions. It’s time for the West to recognize the decline of democracy as a global problem and resolve it with international action. The West’s misjudgment fed the rise of the largest threat to democracy, and it must bear the responsibility of restraining it.

Nathan Law is a former student leader, elected representative, and political prisoner in Hong Kong, now resident in London. Twitter: @nathanlawkc