How the crises in western politics are strengthening China’s autocracy

As 2017 now draws to a close, one’s reflection on current political events might be somewhat bitter and pessimistic. 2016 and 2017 have been years of political consequence, what with the Brexit vote which led to the change in Tory power from David Cameron to Theresa May and the ensuing consequences that leaving the European Union would have on the UK and the rest of Europe, the highly contentious American election which led to the rise of Donald Trump as its 45th President and the implementation of all his controversial policies, the Catalunyan referendum which saw unprecedented levels of violence and tension between Madrid and Barcelona in the history of Spain.

I think most people would agree that western politics is not in a good place right now, and the disheartening thing is that the Europeans and Americans very much brought these troubles to themselves since all these political decisions were the results of countrywide voting and general elections. If one is trying to point fingers, the Westerners may only have themselves to blame, and the culprits, whether it be the Brexiteers/Remainers, Trump supporters/haters and pro-Catalan independistas/Madridistas, count in millions and represent big sections of the population.

It is impossible to pin these troubles down on a single person or a group of people, and if one is trying to put an end to the story by bringing the culprits to justice, one is talking about civil war. Western democracy has tied itself in a knot, which is hardly the image that Western countries want to project to the rest of the world.

For over a century, western powers have prided themselves in being the beacons of democratic values and the champions of human civil rights, yet their recent turmoils perhaps do not support their case that their political system (liberal democracy or sorts in the US, UK and Spain) is the stablest and the best model to have. This is exactly how the Chinese central government have reacted to the West, with the end of justifying their autocratic, one-party rule. As is well-known, Modern China has a funny mixture of political ideologies (which goes to show how simplistic political theories, especially Marxist ones, can be, useful though they may be), since although its sovereign party is called the Chinese Communist Party and is the sole legitimate political party in the whole of China, it has a very dynamic and flourishing market economy that is very active on the global market. China’s economy has been the fastest-growing economy in modern times and is rapidly becoming the world’s biggest economy (tied head-to-head with the US economy). It might even become the financial basis for future investors throughout the world, which explains why Westerners are taking an increasingly strong interest in all things Chinese, as can be seen in Donald Trump’s granddaughter’s impeccable pronunciation of Mandarin on the US President’s latest visit to Beijing.

There is no questioning of China’s economic potential and its emergence as a global superpower, what with its huge population, resources and general enthusiasm in world economy, which has dramatically improved its relations with the rest of the world. It is easy to forget and hard to imagine that half a century ago in China’s early Communist days it was a secluded state with state-owned economy and a major player in the Communist bloc who were sworn enemies to Western capitalism in the Cold War (indeed, it even locked fire and arms with the US in the Korean War and helped secure North Korea as an independent state). However, there is also no questioning that China is not a democratic state in a political sense. Its leaders and party members are elected not through democratic voting but via political and family connections, and there have been numerous incidents where the central government have crushed using military force any protest or call for democracy that has threatened its power and authority (1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre being the most infamous example that still stains China’s record on human rights, global reputation and internal politics, as 4th June, the day the Beijing government opened fire at the protestors in Tiananmen Square and caused thousands of deaths and casualties, is annually ‘celebrated’ by all citizens as some kind of national mourning day).

Those who dream of a democratic revolution in China in the form of the Russian Revolution in 1917, which happened twelve years after a very similar shooting outside the Tsar’s palace in 1905, will be disappointed at the lack of progress in this regard, since there seems to be no letting-up for democracy, political freedom or freedom of expression in China, as seen in the recent house arrests of several political activists, and even in areas where Beijing’s iron fist has less control, democracy is still far from reach, as seen in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (2014-) which has been forcefully crushed, made no constitutional impact whatsoever, and has even had its main players (e.g. the 18 y.o. Joshua Wong) incarcerated for civil unrest. Democracy is a frequently debated issue in China, and the latest response from the Party Chairman Xi Jinping is sterner than ever as in his speech in the most recent Party Congress (October 2017) he has cited the current crises in western Europe and America as justification for NOT instilling political freedom in China, alleging that introducing multi-party politics now would only cause chaos and anarchy, ‘as seen in the recent Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in America’. It is a shrewd move for him as a politician to seize on recent events and use them to his advantage, but utterly disappointing for those who fight for political freedom and civil rights in a country that is so prominent in contemporary world politics but has such a poor record in treating its citizens (politically).

Where do we go from here? As with all freedom fighters, one might wonder as to how to pressure the Beijing government into relenting to gentler measures or, if one dreams of being a superhero in the mould of V in ‘V for Vendetta‘, how to defeat them in a revolutionary style.

Keeping the latter option in one’s imagination (though it may be possible), the former is probably more likely and hence worth considering. If one is thinking of foreign intervention in forcing China’s hand, this is verging on impossible, since there is little possibility that China could be forced either economically or politically into making such concessions when its global position is currently so strong. North Korea is the recent victim (and rightly so) of international sanctions and foreign pressure, which may well end up changing the regime and resulting in a long overdue reunification of the two Koreas, yet such tactics could hardly be used on China, given that severing economic ties would only hurt the rest of the world.

Using military force is also unlikely to yield positive results, as China’s military might is only second to the US who cannot possibly bully China in the same way that their joint drills with South Korea have provoked the North Korean government. Pressure from below is also an option, though a highly risky one given the amount of control and censorship the current government seeks to impose on its citizens. Also, with China’s economy flourishing at such an exponential rate, economic stability seems to be relatively accessible for most people in China who would hardly sacrifice that for regime change, especially if it threatens their livelihood. Perhaps wariness of China’s undemocratic policies should have been realized at the beginning of its capitalist revolution in the 1970s when the Western powers (especially the US, then led by President Jimmy Carter who welcomed on home soil the then Party Chairman and sole instigator of Chinese capitalism, Deng Xiaoping, who was also responsible for the Tiananmen Square Massacre and was as paradoxical as China is today) should have tried to curb its autocracy as part of the deal of entering into trading relations with it.

Unfortunately, that possibility is now long gone and one is faced with this giant economic juggernaut that is so important to the rest of the world yet whose policies are not what its people (or the rest of the world) want. The Chinese central government is now at an excellent position to exert its influence not only on its citizens but also on the rest of the world, and there may be no holding them back which may spell the end of democracy in China. I still believe that foreign intervention is the likelier scenario, but first the Western countries need to sort themselves out, which is another long(ist) battle.


Langley Henry

Langley Henry is a postdoctorate Research fellow in political science at St John’s College, University of Cambridge after having done his undergraduate (Politics, Philosophy, Economics (PPE)) and postgraduate (Political Science and History of Western Thought) degrees (B.A., M.Sc., DPhil) at Balliol College, University of Oxford. He is the author of several essays that have been published in peer-reviewed journals and is now working on publishing his Oxford doctoral thesis as a monograph with Oxford University Press. Other than his academic work, he is a keen blogger and has written on contemporary and historical political topics as well as on western contemporary music.


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