The China Syndrome
Bush has given democracy-building
a bad name. Now China is not only cracking down on reformers at
home, it's teaching other authoritarian governments how to do
by Joshua Kurlantzick, January
American Prospect magazine online,
On a trip to Cambodia last winter, I sat
down for breakfast with Loh Swee Ping, a Malaysian-Chinese journalist
based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Between large bites of
spare ribs, a Chinese breakfast, Loh told me that she moved to
Phnom Penh nearly a decade ago, after the factions in Cambodia's
civil war signed a peace deal and the United Nations arrived to
oversee the nation's transition to democracy.
Around the same time, Sin Chew, a Chinese-language
publishing giant based in Malaysia, began to diversify into other
markets where they thought there would be greater demand for news
about China. Cambodia seemed an obvious choice at a time when
Chinese companies were flocking to Phnom Penh, Chinese language
schools were opening across the country, and the Cambodian government
was cultivating close ties with Beijing. Sin Chew launched their
Cambodian paper in November 2000 and hired Loh to edit it.
The paper quickly established a reputation
for independent, honest reporting. While the other Chinese-language
newspaper in Phnom Penh read more like a community newsletter,
Sin Chew's publication featured serious reporting on Chinese business
and China's relations with Cambodia. It also didn't hesitate to
run articles that might portray Beijing in a less positive light.
Loh found that running a newspaper in
often-lawless Cambodia was not for the timid. Cambodian tycoons
handed out cash to journalists in exchange for favorable coverage.
Some Cambodian journalists who angered powerful elites routinely
died in so-called traffic accidents; in other cases, assassins
bludgeoned or stabbed journalists. "It can be a crazy environment,"
Loh told me. "I don't really get surprised by anything anymore."
But Loh's biggest headache wasn't payola
or physical threats. "The Chinese embassy is our biggest
problem," Loh said. "They call and complain when we
run any news about Taiwan, or when we feature [Taiwanese president]
Chen Shui-bian. They file protests to the [Cambodian] Ministry
of Information, they threaten us." The embassy, Loh said,
simply could not understand why a Chinese-language newspaper would
print anything that angered Beijing. They seemed unable to recognize
that diaspora Chinese like Loh could have liberal political beliefs.
"They just don't want an independent Chinese-language publication
here," Loh said.
Loh's experience was hardly unique. Over
the past five years, as democracy promotion has come to be linked
with the unpopular international policies of the Bush administration,
many authoritarian governments have seized the opportunity to
harass, undermine, and destroy independent media, unions, and
other groups fostering democracy. In a comprehensive recent Foreign
Affairs article, democratization expert Thomas Carothers notes:
After two decades of the steady expansion
of democracy-building programs around the world, a growing number
of governments are starting to crack down on such activities within
their borders. Strongmen -- some of them elected officials --
have begun to publicly denounce Western democracy assistance as
illegitimate political meddling. They have started expelling or
harassing Western NGOs and prohibiting local groups from taking
foreign funds -- or have started punishing them for doing so.
As Carothers shows, Russian president
Vladimir Putin has signed new laws imposing tight controls on
non-governmental organizations. Another, comprehensive report
by the National Endowment for Democracy reveals similar harassment
by governments from Zimbabwe to Venezuela - crackdowns ranging
from closing the offices of reform-minded NGOs to jailing nascent
While many critics have focused on Russia's
destruction of democratizers, China has escaped much of the blame
for the backlash against democracy promotion. Yet in subtle ways,
the growing power and sophistication of China's foreign policy
in the developing world is putting the brakes on democratization.
Beijing does not have an explicit policy
of undermining civil society in countries with which it has relations.
In fact, at times China's diplomacy appears unorganized or at
least purely pragmatic. But China is becoming far more proactive
in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the developing
world, and it is developing a more coherent diplomatic strategy.
Worse, according to numerous reports, the recent Central Asian
color revolutions shocked China's leaders, prompting Beijing to
crack down harder on civil society at home and consider ways to
curtail it abroad.
Perhaps most important, China's ideological
challenge to the West threatens developing-world democrats. By
suggesting to authoritarian rulers that China has perfected a
model for rapid economic growth without concurrent political liberalization,
Beijing offers hope for autocrats to remain in power. Unsurprisingly,
top leaders from Vietnam to Cuba have flocked to the People's
Republic to study China's economic development, while hard-line
Syrian and Iranian political elites and media outlets debate how
to implement a Chinese development strategy.
At the same time, within international
bodies China argues that sovereignty trumps any need for international
intervention in a country, thereby undermining the rationale for
Western states to fund democracy promotion in developing nations.
In the long run, this sovereignty-first principle could become
a concerted challenge to democratic nations, if China and other
authoritarian states like Iran and Russia can form a more coherent
bloc. Already, China, Russia, and Central Asian authoritarian
states have issued joint communiqués denouncing the export
of democracy, and have begun to protect each other at international
forums like the United Nations.
Over the past decade, China has sharply
increased its training programs for officials from developing
nations. Many of these programs target economic officials responsible
for implementing development policy, elites within the ruling
party of authoritarian states, and other authorities. Police and
legal specialists from places like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan learn
Chinese tactics, which they can then use against civil society
or advocates for minority rights, like the Uighurs, a Muslim minority
group persecuted in China and, increasingly, in Central Asia.
Or authoritarian nations like Belarus can obtain Chinese Internet-monitoring
technology, among the most sophisticated in the world.
At the same time, Chinese embassies have
become more active on the ground in developing nations. Chinese
diplomats say Beijing's ministry of foreign affairs has spent
the past two decades making a concerted effort to upgrade the
quality of China's diplomatic corps, forcing diplomats to return
to one nation over and over, developing local contacts and improving
their language skills. (The State Department, of course, cannot
force Foreign Service officers to continually return to the same
posting.) To take one example, Beijing's ministry of foreign affairs
has enrolled some of its diplomats in a Mexican university so
that the Chinese can improve their Spanish.
Some of these young diplomats are liberal
thinkers open to working with local reformers. But their growing
sophistication means they can effectively undermine democrats
in a developing nation. Like Loh Swee Ping, many other independent
journalists in Southeast Asian countries say they've received
threatening responses from the local Chinese embassy when they
write articles on subjects sensitive to Beijing, such as Taiwan
or Tibet. "After we did a piece on Tibet, the Chinese ambassador
came up to my boss, and he was right in his face, yelling at him,"
says one Thai journalist.
The Chinese embassy also often provides
support to Chinese firms operating in countries, which demonstrate
little interest in unions, environmental groups, indigenous organizations,
or other civil society stalwarts. In Cambodia, local activists
accuse both the Cambodian government and Wuzhishan LS, a Chinese-state-linked
firm, of forcing hundreds of villagers in a province called Mondulkiri
off their land, repossessing the property, and then spraying the
area, which includes ancestral burial areas, with dangerous herbicides.
"The government and the company [Wuzhishan LS] have disregarded
the well-being, culture, and livelihoods of the ... indigenous
people who make up more than half the population of the province,"
said Peter Leuprecht, the United Nations' special representative
for human rights in Cambodia told reporters.
At times, Beijing has also been willing
to go as far as offering support for authoritarian friends during
critical political moments. In Zimbabwe, China provided riot control
gear and other forms of assistance to Robert Mugabe's regime,
which may have helped him win the rigged 2005 national election.
Unfortunately, Washington only has limited
power to prevent the backlash against democracy promotion. As
the NED report notes, citizens of many foreign countries now associate
democracy-building, which includes everything from funding independent
media to training lawyers, with U.S.-promoted regime change. Consequently,
autocrats have been able to tar local reformers as American lackeys.
Restoring the luster of democratization
will require Washington to emphasize its universality. Even as
the White House's failed Middle East policies have tarnished democratic
reform, other countries quietly have taken up the mantle. The
United Nations recently established a democracy fund, and European
nations like Germany have created their own versions of the National
Endowment for Democracy. Working more closely with these other
actors will allow the United States, and local reformers, to avoid
being tainted by Washington's Middle East muddle.
At the same time, the United States needs
to prove more consistent in its criticism of countries leading
the backlash, whether these are allies like Egypt or foes like
Iran. Finally, Washington must make clear that there are incentives
for democratization, particularly in regions where China also
plays an active role. In Asia, for example, the United States
could work to empower a so-called "community of democracies,"
a loose alliance of free nations proposed by the White House but
then paid little interest. With these policies in place, perhaps
democracy advocates like Loh Swee Ping might think of turning
to U.S. officials the next time they face harassment.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior correspondent
at The American Prospect and a special correspondent at The New
Republic. He is also a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International