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 the same.

by Joshua Kurlantzick, January 11, 2007

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 democrats.

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 Peace.

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