China’s Challenge to Democracy

April 30, 2015 | by Jessica Ludwig

“For now, at least, China displays no missionary impulse to promote authoritarianism. But, this does not mean that its policies are inconsequential for the fate of democracy,” argues Andrew Nathan in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tightens its grip on power at home by developing new methods to crack down on dissent, Nathan asserts that under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has learned to flex its muscles beyond its borders in order to shore up defenses against internal and external criticism of its one-party, authoritarian regime.

While China has not chosen to pursue “an all-out challenge” against established democracies, Nathan underscores that its willingness to work with regimes of any type, as well as its active promotion of international norms such as state sovereignty, noninterference, and “cultural pluralism,” has an enabling effect on semi-authoritarian and authoritarian systems across the globe.

In his Journal of Democracy article, Nathan identifies six ways that China’s engagement in the international arena has an adverse impact on the fate of democracy beyond China’s borders:

  1. Encouraging authoritarian regimes by the power of its example
    China’s economic success under authoritarian rule thus far gives hope to other illiberal regimes that they can achieve modernization without democratic reform.
  2. Attempting to burnish its national prestige abroad, partly through international promotion of authoritarian values
    China portrays itself to others as a benevolent partner through internationally-broadcasted state media, which feed its propaganda into foreign media outlets while also white-washing news coverage about China.
  3. Playing a key role in a circle of authoritarian states that pick up techniques of rule from one another
    As a pioneer in repression and censorship techniques, China provides training and shares its surveillance strategies and technologies with other authoritarian regimes to build closer ties.
  4. Seeking to roll back existing democratic institutions or to stifle sprouts of democratic change in territories where it enjoys special influence
    China actively blocks democratic initiatives in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan out of fear that democratic reform in its periphery might trigger demands for reform on the mainland.
  5. Helping to ensure the survival of authoritarian regimes that are key economic and strategic partners
    To protect its economic interests abroad, China frequently backs non-democratic regimes with investment, access to its domestic market, weapons, and diplomatic support.
  6. Working to shape international institutions to make them “regime-type-neutral” instead of weighted in favor of democracy
    China uses its clout in international organizations such as the United Nations to neutralize initiatives that promote liberal values. China has also promoted the role of parallel international institutions which exclude democratic members, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In many ways, the Chinese leadership may find it easier to work with other non-democratic regimes, but, as Nathan highlights, actively promoting the rollback of stable, democratic regimes into unpredictable autocracies would also be bad for business. Nevertheless, the CCP faces serious challenges at home and fears what effect liberal ideas might have on the regime’s stability. As another China scholar, Minxin Pei, recently pointed out, so far all signs emanating from China’s political leadership indicate that the party has opted to pick a fight against “Western values” rather than risk opening itself up to meaningful democratic reform.


Photo Credit: Shawn Clover, Flickr/Creative Commons

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