China Syndrome

Written By: - Date published: 12:41 pm, April 5th, 2008 - 21 comments
Categories: International - Tags:

elephant-in-the-room-harrison1.JPGLiberal democracy (ie. democracy where there are truly competitive elections) is the dominant ideology of government of our time, having seen off monarchy and totalitarianism in both its fascist and communist guises. And if there’s one thing the world’s liberal democracies agree on is that spreading liberal democracy is a good idea, (unless it interferes with other interests, naturally).

A lot of effort goes into trying to democratise other countries, because we feel a moral duty to do so and it’s good for business. Nation building, peace-keeping/building, free trade, multilateralism, conditional aid, cultural and educational exchanges, sanctions, military action, and good old-fashioned diplomacy are all tools that are used by Western countries to try to democratise other countries. The number of democracies continues to grow.

But there’s an elephant in this room, a rather large one: China. China is not a democracy, let alone a liberal one, and its interests are not served by other countries becoming democracies. Democracies are less likely to be willing allies of China and more likely to be critics. More democracy abroad increases agitation for democracy at home. So, China works to prop up non-democratic governments and shield them from democratisation pressure from the West. Fiji, Zimbabwe, Tonga, Samoa, The Solomon Islands, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Burma, and Cuba are all examples of countries that are recieving diplomatic protection, aid, and investment with China meaning they haven’t had to turn to the West, with it’s ‘good governance’ demands, for support. China makes an attractive option for bad governments, it is a powerful ally that gives money and aid free of demands for better governance, all it asks in return is support in international forums and, occasionally, military access.

This makes our democratisation project more difficult. Countries are less willing to listen to us or obey our rules, and if we push too hard they will turn to China. This is increasingly happening in the Pacific Islands, and democratisation is stalling or reversing in several countries. As a contact working on Pacific issues puts it: “strategically, China’s got us fucked”

And there’s not much we can do about it because China is too important to us. It is the engine of the world’s economic growth. If Western countries want to continue to grow, they must trade more with China and that means remaining on good terms with the Chinese Government. Even if the West were to sacrifice warm relations with China for more strident defence of democratisation it would probably do no good. China can out bid the West for the allegiance of target countries in nearly every way, and its power is growing rapidly at the West’s (and particularly, the US’s) expense.

American rightwing thinking and military planning increasingly envisions eventually conflict with China (you didn’t think the US was buying all those F-22s to bomb terrorists did you?) but that just shows the out-datedness and bankruptcy of rightwing thought. There will be no war with China: there is no casus belli, the economic and human costs are too great for modern democracies to countenance, we are too interdependent, and China’s military is too strong.

What to do then, if we want to continue spreading democracy and not see the international stage increasingly dominated by a non-democratic actor? The only option is to build relations with China at every level. As it opens its society more we must engage with the Chinese people through trade, tourism, and growing inter-personal ties. As Chinese people become more exposed to life in democratic countries, the more they are demanding the same freedoms for themselves. We must encourage this process.

The Chinese Government’s actions to stifle freedom and democracy dismay and anger us but turning our backs on China on will do nothing to change things. Instead, we must build bridges with the country that, either way, will have most influence over the shape of the world in coming decades. The cornerstone of a democratic future is a democratic China.

21 comments on “China Syndrome”

  1. Pascal's bookie 1

    Thanks Steve, for the most part I agree.

    Liberal democracy is grand, fine and is by far and way my preffered system of govt and I think everyone should get some.

    I think it works best where it is a home grown phenomena. It’s far too easy for nondemocratic govts to run a ‘democracy is treason’ meme when the west rides in with demands and threats. Patriotism and Nationalism are the most powerful things in a nondemocrat’s arsenal and they just lap it up when a bunch of threatening foreigners start looking at them menacingly, demanding democratic reform.

    Where there are democratic reforms taking place we should of course applaud and reward them, and we should never hesitate to criticise abuses and suggest reforms. I honestly think that threats, sanctions and the like are counter productive. Active attempts to foster democracy by favouring one side in an internal debate also aften end up with us supporting the lesser of two evils long after they stop being the democrat. The history of picking winners has been unrelentingly poor.

    So poor that it almost seems as if ‘spreading democracy’ is just PR fluff, and that the real goals are usually strategic, and based around the control of resources and influence, or the limiting of same for one’s enemies.

    You might find this interesting.

  2. 4 million Kiwi’s trying to influence over 1 billion Chinese….hmmm well, I wouldn’t get too worked up about it. Anything NZ does has a very ,very limited impact. I support trade with China becuase NZ has to pay its bills somehow now that the American age is slowly coming to an end. Once this trade agreement is signed and passed through Parliament it will be easier to trade with China than it will with the former home of free enterprise, the USA.
    But expecting to influence China towards democracy? No, its not a realistic goal for two long Islands in the far South Pacific. The Chinese in the end will find their OWN solution.

  3. Draco TB 3

    The Chinese in the end will find their OWN solution.

    Which is how it should be but that shouldn’t stop us from showing the Chinese people that there is a better way.

  4. Jay 4

    “This makes our democratisation project more difficult. Countries are less willing to listen to us or obey our rules, and if we push too hard they will turn to China.”

    This is something that dubya’s speechwriters would have used.

  5. Matthew Pilott 5

    I found this rather insightful – bit of a who’s who of liberal democracies…

    Or not.

  6. RedLogix 6


    The CCP is only interested in its own survival. If that requires them to destroy the 20 odd “liberal democracies” that oppose it… then so be it.

    In the meantime they may play some childish little games with us, like indulging in “free trade”, in order to prop up the illusion that they are anything other than an ugly totalitarian state for a little while longer…. until it is too late for us to do anything about it.

    And yes we could have done something. Most of the CCP growth is coming at the expense of jobs and industries in the West, but they correctly calculated that our own greed would blind us to the reality of the power game being played here.

    Trade with China is supping with the Devil; and he will send us the bill.

  7. deemac 7

    the idea that NZ could have any influence on China is real “wrong end of the telescope” stuff which seems to afflict a fair number of Kiwis on a variety of issues. They don’t care what Europe thinks, so why would they take any notice of NZ? But rapid industrial growth in China is repeating what happened in the first industrial revolution, with workers flexing their muscles. The more open contact we can have with such developments, the better their chances.
    The alternative is – what?

  8. Ari 8

    China: The new Ostpolitik? 🙂

    I agree with you in the long-term. I think it’s important we don’t lock china out of the international world altogether- that just gives them free reign to do whatever they like internationally without a care for world reaction.

    I just wonder whether it’s worth making a few symbolic gestures now and again to remind them just how serious we take their agitation against representative government.

  9. Actually, China is a democracy. When the people get tired of the government, they overthrow it. Sure, it’s messy and bloody, but it’s been proven to work throughout Chinese history [and yes, that is meant to be sarcastic]

    Back in the real world:
    China is not a democracy, but it is democratising. Slowly, and in its own way, but still, it’s democratising. It’s not just experiments with “grassroots democracy”, which started with free elections for village officials and have been slowly moving up through the levels of government, either. If you’d been here (I live in Beijing, just to make that clear) last (northern) winter, you’d have seen the central government responding to the big snow disaster in the south pretty much the same way you’d expect western politicians to react- taking off and visiting the disaster-struck areas, pressing the flesh and promising the government’s full efforts to rescue the people and rebuild their villages, towns, cities, lives and economies, as if they themselves had elections to face. It’s often surprising just how much attention China’s central government pays to public opinion, and how much their behaviour resembles that of elected western politicians.

    The Xiamen PX case last year shows how this attention to public opinion and democratisation is spreading to lower levels of government, too.

    “Countries are less willing to listen to us or obey our rules,”

    Do you not see how this simply reeks of imperialism? My impression is the developing world is thoroughly sick and tired of Western demands and Western impositions. I know the Chinese certainly are. The fact is when developing countries have obeyed “our rules” they have, at best, achieved nothing. Too often, especially when it comes to the demands of the IMF/World Bank crowd, they’ve wound up worse off.

    Not only that, but Western hand-wringing over China’s actions in Sudan or Zimbabwe has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. China’s swapping arms for Sudanese oil certainly is amoral, and perhaps even immoral, but what the hell is happening with Western oil companies in the Niger delta?

    Indeed, the best thing we can do is constructively engage, and that does not simply mean trade with China and the developing world. It also means listen to, respect, learn from, and cooperate with the developing world, China included. Hypocritical preaching will rightly be rejected as “the West” trying to keep everybody else down and maintain its position at the top of the heap. Heeding our own democratic advice and approaching the rest of the world on an equal footing has a much better chance of actually improving things.

    And “Mooney hatred” as your captcha? Trying to tell us something?

  10. RedLogix 10

    If you’d been here (I live in Beijing, just to make that clear) last (northern) winter

    I guess you’re not working 7 days a week, 12 hour days then?

    The fact is that China can add 10 million NEW workers to it’s industrial labour force, every year for the next 80 years without exhausting it’s supply of cheap rural labour. And in doing so destroy every job in the Western world because they will ALWAYS be able to undercut us, no matter how productive or competitive we try to be.

    Slave labour is always cheapest, and the CCP knows this. With the enormous profits this is generating they will simply BUY the rest of the world.

  11. IrishBill 11

    To be fair there have been negotiations between Chinese unions (they are still state unions) and the govenment to introduce some minimum employment standards in China. This move has been vociferously opposed by US multinationals, most notably Nike.

  12. higherstandard 12


    You must know that the unions in China are nothing more than government puppets.

    Truly democratic unions in China would run counter to the undemocratic, one-party state. Allowing a democratic union movement to form would threaten both Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism, and diminish some of China’s competitive advantage over other low-wage but not authoritarian nations in Southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere.

    captcha insist Rewarded

  13. IrishBill 13

    I fully realise that HS, but this is a move to better standards nonetheless. I think you have fallen into the trap of assuming China has no strategic plan and will happily continue to be a low-wage low-skill economy. I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth. Over the last few years China has been putting in some of the most advanced plant and equipment in the world and has been improving the conditions of its workers.

    To assume that China’s only advantage is low-cost labour and economies of scale is to fall into the same tacitly racist trap as the politicians who think that we will leave China to do the bulk run stuff and we’ll be the nation of “innovators” that drive it. But the truth is that China is moving forward very quickly. She has sent her children out into the world to learn and will reap the rewards of doing so. If you think all of those Chinese students you have seen topping the list of achievers in educational institutes here and around the world for nearly two decades now are going home to make american sports shoes for 10c a day you might want to think again. I know a high-ranking union official that came back from visiting China a couple of years ago shocked at how advanced their manufacturing really is.

    Through careful and controlled engagement with the world economy China is setting itself up to be the next superpower. We can certainly fault their human rights and environmental record (and I do) but the truth is that that “Dickensian capitalism and authoritarian communism” is becoming less and less central to China’s competitive advantage.

    Just as aside I recall as a child how “made in Japan” used to be a synonym for cheaply produced junk. After a while one learns first-hand that “history repeats” is more than just a snappily titled split enz song.

  14. Steve Pierson 14

    Thanks for the excellent quality of the repsonses on this. I would make three points:

    a) obviously New Zealand in itself will have no measureable impact on China, this is about how the liberal democracies together approach China, and New Zealand’s policy, including the trade deal, is part of that.

    b) a few of you picked up on the ‘our rules’ line which I was wary of but used for space: I’m not arguing that liberal democracy is ‘good’ I’m arguing that it, like all ideologies of government, wants to survive and expand – that’s the demooratisation project – and part of how we do that is by excerising liberal democracy’s hegemonic poistion by holding countries to account according to a set of rules that we set – the concept of human rights being the more obvious example – through a variety of processes and institutions. Is that imperialistic? If you want to call it that, yes, but I would prefer to say it is expansionist and I’m not passing a moral judgment. That said, is there anything wrong with the system of governance that has produced more freedom and more peaceful, prosperious lives for the majority of the population than any other government system ever invented trying to spread those positive outcomes to other people?

    c) some of the Left commentators’ have rejected the suggestion that engagement with China is the way to go pointing to Chinese labour conditions and human rights abuses (which, in itself, reflects a lierbal democratic paradigm, of course) but I have to ask do you think those conditions will be improved by our disengagement? We can not (metaphorically) starve China into submission like we did with apartheid South Africa, if we want it to change isolating it and hoping it will collapse on itself is not the way to go.

  15. RedLogix 15


    That is a nice rational dissertation. It covers the main bases and makes sound arguments. You pose legitimate questions. You are correct, I don’t think we can alter the path China will take for itself, neither by isolating ourselves from it, nor by engaging.

    Within a generation China will not be so much a superpower, but a colossus of 2 billion people, united by a common language, a prodigious work ethic and a totalitarian government buttressed by a highly deferential culture with 2000 years of experience in running slaves and bureaucracies. It will be nothing like the world has seen before.

    China will not become a clone of the USA, or another Eurozone. The CCP is a gerontocracy that plans long games over generations, and now has the people, the cash, the resources, the technology and above all the patience to simply subsume to entire world into it’s orbit.

    This process does not require military confrontation. They understand that military forces are primarily required to quell internal dissent and mop up huge numbers of otherwise truculent young men. Moreover they realise that nuclear weapons have made conventional warfare obsolete. (It astounds me how few people realise that no matter how large your armed forces, a handful of large enemy WMD’s landing on your capital city is game over.)

    Their plan is more subtle and far more potent. The intention is to simply BUY the world. To use the crude power of capitalism and the illusion of “private property” against itself. For some years I’ve had Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power” at my bedside. They are largely derived from the great philosopher Sun-tzu and draws heavily on examples from Chinese dynastic history. The fundamentals are: prudence, stealth, and a total absence of mercy. Your analysis makes perfect sense from a Western perspective. It is childish foolishness to the Eastern one.

    Steve. The CCP leadership DESPISES the liberal West for it’s short-term thinking, for being disunited, weak, greedy and irresolute. Taking us is like taking candy from a baby, and done simply by planning over a 50 year time frame. These people have absolutely NO intention of becoming like us. The “democratisation of China” is a daydream. China in ALL of it’s very long history has NEVER been anything like a Western liberal democracy, and there is precious little evidence to suggest they plan on becoming one.

    The film “Amazing Grace” left a lasting impression on me, and all these perfectly rational sounding arguments for doing business with China, sound exactly like the same arguments that were used hundreds of years ago to defend doing business with slave grown cotton. Now imagine we are faced with the same slave herding mentality, but armed with a full spectrum technical, economic, information and political dominance that China will have with a few years. Will it be better to recognise our position early, or later?

    What do I want? I want clean hands. I buy NZ made stuff wherever I can, and cheerfully I pay extra for the privilege. This FTA with China will likely obliterate even that small token of choice remaining to me.

  16. r0b 16

    Hey RedLogix, quite a post! You’ve certainly done a lot of reading and thinking in this area.

    Pardon me I’m an economic ignoramus. So when you say “This FTA with China will likely obliterate even that small token of choice remaining to me”, I don’t see how that can be (unless you mean that all industries in NZ will be driven out of business?). So, could you please elaborate?

  17. RedLogix 17

    I don’t see how that can be (unless you mean that all industries in NZ will be driven out of business?). So, could you please elaborate?

    A mere decade ago the idea that a company like Icebreaker would move it’s manufacturing to China was an absurdity. Now it is a commonplace. Given such a dramatic rate of change, how to predict another mere decade into the future?

    Short of the entire Chinese government collapsing like the Soviet Union (which I very much doubt) there is nothing to counter this trend, therefore I assume that in another 10 -20 years there will be no actual manufacturing in NZ as we know it, other than a few peculiar cases where transport costs preclude competitive imports. (Toilet paper is a typical example, the product has too large a volume/value ratio to normally make it profitable to import against the local plant.) NZ could look like a wholly different place, with an economy even more narrowly dependent on agriculture and tourism than it is now.

    Nor am I convinced by NZ developing “high end niche” markets argument. Look I grant that there will always be a few standout performers usually based on the talent and sheer hard work of a few exceptional individuals. Companies like Rakon and Vega Industries have remarkable stories to tell. Yet they are vulnerable. The Chinese have no effective intellectual property right protections and as their technical sophistication inexorably rises there will be no barriers to them simply copying or exceeding anything we develop here… and always at a lower cost.

    Yes I accept that the brute excesses of their current “dickensian capitalism” will likely ameliorate with time, if only to moderate internal rebellion… but the raw economic fact that China can add 10’s of millions of new workers every year, and never exhaust the pool of the impoverished rural poor to induct next year (at least not in our lifetimes)… will always keep their labour costs lower than ours.

    Another alternative is that we will have to dismantle most of NZ’s existing labour laws and conditions in an attempt to remain competitive. It is possible these remnant industries will be CCP owned or controlled anyhow. In this scenario us white New Zealanders will likely develop a keener appreciation of what our brown skinned cuzzies were on about with this Treaty of Waitangi thing.

    r0b, I’m conscious that I’m peddling a discomforting line of reasoning here. Part of me would love to hear a convincing case proving me wrong.

  18. r0b 18

    r0b, I’m conscious that I’m peddling a discomforting line of reasoning here. Part of me would love to hear a convincing case proving me wrong.

    And I wish I was the one to construct an opposing case, but I’m not. Anyone else?

    I think you’d be interested in the book “The Democracy Sham: How Globalisation Devalues Your Vote”, Bryan Gould, 2006, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson (ISBN 10: 1-877333-50-6). I was at a presentation Bryan gave on the book, raising similar worries to those you identify above. I got a copy, haven’t got round to reading it yet.

  19. Emil 19

    “but a colossus of 2 billion people, united by a common language,”

    Which China is this ? Common language ?? Common script, maybe, but China has minorities with populations equal with that of the UK, minorities that have a history of opposing the central government, whether it was Han, Manchu, Mongolian or Communist. To buy into the “united China” is the same as buying into the various Roman empires that kept Europe “united”. If US or EU will experience a deep recession and will stop pumping money into China, the central government will have no significant resources to administer and will either lose it’s hold on the provinces or return to military control. The land grab or the repression that will follow will not be nice to watch.

  20. RedLogix 20

    Which China is this ? Common language ??

    Yes when I wrote that I realised that it was a simplification. Blog comments get long enough as it is.

    You pose an interesting scenario, but I suspect it too glosses over some important fundamentals. The forces holding together modern conglomerate nations like the USA and Europe seem to be larger than the ones tending to split them apart. Lessons drawn from pre-WW2 history are useful, but the world has also changed over the last 60 years in some profound ways.

  21. Gobbler 21

    This colossus of two billion people also has India to its south; a country which by many estimates will be bigger than China in terms of population by 2050

    And an older link but still useful:

    With such scenarios putting huge strains on natural resources aren’t we surely going to see more of this sort of thing?

    What sorts of scenarios will this produce?

    I would argue that once people begin to starve to death and riot on a mass scale; arguments about democratisation etc. will become irrelevant people will simply want to survive and will do almost anything to do it.

    Could this be the time that China’s (or to a lesser extent India’s) military is used to either

    A) Repress the populous that are causing dissent


    B) Invade countries that are effective at producing certain crops to ensure complete supply chain management? I.e. Vietnam for rice, Australia for wheat and even little old New Zealand for meat and dairy (a real doomsday scenario I know but don’t laugh didn’t this happen recently when there were concerns about supply of another commodity? Namely; the USA; Iraq and oil?)

    This could provide them with the means to feed their own populations.

    The invasion of course doesn’t even have to by the military what if all New Zealand’s productive capacity is owned by such interests and they begin to dictate where and when things should be sent?

    Wouldn’t farmers just say ‘No!’?

    But wouldn’t just such a reaction lead to control through force?

    I believe RedLogix is right in saying that the Chinese have the west pretty well figured while the West is still trying to unravel the Chinese enigma where New Zealand positions itself or what actions it takes to ensure we prosper and continue our way of life through just such a shift in wealth and power similar to what we have seen recently remains to be seen.

Links to post

Recent Comments

Recent Posts