Recap: China syndrome

Written By: - Date published: 1:56 pm, April 19th, 2009 - 7 comments
Categories: democracy under attack, International - Tags:

This post was originally published last year but it’s relevant in the light of the naive comments from McCully on Q+A today about China cooperating with New Zealand on aid to Fiji.


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, preference for resource deals, 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’.

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7 comments on “Recap: China syndrome”

  1. Con 1

    More than a bit naive, this.

    In the case of Fiji, the govt of NZ (and other “liberal democracies”) would have Fiji return to the ethnically divided electoral system established after a series of coups; a system designed to entrench the power of elites, specifically by fostering racial division as a way of weakening the political power of the working class. They would have Qarase’s notoriously corrupt govt back in the trough, and the original coupsters amnestied. This we are supposed to believe is “good governance”.

  2. BLiP 2

    zao shang hao, Laoban – start practising!

  3. Over the past 20 centuries two countries have been the dominant country for one century each, England and the United States. One country has dominated for the other 18 centuries, China. Will this repeat, and if so what does this mean?

  4. Excellent post – the best security for Taiwan long term is for the PRC to see how a province of China is a stable, vibrant liberal democracy.

    South Korea went on a path from authoritarianism to vibrant liberal democracy as well, and has been a great success. As PRC citizens become wealthier, and have more time to do more than just survive, and own property they want protected from each other (and corrupt officials), they’ll demand more accountability. The only way the CPC can unite China is playing the xenophobic card, the less Chinese believe this is credible the better!

  5. Ken Shock 5

    There has be a major strategic error made by Australia and New Zealand, in my view. There are two rising super powers in Asia, as discussed here, China has many issues that endanger democracy in our neighboring states, and which long term could lead to China’s hegemony over all the Pacific.
    Given that this is a looming issue, and has been for many years – why has Australasian foreign policy not placed India on an equal footing with China. here we have a Commonwealth member, the World’s largest democracy, English speaking, British law – and rapid economic growth. In NZ, India has been dissed because they never signed the non proliferation treaty. Yeah, but they have NOT proliferated, and China has. So Helen Clark only visited India once, and the visit was marred by the ‘nuclear’ issue. Now John Key has made no move toward India.
    This is just plain stupid in my view, why have free trade deals with both countries not been simultaneously sought??? What is the matter with competition, the negotiations would have led to a better deal for NZ from both ???
    I suspect some very powerful international bankers who have heavily invested in China have quietly steered this situation – the kind of people who could care less about Democracy – or New Zealand’s long term independence…….

  6. Ag 6

    Maybe democracy isn’t as good as you think it is. It’s doing a lousy job of dealing with climate change.

    You need a lot more than just the ability to cast a vote to make it work, and in these other areas virtually every supposed democracy falls flat. The unreflective democracy worship in our society helps hide this ugly fact.

  7. Grant McKenna 7

    In 1912 my great-grandfather’s brother [as then UK Home Secretary] made a speech in which he stated that the chances of the UK and Germany going to war were slim because of their strong trade links; war often comes not because of the quest for advantage but because of the fear that others will gain advantage.

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