Last Friday, China’s foreign ministry in Beijing issued the strongest rebuke yet of the Australian Prime Minister’s view that Chinese interference was the justification for its tough new security laws.
“This kind of statement caters to the irresponsible reports by the Australian media that are biased against China, absolutely clutching at straws, purely fabricated and poisoning the atmosphere of China Australian relations”, said China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
It seems that China’s leaders have now forsaken Deng Xiaoping’s advice to tao guang yang hui (“keep a low profile”). In declaring a “new era” for China during October’s 19th National Congress in Beijing, President Xi Jinping presented the Chinese system of governance as a model for other countries to emulate. Leaders who “want to speed up their development while preserving their independence,” Xi said, should look to China as a new option.
Prime Minister Turnbull responded forthrightly:
Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words, ‘The Chinese people have stood up’. It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride. And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up.”
Under Turnbull’s proposed law, it would become a crime for a person to act on behalf of a foreign principal to influence a political or governmental process in a manner that is either covert or involves deception.
Yet Australia should pay just as much attention to authoritarian economic development. And so should New Zealand. New Zealand’s international relations cannot simply bob from China to Europe and back like the over-sprung head of a porcelain dog grinning from the back of a car.
It’s only worth worrying about China for its influence over our media or our politics or our economy if we are also going to do a root-and-branch reassessment of the full influence of British and U.S.A. influence over New Zealand foreign policy, military engagement policies, military bases, aid policy in the Pacific, intelligence sharing, trade policy, foreign direct investment, etc, over the past century including now. Which would be only fair.
No, the reason we need to be worried about China is the temptation to adopt its authoritarian development model.
China’s leaders believe their version of economic and political organisation is superior to Western systems, and have been advocating for a “new era” of non-democratic governance. We need to fight this model together with Australia, head on. But Australia too needs to broaden its emphasis.
China is trying to assert its own version of non-democratic governance on the region, but flatly denies it and consistently asserts its own version. Developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, seem awestruck by this possibility. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, has even suggested that as the West’s democracies falter, “enlightened Chinese democracy” could offer a path forward.
China’s model comprises a number of key characteristics, including authoritarian governance buttressed by the perception of stability; state-guided industrial policy and finance; massive infrastructure investments; rural industrialization backed by small-scale agriculture; and openness to foreign trade and technology. This model has, no doubt, produced rapid economic growth in China over the last three decades, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
But the implication that the first ingredient – authoritarianism – is necessary for rapid development is the characteristic of the Chinese system that should give us the greatest pause.
Consider China’s East Asian neighbors – in particular, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Each has achieved high growth through state-guided industrial policy, rural industrialization, and openness to trade. See in particular Kohli’s State Directed Development.
Japan achieved these objectives within the framework of its postwar democracy, and South Korea and Taiwan have been (largely) democracies for three decades. Anti-democratic authoritarianism, in other words, served no necessary modernizing role, although those countries and others like Singapore had periods of weak democracy and very strong single party regimes.
Democracy, particularly New Zealand’s MMP variant and Australia’s intensely layered public governance – is exasperatingly slow and often contentious. It also amplifies many public issues often well beyond their actual worth. But it enables issues to be heard in public and considered. Compare New Zealand’s recent settlement of Uruwera lands to the Chinese handling of Tibetans and Uighurs. Not only did the New Zealand Police apologise fulsomely for their offences, the entire Uruwera National Park was handed back. You can’t design perfect process through democratic instruments alone, but China’s approach is simply cruel.
We might also like to think that crises need massive executive power to be dealt with. Premier Xi brought to bear all he could in 2015 to stop a run on the sharemarket, and it was a complete fail costing the state hundreds of billions of dollars. Once foreign reserves held by the People’s Bank of China stopped flowing to struggling SOE’s, the market fell to the same low levels as before intervention.
Both New Zealand and Japan have recently dealt with massive civil defence emergencies, with minimal democratic concern, and reached for pure executive power only in highly proscribed moments.
Absence of democratic sunlight in China has also led to rampant corruption that has taken over a decade to root out, food safety scares that have cost Fonterra dearly, toxic pollution, and efforts to combat them all under Xi merely cover for utterly destroying his rivals.
As China’s economy becomes more complex, the absence of transparent and accountable governance processes, combined with frequent crackdowns on civil society and efforts to enforce conformity and discipline, will ultimately stifle entrepreneurship and innovation. You can’t get Google or Facebook in China, and there is no way we could debate like this in an open Chinese site without risk of arrest.
China will remain as self-righteous as the United States in its unwillingness to reform, but that should not stop us for one moment telling them why our public institutions are superior than theirs, and our reflexive and gradual democracy is also in their interests. In the face of a global retreat in democracy, the remaining strong democracies need to be a lot more assertive about why they are right and the rest are wrong.
Democratic governments, for all their messiness, are less fragile, as they draw their legitimacy from pluralism and political contestation, rather than from high economic growth or nationalist appeals. Judicial decisions overturning President Donald Trump’s arbitrary travel bans in the United States, or similar rebukes of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to criminalize dissent, are examples of how institutional autonomy strengthens the resilience of democratic political systems. China on the other hand is simply brittle.
In other words, for all its allure, the Chinese model is deficient in some basic respects and is not easily reproducible in others. Malcolm Turnbull is nearly right. The full Chinese authoritarian model should be at the core of the resistance that Turnbull has started and Ardern needs to consider.