Global Asia - - FEATURE ESSAY -

China’s Rise has long been rep­re­sented as a threat. after the us-china rap­proche­ment in the 1970s, the Maoist ide­o­log­i­cal threat grad­u­ally dwin­dled un­til it was sup­planted by a trans­fig­ured “China threat” the­sis, which gained strength after the 1995-1996 Tai­wan strait cri­sis. With China’s rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion, the ad­ver­sar­ial logic started to re­volve around eco­nomic and mil­i­tary threat dis­courses. Re­cently, how­ever, the no­tion of China as an ide­o­log­i­cal threat has been res­ur­rected. The no­tion of “China’s il­lib­eral chal­lenge” is re­turn­ing with a vengeance, and with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in power, bei­jing is pro­mot­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and lead­ing a third re­verse wave of de-de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion.1 In other words, with China’s rise, au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is go­ing global and chal­leng­ing the lib­eral world order.2 It is a nicely plot­ted tragic nar­ra­tive, but does it res­onate with re­al­ity?

the ide­o­log­i­cal China ‘threat’

The myth of the so-called bei­jing con­sen­sus as not only an eco­nomic model but also a po­lit­i­cal one ready for in­ter­na­tional ex­port con­tin­ues to thrive. “In terms of po­lit­i­cal val­ues,” as Joseph Nye put it more than 10 years ago, the bei­jing con­sen­sus “has be­come more pop­u­lar than the pre­vi­ously dom­i­nant ‘Wash­ing­ton con­sen­sus.’ ” schol­ars

3 ar­gue that the “dis­sem­i­na­tion of the bei­jing con­sen­sus be­stows upon ‘Chi­nese-style so­cial­ism’ greater in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, not only as an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment model but also as a new model of a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and so­cial struc­ture.”


Others are more skep­ti­cal about there be­ing a Chi­nese model in the first place; about China ob­struct­ing the pro­mo­tion of democ­racy by the us and eu; about the dif­fu­sion of Chi­nese norms; about China’s ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment to cre­ate a new “au­thor­i­tar­ian in­ter­na­tional;” and, fi­nally, about the ef­fec­tive­ness of China’s soft power.

Yet, after the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s 19th Na­tional Congress in Oc­to­ber last year, and with us Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sup­pos­edly sur­ren­der­ing us global leadership, the mes­sage of Chi­nese au­thor­i­tar­ian in­flu­ence re­ver­ber­ates with ever greater force, giv­ing rise to ex­pec­ta­tions of in­creas­ing Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal as­sertive­ness and sce­nar­ios of a post-amer­i­can order. Four fac­tors ac­count for the un­der­stand­ing of China as an in­ten­tional au­thor­i­tar­ian pro­moter.

First, China’s of­fi­cial “dis­cur­sive power” strat­egy, which ar­guably aims “to cre­ate a new po­lit­i­cal model, rather than just fol­low the es­tab­lished order” — as ex­pressed in China’s calls for a new type of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and a com­mu­nity of shared des­tiny — demon­strates China’s in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal in­ten­tions.5

sec­ond, the strate­gic po­lit­i­cal shift from Deng Xiaop­ing’s dic­tum of “keep­ing a low pro­file” to Xi Jin­ping’s em­pha­sis on “striv­ing for achieve­ment” in­volves a for­eign pol­icy move from self-re­straint to­ward a more ac­tive pur­suit of leadership.6

Third, ap­peals to po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and civ­i­liza­tional di­ver­sity cou­pled with a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the West­phalian norms of sovereignty and non-in­ter­fer­ence in­di­cate, on one hand, a for­eign pol­icy that does not seek to im­pose or spread its po­lit­i­cal model to others, yet, on the other, serve as “counter-norms” to lib­eral democ­racy.

Fourth, if pop­u­lar nar­ra­tives about Trump sur­ren­der­ing us global leadership in the pro­mo­tion of democ­racy are true, then it leaves the cen­ter stage open for China. This begs the ques­tion: Is China an au­thor­i­tar­ian norm en­tre­pre­neur?

pro­mot­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism

a cur­sory glance at the main­stream lit­er­a­ture in the field shows that it will not be easy for Chi­nese ac­tors to be­come au­thor­i­tar­ian norm en­trepreneurs. In terms of norm dif­fu­sion, three stages are iden­ti­fied: norm emer­gence, norm ac­cep­tance/norm cas­cade, and norm in­ter­nal­iza­tion.7

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