The West’s de­cline would hurt China too

The Myanmar Times - - Views - MINXIN PEI news­room@mm­times.com

OF­FI­CIAL Chi­nese me­dia are hav­ing a field day tout­ing the dys­func­tion of Western democ­ra­cies. Be­tween the Bri­tish vote to “Brexit” the Euro­pean Union and the nom­i­na­tion of Don­ald Trump as the Repub­li­can can­di­date for the US pres­i­dency, not to men­tion in­creas­ingly fre­quent ter­ror­ist at­tacks, they have plenty of ev­i­dence. But the truth is that the West’s loss is not China’s gain.

The hope, of course, is that the cur­rent tra­vails of democ­ra­cies around the world could boost the cred­i­bil­ity of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party. And in­deed, a com­men­tary in Peo­ple’s Daily, the CCP’s of­fi­cial news­pa­per, por­trayed the Brexit vote as a re­flec­tion of the fundamental flaws of Western democ­ra­cies. The same pa­per used Trump’s rise to show that, in the Amer­i­can sys­tem, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are “help­less” to ad­dress “com­plex so­cial con­flicts” like racial ten­sions and other sources of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent.

The Global Times, an ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist tabloid af­fil­i­ated with the Peo­ple’s Daily, seemed to sug­gest that re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks in the West were a har­bin­ger of some kind of demo­cratic apoc­a­lypse. The West may be fac­ing some mys­te­ri­ous and un­think­able “change”, in­toned the tabloid.

Given the CCP’s ide­o­log­i­cal hos­til­ity to the West, and its zero-sum geopo­lit­i­cal mind­set, such gloat­ing should come as no sur­prise. In­deed, the CCP has long used chal­lenges that arise in demo­cratic coun­tries as part of its never-end­ing ef­fort to en­hance its own le­git­i­macy. Claim­ing that democ­racy barely works in the West, the party ar­gues that it would be dis­as­trous for China. More­over, so long as China’s gov­ern­ment is de­liv­er­ing con­sis­tently ris­ing stan­dards of liv­ing, as it has been over the last few decades, there is no need, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor­i­ties, even to con­sider al­ter­na­tive sys­tems.

But there is lit­tle ev­i­dence that demo­cratic tu­mult trans­lates into au­to­cratic le­git­i­macy. On the con­trary, dic­ta­tor­ships have his­tor­i­cally fallen, re­gard­less of the fortune of Western democ­ra­cies.

When the so-called third wave of democrati­sa­tion be­gan in the mid1970s, Western democ­ra­cies were mired in stagfla­tion and the po­lit­i­cal trauma of the Viet­nam War. The fall of com­mu­nism in the for­mer Soviet bloc co­in­cided with the rein­vig­o­ra­tion of Western democ­ra­cies in the 1980s. When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Western democ­ra­cies were strug­gling with the con­se­quences of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008.

All of this sug­gests that au­to­crats in China should not be hold­ing their breath for some Brexit-in­duced surge in sup­port. Though sto­ries of demo­cratic dys­func­tion can give peo­ple liv­ing un­der au­to­cratic rule a neg­a­tive im­pres­sion of democ­racy, the ef­fect is most likely short-lived. As long as dic­ta­tor­ships mis­treat their own peo­ple and fail to im­prove their lives, their le­git­i­macy will be chal­lenged.

Of course, China is no or­di­nary au­toc­racy. But what makes it unique – the link be­tween the CCP’s author­ity and its abil­ity to sus­tain eco­nomic growth – does not make its gloat­ing any more ra­tio­nal. After all, one of the keys to China’s eco­nomic suc­cess is its in­te­gra­tion into a global econ­omy dom­i­nated by the Western democ­ra­cies, which buy roughly 60 per­cent of Chi­nese ex­ports.

In other words, the CCP de­rives more le­git­i­macy from Western democ­ra­cies’ suc­cess than it would from their fail­ure. No good busi­nessper­son would hope their best cus­tomers go bankrupt. It makes lit­tle sense that the CCP is so pleased about the strug­gles of China’s most valu­able trad­ing part­ners.

The fac­tors driv­ing the chal­lenges fac­ing Western democ­ra­cies to­day hold even worse im­pli­ca­tions for China. Sup­port for Brexit and Trump is rooted largely in voters’ re­jec­tion of glob­al­i­sa­tion. Re­gard­less of how Brexit or the US elec­tion plays out, it is very likely that gov­ern­ments in Western democ­ra­cies will re­spond to voter angst and take mea­sures that im­ply a re­turn to some de­gree of pro­tec­tion­ism.

As the world’s largest ex­porter, China will not es­cape the dam­ag­ing eco­nomic con­se­quences of such ef­forts. In that con­text, the le­git­i­macy of the CCP, al­ready chal­lenged by China’s eco­nomic slow­down, could erode fur­ther. In­stead of gloat­ing, China’s lead­ers should be watch­ing de­vel­op­ments in the Western democ­ra­cies with con­cern – and start plan­ning for their own dif­fi­cult times ahead. – Project Syn­di­cate

Minxin Pei is a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege and a non-res­i­dent se­nior fel­low at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States.

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