Academic journal article China Perspectives

A Shadow over Western Democracies

Academic journal article China Perspectives

A Shadow over Western Democracies

Article excerpt

In 1989, exactly 20 years ago, few were able to imagine that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its institutions would remain in power for two more decades (and even longer), let alone that the regime would increase its global influence to the degree that it now has. At that time, world Communism had collapsed, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union, with some scholars in the West proclaiming the "end of history" and the ultimate victory of market and democracy in human progress.0' In China, the senior leaders of the CCP were widely condemned at home and abroad for their bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. Calls for democratic change in China were silenced by tanks and machine guns, but the regime paid a tremendous political cost, as its legitimacy was questioned even more severely and widely than before the event.<2) All major industrial democratic states imposed economic sanctions on China, with a temporary shift of the focus of the Cold War from the arms race between Washington and Moscow to the political and ideological confrontation between the West and the People's Republic of China.

Winds change swiftly, however, and so does the atmosphere of politics. As history arrives at the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen military crackdown, the Chinese regime continues to maintain that its actions were necessary and right, with the more recent development of apparently convincing the Chinese people and the world, including Western democratic nations, to accept this argument in place of the prevailing belief in 1989 that China also needed democracy.

In the relatively short span of 20 years, China's relations with the world have been deeply and profoundly transformed, mainly due to the spread of market globalisation and China's involvement in and benefit from such global participation. In particular, China's relations with the industrial democracies of the West have experienced dramatic change, travelling far from the political and ideological antagonism experienced in the days immediately following Tiananmen, and far from the geopolitical and strategic considerations that in the 1970s caused China to join the Western antiSoviet "united front" and that in the early 1990s, prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, briefly influenced the George H.W. Bush administration's decision-making in favour of post-Tiananmen China.(3) It is a cliché to say that the relationship has become complicated, multidimensional, and interdependent, but that does not mean we already deeply and fully comprehend the complexities of China's behaviour in its global involvement, or the extent and implications of China's economic interdependence with the world in general and with the Western industrial democracies in particular. In the observations to be presented in this paper, economic interdependence greatly empowers authoritarian China to impose political influence over state behaviour and civil liberties in Western democracies, rather than vice versa. This contradicts the conventional assumption that the economically advanced and supposedly politically advantaged Western democracies can effectively entice and push an authoritarian developing nation in the direction of political démocratisation through economic engagement. This observation brings a theoretical challenge to students of comparative political studies and Chinese politics, as it questions some of the fundamental assumptions with which we have long framed our understanding of China's market reforms and their implications on China's external relations.

Most studies of China's rise have focused on its material dimensions, including the economy, trade, military, and sometimes technological development. Even more commonly adopted in analyses of China's position in the world is a real politick approach to the rise of China, overwhelmingly concerned with how China's ascendance challenges the status quo powers and their preferred national interests. …

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