Why America has turned a blind eye towards China’s authoritarianism — and it’s a bad news for world democracy

Today China, paradoxically, is the United States’ biggest foreign lender; and so, no wonder, human rights have ceased to be an issue in the US-China relations

Narain Batra May 16, 2022 15:46:57 IST
Why America has turned a blind eye towards China’s authoritarianism — and it’s a bad news for world democracy

File image of US president Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping. AFP

Russia under Vladimir Putin has been trying to regain the Soviet Union’s past imperialist glory by launching a most brutal aggression to reclaim Ukraine as its territory. In the Victory Day Speech on Monday, Putin said, “Let me emphasise once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighbouring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space… These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties.” Hence the justification for launching “special military operation” to liberate Ukraine from “neo-Nazis”. China has similar claims about Taiwan and Arunachal Pradesh.

Why America has turned a blind eye towards Chinas authoritarianism  and its a bad news for world democracy

File image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. ANI

Nationalistic authoritarianism exemplified by Russia and China is a powerful alternative to democracy as a political organising principle. Its seductive appeal, based on maintaining social order, national culture as well as prospects for rapid economic growth, is widespread.

Spreading democracy is a worthy goal, but the United States faces complex challenges in an interdependent world — challenges that are compelling policymakers, Democrats and Republicans, to act as pragmatist idealists. Joe Biden has been gradually moving in this direction as he considers global threats: Neo-imperialism, failing states, soaring oil prices, nuclear weapons proliferation, and environmental degradation. Forming a league of democracies, as many liberal scholars have talked about, is not enough to solve global problems.

Consider the present actualities. China has been growing at the rate of 8-9 per cent for the past three decades or so, and has become a powerful economic and military force — a nascent superpower’s challenge to America and the West’s liberal democratic order established after the end of World War II. Since authoritarian rule has not held back China from growing at a dizzying rate, it is quite sensible to ask: How could China do so much in such a short time without freedom and civil liberties?

​In spite of what happened in Hong Kong recently and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, the Chinese massive middle class, more than 700 million, which has grown rich and prosperous under the Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule, does not care for freedom and democracy. Nonetheless, the United States has no choice but to deal with China for economic and diplomatic reasons.

Why America has turned a blind eye towards Chinas authoritarianism  and its a bad news for world democracy

File image of Chinese president Xi Jinping. AP

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japanese-American scholar Francis Fukuyama exulted that it was nothing but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. The end of communism brought about a sense of grand illusion: This is the final triumph of democracy. The irrational exuberance did not last long, however.

Freedom did not blossom in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated. Nor did it happen in China in spite of rapid economic growth and broadening prosperity under state-controlled market capitalism couched in fervid nationalism. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is about imperialistic nationalism, not about democracy and freedom. It is a giant step for China rising under authoritarianism, not a new chapter on freedom and democracy.

In fact, worldwide authoritarianism has increased. China has not ceased to be a threat in spite of its economic growth increasingly tied up with search for energy and other raw materials, foreign direct investment, and exports, especially to Europe and the United States.

Today China, paradoxically, is the United States’ biggest foreign lender; and so, no wonder, human rights have ceased to be an issue in the US-China relations. Whenever US trade officials visit China, they seldom mention democracy or human rights. And for China, consuming what they manufacture is more important than political freedom.

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The Arab Spring was a flash in the pan. Democracy has not been rising in the Arab world, where authoritarianism holds a mighty sway. Between the United States and Saudi Arabia and other seemingly pro-American Arab countries in the region, where Islamic fundamentalism still has a large appeal, human rights and freedom are never a hot-button issue.

Why America has turned a blind eye towards Chinas authoritarianism  and its a bad news for world democracy

The Arab Spring was a political movement that spread in the Islamic states from 2010. They people demanded freedom from autocratic leaders, better economic conditions and human rights. Here,thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square, Egypt protest the government’s brutality and oppressiveness, ultimately leading to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Image credit Maxar Technology Inc

The United States, therefore, cannot give up on a policy of realpolitik for dealing with non-democratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, regardless of its idealistic fervour of spreading freedom and democracy universally. There is no gainsaying the fact the United States remains vulnerable to disinformation and terrorism so long as authoritarianism and hate ideology prevail abroad. Which, some experts believe, there’s no other solution except to expand the democratic form of government and freedom. But the United States cannot bulldoze democracy into any country.

The narrative of democracy must include economic aid including preferential trade for poor countries that have been making valiant efforts to grow economically, fight domestic terrorism and threats of foreign aggression. Instead of crouching toward China or Russia as a model, they should look to the United States. This is the biggest challenge for US international diplomacy today.

The author is the author of ‘India In A New Key: 75 Years of Freedom and Democracy’. He teaches global corporate diplomacy at Norwich University’s graduate college. Views expressed are personal.

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