PRC: Standing With The Authoritarians


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In November, President Barack Obama will visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the first time. In another contrast with the Bush Administration foreign policy, the Obama Administration has lowered the profile of political liberalization and human rights in the US-PRC relationship. As Hillary Clinton explained during her first visit to the PRC as secretary of state, the global economic crisis, climate change, and North Korea would take precedence and American relations would be predicated on the more objective need for a “positive, cooperative relationship.” While the Obama Administration's approach emerges as a pragmatic compromise between the equally contestable depictions of the PRC as a strategic partner or strategic competitor, the overture signals continuity with an underlying goal of US policy since Tiananmen Square – channeling the rise of its onetime ally constructively, into that of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system. As American journalist James Mann has asserted, implicit in American attempts to influence the PRC's rise is the belief that interdependence will cultivate a liberal China. The expectation dovetails with Americans’ well-known regard for their exceptional place in history – as an exemplar of democracy and prosperity, all other nations, even those defiantly authoritarian like the PRC, will inevitably choose liberalization or risk mediocrity, or, in the case of China, anarchy. James Mann has aptly labeled this assumption the “soothing scenario,” as it absolves American policymakers of the hard choices associated with promoting liberalization. Another appropriate title may be the “cloudy scenario” because political liberalization, while a worthwhile longtime goal, could present just as many risks.

Challenges Exist, But Interdependence Does Not Solve Everything

Admittedly, an authoritarian PRC presents many near-term challenges for US national security and global affairs as well. The avid growth of military budgets and acquisition of advanced capabilities without corresponding disclosure of aims and intentions have left the United States and neighbors wary. The current financial crisis remains an immediate priority and enlisting Chinese capacity will be imperative. Similarly, PRC influence will be necessary to resolve the perennial crisis that is the regime in North Korea. In the long term, the growing preoccupation of the West with climate change will only achieve progress if they accommodate the Chinese quest for a modern economy.

Finally, Chinese demography presents a number a scenarios for consideration. Will the Chinese population become old before it becomes wealthy? If it does, how will the government cope? Will the preponderance of single males, the so-called “bare branches,” result in rising dysfunction domestically, aggression abroad, or both? Will the coastal economy continue to outpace the rural interior economy? If so, will the government successfully negotiate some form of wealth transfer or will national unity fragment along sectional and class cleavages?

Because the PRC government is so opaque, American policymakers contend the access and engagement afforded by bilateral trade constitutes the best way to achieve a benign outcome in most of these scenarios. Given the depth and breadth of the economic relationship, the PRC will reach an accommodation with the United States or risk a relationship that has helped China become a global economic power – either way, US interests are advanced. To American policymakers, the logic is seductive – admitting otherwise would place American policymakers in the unenviable position of acknowledging it has limited influence over, much less the capacity for confronting, an authoritarian government at the helm of a nation nipping at its hegemonic heels. (Indeed, the historical record is discouraging – interdependence between European great powers was considerable on the eve of World War I, but it did not prevent war.)

Denying this dilemma may be convenient for American policymakers, but this consensus is also obscuring shortcomings associated with political liberalization in China. Controversial as it may be, an authoritarian China at this time is more advantageous than a democratic one.

The PRC Leadership: Can They Afford To Relax?

The spectacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics had the world in awe of a China ascendant, but as the Financial Times pithily commented, it also revealed a government “comprised of control-freaks.” To the casual observer, paranoia is common to any dictatorship; in the case of the PRC, such suspicions may appear overwrought considering the great lengths to which political dissent is effectively suppressed. From the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 to the Great Firewall today, the Chinese leadership has amply demonstrated its readiness to maintain power.

While the government’s response in 1989 prevented the ruling Communists from suffering the same fate as their Soviet counterparts, the act undermined the party’s political legitimacy. Even though the nation embarked on market reforms in 1979, the party maintained at least the fa├žade of fealty for communist ideals. After 1989, the ruling party based its legitimacy less on communist ideology and more on the ability to sustain economic growth. Thereafter, the population acquiesced to the Communist Party’s continued monopoly on political power as long as it produced continuing economic growth.

Fatefully, the party has sought to augment its legitimacy by simultaneously appealing to nationalism. Adopting a nationalist posture has helped preserve the party’s preeminence, but has also hemmed in the civilian leadership.

The small coterie of civilian technocrats leading the country seem secure in power, but behind the scenes, consensus is imperative and only achieved atop acrimoniously managed factional rivalries.

The civilian technocrats have wide discretion over domestic and economic affairs, but managing foreign affairs requires the support of conservative nationalists in the propaganda and military / security ministries. Since the civilian leadership does not possess the ideological or military credentials of founding revolutionaries and former Long Marchers Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, they are incapable of withstanding pressure from the conservative nationalists. Therefore, the leadership must be as nationalist (or at the minimum, condone nationalist posturing) in foreign affairs, namely when it comes to Taiwan, the United States, and (especially) Japan. According to reliable polls and authoritative observers, the Chinese are nationalist vis-a-vis Taiwan and the United States, but reserve a particular antipathy for Japan. (For additional insights, see Susan Shirk's exceptional dissection of the PRC in China: Fragile Superpower.)

Accordingly, the party has blessed nationalist fervor among the population. In 1999, the government facilitated public protests at the American Embassy after the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo campaign. In 2005, the government abetted angry demonstrations in several cities after Japan permitted textbooks to downplay Imperial Japan’s aggression during the 1930s.

Nonetheless, the governing elite act is extremely anxious about the depth of its control. The PRC civilian leadership monitors such nationalist outpourings very closely to ensure public anger does not trigger a general revolt against the party. Party leaders are readily aware the use of force saved the regime in 1989 and the failure to confront foreign penetration has historically been the catalyst for regime change in China. The loyalty of the military and security forces are critical to the party’s survival.

Unfortunately, a gap in civil-military relations is becoming readily evident. Chinese military leaders have uttered incendiary threats and provocative acts have been increasingly frequent. Between 1995 and 2007, the Chinese military conducted missile tests in the vicinity of Taiwan, complicated the recovery of a US military aircraft after it collided with a PLA plane in 2001, and executed an unannounced anti-satellite test in 2007. According to Andrew Scobell, a China scholar at Texas A&M University,

The verbiage is evidence of a split in thinking and attitudes between China’s more hawkish military leaders and more moderate civilians… [while] the actions suggest a lack of civilian control… [and] the result appears to be a roguish PLA that makes crisis management all the more difficult and heightens the potential for worrisome misunderstandings and misperceptions.

Of course, the potential for misunderstanding and misperceptions is worsened by the lack of transparency into the workings of an authoritarian government.

Or is it?

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”

While pandering to jingoist nationalism in the public and appeasing irreconcilable conservatives in the military is unsettling but ultimately successful in restraining potentially more aggressive impulses, then the exercise of authoritarian power is necessary.

If China suddenly became democratic, the societal upheaval generated by the country’s economic transformation would inevitably spur political demagoguery among conservatives and nationalists. Fledgling democracies are notoriously fragile and susceptible to chauvinist political movements and aggressive foreign policies.

In the immediate aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his fascist Liberal Democratic Party won 23 percent of the vote in 1993 Duma elections. The fragile liberal government of President Boris Yeltsin survived his ascent as well as a stubborn communist opposition, but only after using tanks against his own parliament. Given the current autonomy of the PRC military, concluding the military would align with whatever faction would preserve (or even increase) its independence is reasonable.

As such, the downgrading of liberalization in the US-PRC relationship is appropriate -- for now.

In the interim, the United States should delicately explore how to impress on the civilian leadership the importance of civilian control over the military and how it can be enhanced, all the while sustaining its inherent caution in foreign affairs and efforts to become a “responsible stakeholder.” Furthermore, the US should maintain bilateral contacts with the PRC military to explore areas for coordination as well as crisis management. Immediate candidates for such collaboration include joint humanitarian operation exercises as well as coordinated preparations for the perennially imminent collapse of the North Korean regime.


The inherent caution of “control freaks” can serve US interests well – far better than the full-throated demands of a wildly nationalist public itching for a fight with a military leadership more than ready to comply.


Key References:

Andrew Scobell, Parameters, Summer 2009, Vol. XXXiX, No. 2 “Is There a Civil-Military Gap in China’s Peaceful Rise?”

Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford University Press, August 15, 2008

James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, Viking Adult, February 15, 2007