China’s Dictator Complex
Image Credit: US Navy

China’s Dictator Complex


The conventional wisdom about China’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era is that Beijing is the world’s quintessential practitioner of realpolitik – it pursues its national interests without ideological biases.

But the portrayal of Beijing as a non-ideological pragmatist in international affairs is at odds with its policy and behaviour toward some of the world’s worst dictatorships. For example, China maintained its support for Slobodan Milosevic’s regime almost until the very end of his rule. In Africa, China stuck by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, inviting him to visit Beijing even when he was an international pariah.  Of Latin American leaders, the mandarins in Beijing seem to have taken a particular liking to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a dictator in all but name.

China’s dictator complex was on full display during the Arab Spring. Around the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February, the official Chinese media consistently cast Egypt’s anti-Mubarak forces as mobs who would do nothing but cause chaos. The Chinese handling of the recent collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was egregiously inept. Beijing not only received a high-level representative of the doomed Gaddafi regime in June – its arms manufacturers were trying to sell $200 million worth of weapons to Gaddafi’s forces in July, in violation of a UN Security Council resolution forbidding arms sales to Libya.

What does this dictator complex tell us about Chinese foreign policy?

The most obvious answer is that, instead of being non-ideological, Chinese foreign policy actually is quite ideological.  As can be seen from recent events, even in situations where supporting dictatorships hurts Chinese interests, Beijing has chosen to side with these international outcasts. This ideological bias stems from the nature of China’s domestic political regime – a one-party state. The ruling Chinese Communist Party believes that its greatest ideological threat is posed by the liberal democracies in the West. Even as China benefits from the West-led international economic system, the Communist Party has never let down its guard against the democratic West.

A foreign policy corollary of this belief is that China needs allies – particularly of the authoritarian variety – in the developing world to counter the West. Dictators are easier to deal with, from Beijing’s point of view, simply because China knows very well how to do business with rulers unconstrained by the rule of law, civil society, and opposition parties. The fact that such dictators are ostracized by the international community is, then, no cause for concern. On the contrary, their isolation makes them all the more dependent on China.

The trouble with such thinking is that it isn’t true because coddling dictators hasn’t actually served Chinese interests.

Isolated dictators may be weak, but they are tough customers and troublemakers. North Korea is perhaps the best example. The Kim Jong-il regime, the most isolated in the world, has given his Chinese patrons enormous grief over his nuclear programme and aggression against South Korea. Gaddafi, while in power, repeatedly blocked the Chinese state-owned oil giant, CNPC, from purchasing oil assets in Libya. Gaddafi committed the ultimate sin against China by hosting the Taiwanese president, an ardent pro-independence advocate, in 2006.  China may keep scores against its enemies, but apparently cuts its autocratic clients plenty of slack.

Dictators are also poor assets to invest in for China.  From Beijing’s perch, such dictators may seem secure in their power. However, because of endemic corruption, brutal oppression, and lack of support within their societies, dictatorships are notoriously unstable and often implode without warning, as the Arab Spring shows. Beijing’s hopes that long-term relations with dictators are possible and productive are naïve and ignore the serious downside risks should its clients fall.

From a purely realpolitik perspective, Chinese fears of new democracies in developing countries are grossly exaggerated. Most new democracies are no stooges of the West. In fact, their foreign policy has been exceptionally pragmatic. Take Brazil and Indonesia, for example. Both are success stories in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Both have shown strong independence in their foreign policy. Both enjoy good relations with China.

At the same time, some of the autocratic regimes surrounding China will pose the most serious threats to Chinese security. Russia is one possibility. The authoritarian Vladimir Putin regime not only distrusts China, but has taken steps to harm China’s national and energy security. It has repeatedly failed to honour its pledge to increase its energy exports to China and has sold Vietnam advanced jetfighters and submarines that can be deployed against the Chinese military in a potential conflict in the South China Sea. Vietnam, another one-party dictatorship, is most likely to get into a fire fight with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. As for North Korea, its Beijing-fed ruling elites, whenever possible, barely conceal their hostility to their patrons and, during the now-defunct Six Party Talks, repeatedly betrayed and embarrassed Beijing with their double-dealing and duplicity.

So China should drop its dictator complex. If allowed to continue to influence Chinese foreign policy, this complex will needlessly set China up for confrontations with the democratic West, waste its precious diplomatic and economic resources, and undermine China’s own national interests.   

March 15, 2012 at 15:23

Rubbish article
China opposes western imperliasm
Chavez is not a dictator

October 26, 2011 at 17:56

I don’t find coverage on (Outer)Mongolia. Love to know what is happening there in the new geopolitical situation and the likely tussle for influence between China and Russia gathering momentum with strongman Putin back as the President.

October 23, 2011 at 15:58

I just don’t get it our relationship with China is this the next country we will run up a huge debt with and then destroy by saying they are communists now we are arming Vietnam and so they can distroy China what and who are we I just don’t get it I am not judging I am just confused why are we dealing with a country that contradicts our democratic beliefs I need help understanding who I am as an American

October 7, 2011 at 03:25

Totally agreed.

When China first started developing, I felt that they could prove a pacifist alternative to the US.

Though thier building of a naval resupply base on the mischief reef showed me that I was wrong. Oh and the sending of military forces on fishing boats into filipino waters confirmed it.

I am a believer that China is an agreesor and not a peace maker.

October 7, 2011 at 03:18

Its thier fear that is the biggest problem.

The UN who they belong too, would help look after the refugees. Does America need to be on China’s borders? If its spies they are worried about, then they are already there.

If its troops, well is China threatening a United Korea? Anymore than NK?

I am sorry, but its the fact that they dont know what to do. Sometimes you need to force the avalance or deal with an unplanned one.

Its not a NK vs SK anymore, its a Kim jong il leadership issue and China owns the NK military anyway so thats not a problem. The SK.s just need to decide how much they pay KJI for a lifetime.

Its something most have never agreed too yet.All problems are workable if you try hard enough, but what happens in the case of a nuclear strike against SK, what then for NK refugees? Seriously, a NK with no restrictions is a greater threat to SK than a refugee problem for China.

Therefoe better now than later.

October 7, 2011 at 03:05

Interesting analysis, some day we need to meet over a coffee and argue these issues.

It might be an interesting day.

jeff forsythe
October 1, 2011 at 22:43

These stories of how the wonderful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is rescuing some miners or some disabled workers or arresting people who put paint in children’s formula, causing them kidney damage, are all lies made up by the brutal CCP, which was behind the crimes in the first place.
Since it took power in 1949 the CCP has murdered 80 million of its own people. Americans especially seem to forget why thousands of their sons and fathers died in Korea and Vietnam. It was fighting Communism.
The Western World today is being led to believe that the CCP is in some way humane but it is not ! Its one and only paranoid concern is its own survival. Our medias and governments are not being honest with us because of corporate greed. This is my understanding, thank you.

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