Features | Politics | East Asia

China Will Get Democracy

Expect it by 2030, says Chatham House senior fellow Kerry Brown. But in the short-term, things might get a little rough.

Whilst the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all in agreement that Iran shouldn’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, there have been clear differences between China and others on how to proceed. Do you see China eventually backing tougher action, and how much of an impact are the current differences having on ties with the US?

I think China’s in a difficult position in some ways because it’s under a lot of diplomatic pressure from the United States to support sanctions and doesn’t want to alienate the US too much. On the other hand, it gets a huge amount of energy from Iran, and it has just made some big investments there in some of its oil fields. Energy is a big priority for the Chinese government and it doesn’t want to alienate a big supplier. This means it has pretty clear political interests with the United States, but pretty clear economic interests with Iran. It’s torn between the ‘head’ of economy and the ‘heart’ of politics.

I think it also doesn’t like to be isolated politically, and if Russia, as another member of the Permanent Five (members of the UN Security Council), is also going to support sanctions, which it seems to hint at, then my hunch is China will want to keep a low profile and not be dragged in. Maybe it will abstain rather than exercising its veto power.

So I think China will leave it until the last moment before it declares its hand, and Iran will try and tempt it into a position in which China is the leader of some sort of developing world group that breaks with America. But at the end of the day, this isn’t anywhere near as enticing as staying on side with the Americans on this and getting benefits elsewhere.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

More generally, China has come in for some criticism for failing to play a constructive international role not just on Iran but also, for example, over climate change. Is such criticism fair and how much potential is there for China to become the ‘team player’ some in the West believe it should be?

China has a completely ambiguous image. On the one hand, it’s a developing country, I think 115th in terms of world per capita GDP—it ranks below Namibia for example—and yet, it’s the world’s second largest economy, probably overtaking Japan this year. China has about 7 percent to 8 percent of global GDP; I think the United States stands at about 20 percent, while the EU is at about 22 percent. So China is big and also poor—the world’s first rich poor country. It’s an extraordinary combination.

The parameters of Chinese foreign affairs thinking since the 1980s have been ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui’—keep a low profile and build up our capacity. This is what the Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping apparently said then, and China has stuck with that. It’s tried to build up its economy, with big GDP growth rates every year. And it has also tried not to assert itself internationally. But I think it’s going to be really tough to continue that.

There’s a growing expectation that China’s going to take a position on international issues. Climate change is one of these, because it’s the world’s largest carbon emitter. Copenhagen was a moment when China was expected by the G77 developing world countries to take a stand for developing countries, but was also expected by the US and the EU and others to sign up to very specific targets. In the end it did neither, and upset everyone. But it asserted what it felt was in its national interests—i.e. that it would continue to pollute but maintain GDP growth, and that the issue was for developed countries because they created the problem in the first place by being the first to industrialise. The Chinese argue that they are a manufacturing base for lots of Western products, and note we are gaining access to these cheap products while China is polluting its environment to do this.

I think these issues where China is going to be expected to take a specific stand are going to become more and more common and it’s going to be expected to take a bigger leadership role on for instance, North Korea, and be expected to be central to talks about the global economic infrastructure. It’s likely to have a larger role in the IMF and the World Bank, and, if it does, it will be expected to participate.

In the past 30 years, China has been proactive in these areas. In UN peacekeeping operations from 1989 to 2006, there were, I think, 56 peacekeeping actions, and China was involved in 28 or 29 of them, so it has been quite active. But, it has also been fairly self-interested, and it’s going to become a bit of a battle when sometimes its self-interests are going to be impacted.

China has also been criticized for a refusal to put pressure on some states, notably in Africa, to comply with international demands on the basis that it doesn’t want to interfere in internal matters. Do you see this changing, and how much genuine conviction do you think there is behind this philosophy among China’s leadership?

In 1955, at the Bandung Conference, then Premier Zhou Enlai came up with five principles of peaceful coexistence that included non-interference in the affairs of other countries, because China didn’t want people to interfere in its own affairs. But the world has changed a lot since then. That was before the era of real globalisation in the modern sense. There are economic links that mean that this desire by China to stick to non-interference is becoming more difficult, and in fact in practice it doesn’t do that—it does get involved in issues that relate to its interests.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

For example, it’s become involved in North Korea, it’s become involved in Burma, it’s become involved in peacekeeping forces, it’s become involved in taking a position against non-proliferation and it doesn’t want instability in its neighbours or an unstable global environment. It’s also had significant benefit from having a stable environment for its economy. So I think it’s going to have to make some sacrifices on this position on non-interference.

It’s also absolutely dogmatic about sovereignty. China’s sovereignty is totally non-negotiable, and yet it’s made big concessions on its border disputes. It had something like 22 outstanding border disputes in 1949, and it has resolved 16 of the land ones without a drop of blood by negotiating—it ceded a lot of land to Russia in 2001, for example. So it is compromising on sovereignty, and the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement in Hong Kong is also compromising sovereignty.

On its behaviour in Africa, I think there are two general rules. One is that where countries have good governance and robust rule of law, China’s presence there isn’t too much of an issue. For example, in Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, it’s not the case that China’s money is going in and being used by corrupt elites to bash the heads of their own populations. However, in Zimbabwe and Sudan it’s a different story.

So, China’s involvement can sometimes be fairly parasitic. If it’s in a good context, it’s good; if it’s in a bad context, it’s bad. I think China’s had to learn very quickly how to offset the risks of its involvement in countries where there are these governance problems, and it’s had to be more proactive in protecting its reputation. I don’t think this is going to be an easy process for China, but the West doesn’t really have massive moral credibility having not exactly behaved as a paragon of virtue in the past.

The foreign ministers of China and South Korea have met to discuss efforts to revive the Six-Party talks on North Korean denuclearization, with South Korea urging China to use its traditionally close relations with Pyongyang to coax it back to the table. How much influence does China still have over North Korea, and how much influence do you think it’s willing to exert?

China says it has limited influence in North Korea, but I think it’s clear that it does have influence there. Something like 90 percent of aid to North Korea comes from China; 50 percent of its trade goes to China—that’s influence. China’s not going to be a country that North Korea can irritate too much without suffering. I think China wasn’t happy with North Korea becoming a nuclear power, which it probably did in 2005, and has become increasingly irritated by its behaviour, such as letting off missiles and its nuclear tests. But, I think North Korea is in this wonderful position, in that it knows that, in the end, China can never walk away from it—it has to protect it. So it has exploited this position.

But I think that two things recently in North Korea have been an issue. One is the disastrous currency revaluation last year that caused huge problems for people and their savings and caused even bigger economic problems than those the country already had. The second thing is the succession of Kim Jong-Il. Kim Jong-Il is 68 this year and he’s had this bizarre attempt, it seems, to have his second son, who’s only 27, be his successor. There’s very little popular support for this, although there was very little support when Kim Jong-Il came to power in 1994 when his father Kim Il-Sung died, and he has maintained an incredible grip on power.

But, I think that his son or sons will find it very difficult to exercise power in the same way as him because if he dies in the next few years, they’ll be left with a tremendous legacy of poverty, bellicosity and a completed degraded economy—North Korea was one of the best economies in Asia in the 1950s and 60s—to deal with. This is wholly because of the mismanagement of the current military party elites in North Korea that have driven the country into the ground. Either there’s going to be a very unstable outcome where the country falls apart, or they’re going to have to make pretty quick, pretty profound reforms, which means allowing a proper free market. China’s role in that will be very important. It’s going to have to be a mentor for that process, even a funder. It’s North Korea’s only stable ally at the moment, so the expectations towards it, whether it says it has influence or not, will be pretty high.

China’s next generation of leaders are to take power in 2012. Are there any indications yet of what we might be able to expect from this next generation given some of the names that have been floated for key positions, especially in terms of political reform?

Basically, whether they like it or not, they have to make some big decisions about the governance of China. They just want to continue making China a strong, rich country, where the Communist Party has a monopoly on power. But I think they’re going to have to quickly decide, for, example, about what to do about an independent judiciary. The influence of politics on the courts is still very great in China—there are anything from 3,000 to 300,000 civil society groups in China. Civil society is flourishing, and yet they have no legal basis and they aren’t properly protected by law.

China also has to decide what to do about political opposition. At the moment, it can repress or co-opt. Eighty percent of the million people who have succeeded in village elections over the last 20 years who were not Party members have then become Party members. So the Party has been fairly good at co-opting people and people that are not co-optable, it then represses. But, I don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t see why China is any different to any other transitional economy.

By 2020, it will be a middle-income country with a per capita GDP of probably around $11,000. At that time things usually start happening—society becomes much more contentious; you have to deal with greater inequalities, which are already very large in China; there are issues with a fragmented economy and fragmented social development across the country; issues of unity and social cohesiveness; issues of allowing information flows for proper economic development. If it can’t have a structure to do this with some sort of stability and sustainability, then it’s going to be a problem, not just for China, but the world.

I think this is going to happen more quickly because I think even at the moment there are signs of rising social tensions within China. There were 12 million petitions to the central government in 2008 because people were dissatisfied with the decisions of local courts; problems of labour unrest. And then there the problems of ‘mass incidents’—there were maybe 90,000 of these in 2009. This is a lot of social discontent and I think the Communist Party has two options. One is to tough it out and continue to repress and hope eventually things will work out. The other is to reform and deal with the courts, civil society and political opposition in a more sustainable way.

The drawback for the Party is that any of this will mean the monopoly of power it has will go and it will just have to deal with that. I don’t think it can tough it out. If tries, it may well end in terrible bloodshed, which has been the historical template for dynastic change in China. But, I think the Communist Party is very pragmatic in the end, and I think it will try and combine reserving as much power for itself as possible and ceding territory bit by bit to potential opponents, when those opponents start to draw blood.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The current leaders have one characteristic, and that’s that they are all fairly internal—none of them have studied abroad and none of them have had much international exposure. Of the nine members of the Politburo, which is the apex of Chinese decision-making, none of them have studied or lived abroad. So, their international outlook is limited in some ways. That’s not to say that they aren’t international in their outlook, but it’s also not like they have had very profound exposure to the rest of the world. In the end, their key thing is to reform things for the Chinese economy and the domestic Chinese situation. I don’t see any big sign that they’ve got the vision and the global perspective to deal with the kind of problems they’re going to have to deal with in the next decade—Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and social unrest.

They are going to have to think creatively and constructively. China’s relations with the world at the moment are quite assertive and fractious, and they can’t continue like that. They have to have a more positive vision of what they are and what they want. In the short-term, I’m extremely pessimistic; in the mid-term, I’m relatively pessimistic; in the long-term, I am wildly optimistic. I think by about 2030 we will be looking at a robust democracy in China.

Kerry Brown is a senior fellow with Chatham House’s Asia Programme. This interview was conducted by Amy Foulds.