Watching events unfold in Egypt, it’s impossible not to think about the current trajectory of human rights and democracy in Asia in general, and countries like China in particular. While the likelihood of China following in Egypt’s footsteps remains quite low in the immediate future, pressure for political reform in China continues to build. And despite all the hype around the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’, there’s growing talk among China’s neighbours—especially its democratic ones—about China’s negative impact on human rights beyond its borders.
There has long been a tendency to consider the discussion about human rights and democratic values in Asia in somewhat binary terms: an authoritarian Chinese model versus a ‘western’ model, usually characterized as US-led. Both US and Chinese officials have a tendency to fall into this way of thinking, and it’s a ‘thought habit’ that short-circuits serious consideration of what is really happening on the ground in the region. Good examples of this abound, but two recent ones are: the stilted exchanges over human rights during the joint Obama-Hu press conference during the recent summit; and a recent op-ed on Egypt in the Chinese press that referred to South Korea’s hard-won democracy as having been ‘implanted’ by the West.
In particular, this narrative largely obscures the role that Indonesia is playing in reshaping the human rights and democracy discourse in Asia. As a large, diverse and democratizing developing country, Indonesia presents a strong counter-argument to the idea that Beijing’s version of authoritarian capitalism represents the prevailing trend for developing countries in Asia and elsewhere. Not only is Indonesia’s economy enjoying strong growth, but its civil society is vibrant and its media as lively as in any other democratic country.
Uniquely in Asia, Indonesia’s political leaders have also staked out a foreign policy that is openly pro-democracy and pro-freedom. While Beijing is road-testing a newly assertive—and largely abrasive—triumphalism about the success of its political and economic system in managing the recent economic crisis, Indonesia is confidently asserting an alternative vision for success that is based on democratic values and greater openness. As the largest and most politically influential country in Southeast Asia, and a plugged-in and growing power beyond, Indonesia’s leadership on this front deserves more attention than it gets.
During a recent trip to Indonesia, I had an opportunity to ask a number of leading foreign policy officials, thinkers and civil society activists about their thoughts on China’s influence in the region. I was surprised by the unanimity of their answers. After explaining that everyone appreciated China’s economic success, these Indonesians spoke about the inevitability of China becoming more democratic because it was the only way it could solve its many serious problems. While civil society types then branched off on how China was currently the biggest threat to human rights in the region, official types were focused on their efforts to convince their Chinese colleagues of the benefits of initiating their own democratic transition rather than waiting for it to happen to them.
Here’s hoping that Beijing is listening to Jakarta, as it watches events unfold in Cairo.
Kelley Currie is a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.