Nonagenarian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wasted no time in making a much anticipated move, dispatching Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng to renegotiate some of the “unequal treaties” with China. His move has been compared to steps by the then-new Sirisena administration in Sri Lanka to scale back massive deals with China made under the previous government.
But actually, the Malaysia saga has more in common with China’s investment in Africa, where Beijing’s no-strings-attached aids programs have been accused of propping up authoritarian, corrupt regimes. As a fuller account of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s embezzlement of state funds began to emerge, suspicions are growing of Beijing’s complicity in a scandal slammed by the United States as “kleptocracy at its worst.”
The premise for China’s noninterference policy is the argument that for poor countries, social and economic rights should take precedence over civil and political rights. As Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo tersely put it: “it matters little to a starving African family whether they can vote or not.” To be fair, international criticism notwithstanding, on balance China’s “unconditional” developmental model has lifted millions out of poverty.
In fact, Mahathir, together with the late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, were the earliest proponents of this two-staged development model. During the 1990s Asian values debate, both leaders advocated the prioritization of Eastern collective social economic prosperity, and pushed back against what they perceived as the premature Western imposition of individualistic civil liberties.
Today, China is sticking to the same noninterference playbook as it rolls out the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Countries across Europe and Asia are hopping onto the BRI bandwagon, with little political conditions imposed. As the Chinese web expands there is also growing consternation that China’s “business is business” pragmatism is abetting predatory mercantilism, showing little ethical restrains.
In Malaysia, despite a rising tide of discontent, most analysts forecasted a return to power by the embattled Najib. Mahathir’s stunning victory caught much of the world by surprise. In Beijing, this shock was tinged with unease as evidence is surfacing implicating China in collusion with the Najib administration’s gross fiscal mismanagement.
The China-Malaysia relationship is unlikely to be derailed by this complication. But China’s credibility may have depreciated somewhat.
The Malaysia episode underscores a vital point: Beijing’s no-strings-attached aid model no longer works for some, especially in countries that have achieved greater democratization.
For Malaysians today, mere economic growth is no longer adequate. Civil liberties are just as important. This is not an indictment of the Asian values thesis; rather it is a validation of the “economic first” principle.
After decades of steady growth, Malaysia has attained a level of prosperity whereby a vibrant civil society is becoming sustainable. In a way, this is the by-product of an expanding middle class. But this would not have transpired without the valiant struggles of grassroots social activists, who outmaneuvered a conniving state machinery to transform the Malaysian masses into an informed citizenry. After years of perseverance, this bottom up movement finally came of age by bringing about a historic change of power, peacefully, through the ballot box.
The Malaysia storyline is as inspirational as is inconceivable, with larger-than-life personalities entangled in multiple plots and subplots. There are startling twists and turns worthy of the intrigue and suspense of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This modern Malaysian version, however, is wholly nonfictional, and is still an unfolding drama.
Sadly, along the way, China lost the plot in this stunning Malaysia breakout story.
Moving forward, Beijing has to recalibrate its economic-centric approach with greater care for issues pertaining to civil liberties, and restore its lost credibility with “cleaner” soft power.
President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-graft campaign has sanitized Chinese officialdom. This domestic housecleaning exercise should be extended overseas to clean up China’s operations abroad. The process can begin with the explicit prohibition of any collusion between Chinese enterprise and corrupt regimes.
True, Malaysia is the news of the day. But China, by virtue of its size, is the bigger story of our time, with far greater global consequences. Indeed the People’s Republic has enormous potential to positively affect the world. But Beijing must set in place stronger moral oversight of its fast expanding international footprints.
Apart from averting future ethical missteps, this enforcement will move modern China closer in step with the much touted, idealized Confucian exemplary leadership, namely, “A ruler who governs virtuously is like the north star around which all other stars revolve.”
Peter T C Chang is a senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya.