- To deflect criticism of its initial cover-up, the Chinese government is busy presenting its model of governance as a success in containing Covid-19
- China’s model offers efficiency, because unlike in democracies, there is no cost of dissent
For several decades, China has been manufacturing and exporting almost everything across the globe, thus gaining status as the world's factory. More recently, China has taken the lead in exporting innovative technologies. Amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, some people have also accused China of exporting coronavirus.
However, we should not miss the evolution of China's newest export: the Chinese model of governance (and political ideas underpinning it) as an alternative to the Western liberal model. This export is strategic because mere economic might will not suffice to sustain China's superpower status.
Rather, as the West has in the past, China would also need to influence social, political and cultural landscapes in other countries in its quest for dominance.
China's governance model is built on concentration of power by a small group of leaders, making all state institutions subservient to the Communist Party, prioritising economic development over human rights, using law as a tool to suppress civil liberties, treating religious or linguistic diversity as a threat to national unity, using media as a tool for government propaganda, and invoking national sovereignty as a shield to ward off any criticism of the government's human rights record.
After refining its model over the years, the Chinese government is feeling more confident about exporting it to other countries. The Belt and Road Initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, provides a suitable platform. In return for facilitating the realisation of local peoples' right to development, the Chinese government is able to gain significant leverage over host countries' policies, priorities, national resources and preferences in international relations.
The Chinese government has also started promoting its vision of governance at international institutions. For example, in March 2018, China proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council outlining its approach of promoting human rights through "mutually beneficial cooperation" and constructive dialogue, rather than accountability for systemic human rights abuses.
In line with this approach, any criticism of policies persecuting Uygurs is labelled as an example of Western bias, while "re-education camps" are justified as counterterrorism measures. Similarly, any concern about Beijing undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is dismissed as interference in China's internal affairs.
China is winning the Covid-19 fight but losing the economic war
To deflect criticism of the initial cover-up of the Wuhan outbreak, the Chinese government is now busy presenting its model of governance as a superior success in containing Covid-19, as it allowed the quick mobilisation of resources, mass production of medical equipment, use of new technologies, and efficient coordination of responses.
There are several reasons why some countries are finding the Chinese governance model attractive. First, this model has proved to deliver fast economic growth. China has lifted over 800 million people out of poverty and become the world's second-largest economy.
Second, the Chinese model offers efficiency, because unlike in democracies, there is no cost of dissent. Nor does one have to worry about following tedious processes to accomplish an agreed outcome.
Third, the Chinese model offers more political and social stability in that it avoids uncertainties linked to periodic democratic elections and political transitions. It also keeps both civil society and the media in check.
'Sick man' row: why China's expulsion of reporters is the wrong answer
However, China's export of its governance model is likely to cause conflicts in recipient jurisdictions following an alternative model of governance. Hong Kong is a good case in point. What we have been witnessing in Hong Kong in the last few years is not merely inherent conflicts within "one country, two systems", but a clash between two models of governance.
The Chinese government's decision to oust American reporters for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal from the mainland, in retaliation for the Trump administration's restrictions on five Chinese media outlets in the US, is another illustration of this clash.
Alternatively, the export of the Chinese model of governance could result in evolution " perhaps a new model combining elements of the Chinese and Western models. India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is following what may be termed as the "MoXi" model of governance, because this model applies to an Indian context some key elements of the Chinese governance model under President Xi.
Without invoking any emergency powers, Modi has accomplished a highly centralised and opaque model of decision-making with almost no effective checks and balances. The autonomy of independent institutions in India as well as the idea of "unity in diversity" have come under assault under the MoXi model. It is quite telling that in December 2019, People's Daily, the Chinese government newspaper, cited India's internet shutdowns to justify similar restrictions in the Xinjiang region.
Whether we like it or not, the Chinese model of governance is here to stay. It would be naive to continue to dismiss this as a "non-model" of authoritarianism and repression. Much more sophisticated critical questions would need to be asked, not merely about the functioning of the Chinese model but also the Western model.
Moreover, new types of alliances might be needed to protect human rights and people-centred democracy, not merely from the Chinese model of governance but also from pretenders to the liberal governance model.
Surya Deva is an associate professor at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong
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