Will China Promote Autocracy along its New Silk Road?

December 14, 2015

China-Kazakhstan border crossing at Horgos. CREDIT: purplepumpkins via Wikipedia

To most Westerners, Xinjiang is a region that carries little significance. Were it not for the plight of the Uyghur minority and the recent terrorist activities committed by some extremist groups in their name, this autonomous region in China's northwest would probably be unknown to many outsiders. But soon, all that may be about to change.  

Not far from the Tian Shan mountain ranges, in one of China's newest cities, sits an outpost that, once completed, will represent the first hub of many along Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambitious New Silk Road initiative. Though formally established only in late 2014, the city of Horgos (also spelled Khorgas) has a long history linked, fittingly, to the fortunes and failures of the ancient Silk Road.

Today, this border city of 85,000 residents is set to become the beating heart of a free-trade economic zone that will connect China to Kazakhstan and, beyond it, Central Asia. Already the country's largest land port, and gateway to billions of dollars' worth of trade, the planned logistics, infrastructure, and commercial projects that will course through this former backwater will crown Horgos and Xinjiang as the symbolic lynchpin tying China to Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and finally Europe.

Announced by President Xi during official state visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in late 2013, the new infrastructure projects proposed under the umbrella of the New Silk Road initiative (often referred to as the 'One Belt, One Road' initiative) are impressive in scale and ambition. They are split into two arms. The first is a new Silk Road Economic Belt to extend westward from Horgos into Central Asia and beyond. It will include plans for future trade and development agreements as well as infrastructure projects, from railways and highways to oil and gas pipelines. The second arm consists of a 21st century Maritime Silk Road connecting China to Southeast Asia, the Subcontinent, the Middle East, Western Africa, and ultimately Europe.

There is nothing modest about what Xi has in store. It's a global geopolitical venture that's planned to span across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and is estimated to affect the lives of 4.4 billion people and generate $2.1 trillion in gross production. One look at the geopolitical mark this bold proposal will leave on the face of the planet and it's clear that it signals a turning point in China's ambition for itself and vision for the world.

While there are clear supporters of this Sinocentric project, a chorus of critics have already expressed concerns that Xi's bold vision for the New Silk Road points to more than a 21st century revival of an ancient Chinese feat which altered the course of civilizations. With Xi's 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative, as The Wall Street Journal columnist Jeremy Page has warned, China may be giving rise to a sinocentric "New Asian Order." It's the "Chinese Dream" gone global.

But would that be such a bad thing?

There's no simple—at least no single—answer to this question. What answers one gives will depend to a large degree on whether it's free trade, development, or infrastructure you're talking about. It's also likely to depend on which side of the Pacific you're standing.

Nowhere is this more clear than discussions about the politics of the OBOR. What political ramifications will flow from Xi's plan? More specifically, will there be any implications for the geopolitics of democracy? These may seem odd questions to ask for what is essentially a transnational infrastructure proposal. But they're not.

The OBOR represents many things to many people. Yet it also symbolizes the unmistakable change of intentions that China's leadership has for the country. It's a change that has many parties worried.

For one, Columbia Professor Andrew Nathan has recently observed that as China begins to "flex its muscles as a major power," concerned analysts will begin wondering "the extent to which China, as its power grows, will seek to remake the world in its authoritarian image."

The fear is that countries under Beijing's sphere of influence may willingly or otherwise learn to see the appeal of autocracy, further shunning democracy in the process and precipitating what is known as a reverse-wave of democratization. Indeed, there are scholars like Edward Friedman, for example, who believe that many democracies have long felt it necessary to "become less democratic" when dealing with the Chinese superpower. How much more so will this be the case with China set to resurrect its global Silk Road project for the 21st century?

A good place to begin looking for answers may be to examine what Xi and his ministers have said about how this re-imagining of an ancient Chinese trade route will shape Chinese and regional order in the years to come. Though the New Silk Road initiative was announced much earlier, it wasn't until 2015 that China's leaders really fleshed out in greater detail what this initiative would entail.

Speaking in April 2015 at the Boao Forum for Asia, an annual meeting of regional heads of state held in Hainan, Xi outlined four principles underpinning what he called a "community of common destiny" that would promise a "new future for Asia."

The first principle Xi spelled out was a call for all countries to ensure "respect [for] one another and treat each other as equals." For Xi, this essentially means that countries must "respect other countries' social systems and development paths of their own choice," leading to an "objective and rational perception of other countries' growing strength, policies, and visions."

Xi's second principle held that a community of common destiny must rest on building "win-win cooperation and common development." Simply put, the idea is that the "interests of others must be accommodated while pursuing one's own interests, and common development must be promoted while seeking one's own development." For Xi, this principle must now apply to more than economics; it needs to form the basis of wider Asian political, security, and cultural affairs too.

The third principle espoused by the Chinese president is the need to pursue "common, comprehensive, and sustainable security." Under the banners of Asian interdependence and regional security governance, Xi's third proposal is essentially one that pegs security to development: with greater sustainable development, his thinking goes, comes more sustainable security.

Finally, the fourth principle underpinning the Xi's vision for a common Asian destiny is the need to ensure "inclusiveness and mutual learning among civilizations." By drawing "on the strength of the other," all nations can "thrive and prosper by way of mutual learning and common development."

As Xi was delivering this address to the Boao Forum, the Chinese Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Commerce took the opportunity to release their action plan for the New Silk Road. The plan, known formally as the Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, is relatively light on specifics, though it does make frequent reference to such catchphrases as cooperation, harmony, openness, and inclusivity.

Aligned with the principles of the UN Charter, the plan links a future of "common development and prosperity" to a physical and metaphorical road that will stretch north from China into the Eurasian and Russian landmass and south through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. What the OBOR signifies, beyond the myriad highways, ports, industrial parks, and free-trade corridors, is "a road towards peace and friendship by enhancing mutual understanding and trust, and strengthening all-round exchanges," to use the words of the action plan.

More pertinently, the plan also outlines the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose role will be to "support the efforts of governments of the countries along the Belt and Road and their companies and financial institutions with good credit-rating to issue Renminbi bonds in China."

At first glance, there's nothing here that should concern foreign countries worried about what the New Silk Road will do to democracies abroad. It seems to back recent analyses showing that Beijing has no real interest in promoting its own political practices and norms beyond its own borders.

Indeed, despite recent Western suspicions that China and a small cohort of non-democratic powers are now seeking to promote autocracy to other countries, there's little evidence supporting a democratic rollback on account of this rising authoritarian world power. Yes, some Western analysts have posited that China's rise may be responsible for the rise in citizen apathy towards democracy. Even so, as Nathan reiterates, China "displays no missionary impulse to promote authoritarianism."

But this of course isn't the end of the story. Certainly, there's little to Xi's comments that reflect the mark of a country concertedly promoting autocracy as it's typically been defined and practiced. At the same time though, Xi's New Silk Road initiative is without question giving regional partners the prerogative, certainly the incentive, to link their futures with the future Chinese dream that Xi has spoken so much about in recent years. Through a diverse range of mechanisms, channels, and long-term projects under the auspices of its New Silk Road initiative, Beijing is therefore actively seeking to open its doors and invite countries to share in what it hopes will be a community of common destiny.

Here, the Chinese government's action plan for the New Silk Road does indeed offer some revealing clues into what such a common destiny would entail:


Mutual Benefit and Common Security

To be specific, [countries] need to improve the region's infrastructure, and put in place a secure and efficient network of land, sea, and air passages, lifting their connectivity to a higher level; further enhance trade and investment facilitation, establish a network of free trade areas that meet high standards, maintain closer economic ties, and deepen political trust; enhance cultural exchanges; encourage different civilizations to learn from each other and flourish together; and promote mutual understanding, peace and friendship among people of all countries.

Policy Coordination

We should promote intergovernmental cooperation, build a multi-level intergovernmental macro policy exchange and communication mechanism, expand shared interests, enhance mutual political trust, and reach new cooperation consensus.

People-to-People Bond

We should carry forward the spirit of friendly cooperation of the Silk Road by promoting extensive cultural and academic exchanges, personnel exchanges and cooperation, media cooperation, youth and women exchanges and volunteer services, so as to win public support for deepening bilateral and multilateral cooperation.


We should give full play to the bridging role of communication between political parties and parliaments, and promote friendly exchanges between legislative bodies, major political parties, and political organizations of countries along the Belt and Road.

Narrowly construed, these policy objectives for the New Silk Road do not amount to autocracy promotion in its strictest sense. And this seems to back the recent scholarship in the area. While scholars like Julia Bader have recently shown that China is more likely to prefer doing business with autocracies all things being equal, she finds no evidence that the country is actively promoting autocracy. The conclusion she draws is that China's foreign policy approach of "influence without interference" in autocratic countries has not and will not in all cases lead to the survival of those autocracies. While Bader does agree that non-democratic countries have on the whole been more likely recipients of Chinese economic support, she warns against automatically assuming this to be autocracy support. In short, there are no simple and generalizable conclusions to be reached about China's impact on autocratic survival.  

Even so, the New Silk Road may signal a turning point. The OBOR proposal certainly isn't neutral and though it may be touted as a 'win-win' for all, some parties are set to win more than others. As Shuaihua Wallace Cheng recently put it, Beijing is seeing the New Silk Road as the "two wings of Asia, with China at the head of this flying eagle." It is a 'China Circle' that, once complete, will not only provide Beijing a buffer from the encroachments of America's Asia pivot strategy, but also offer China a sphere where its influence will reign supreme.

While there is currently no explicit talk of promoting autocracy or undermining democracy – moreover China is already facing immense resistance from several regional partners – a Chinese-led community of common destiny may nevertheless leave an enduring and unmistakable economic, cultural, and political legacy that could just tip the balance against democracy in the years to come. But even if this were to happen, we shouldn't expect traditional authoritarian regimes to appear in democracy's place. As scholars from John Keane to Daniel Bell have made clear, China's politics defies simple categorization. There's certainly corruption and oppression and a lack of multi-party elections. But it's not a political system that's all bad. Though it may remain some way off Western-style liberal democracy, the China model that is now being refined and promoted may like all things Chinese defy global expectations. This is a prospect that terrifies some leaders. But the rest of us may simply learn to see autocracy promotion with Chinese characteristics as something that's no more and no less problematic than Western democracy promotion.

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