This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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Imperial flaws, democratic openings
What are the faults and flaws of the new Chinese empire? Most obviously, it is dogged by legitimacy problems. Its leaders are already being reminded that resistance and social unrest are the price of influence and control. They are learning that they cannot unilaterally determine the habits and hopes of people who fall within the ambit of the empire by using methods trialled in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Every Chinese government official, diplomat and businessperson should read The Vizier’s Elephant (1947) by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, the classic tale of resentment against the pinched promises and hypocrisy of occupiers, to grasp how easily imperial power can be doubted, satirised, worn down and defeated. The age of communicative abundance makes cultural resistance – mutinies against the maltreatment of local workers, for instance – much easier. Digital tools give new life to the Chinese writer Lu Xun’s principle that “discontent is the wheel that moves people forward”. Local disenchantment with the empire can readily follow – as happened, for instance, in Kazakhstan in 2019, with large-scale protests against the construction of Chinese factories and the maltreatment of Muslim and Turkic peoples in Xinjiang; and in Zambia, where bitter clashes between local mining workers and their Chinese employers have been rife for decades.
There’s also a flaw that troubles all empires: chronic tensions between the central rulers and administrators at the periphery. The Dutch East India Company was constantly troubled by disputes with distant ship captains, company representatives and local governors. British mishandling of its American colonies ended badly. China’s difficulties in Libya in 2011 provided a similar lesson: when state-owned companies invested in the local petroleum industry and infrastructure projects, they never anticipated that the collapse of the Libyan regime would require a military rescue operation that inadvertently publicised suspected Chinese arms sales to the Gaddafi regime and embarrassed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The galaxy empire stumbled. Talk of “non-interference” in “sovereign” states was dropped. After declining to veto a UN Security Council resolution sanctioning NATO bombing of Gaddafi’s forces, China then urged compromise with the regime and condemned the air strikes. As the regime collapsed, Chinese forces intervened to protect seventy-five Chinese companies and deliver 38,000 workers to safety.
In the coming years, legitimacy problems and tensions between centre and periphery are bound to trouble the Chinese empire, exacerbated by local and regional concerns about how mounting debt conflicts are to be handled – by persuasion, legal proceedings or force.
There are environmental concerns, too. China invests much more in renewable energy than the United States, yet at least a third of its groundwater is unfit for human consumption. And there are bio-challenges abroad, in places such as Antarctica, where the Chinese-owned Shanghai Chonghe Marine Industry Company, awaiting delivery of the world’s largest krill-fishing boat, is sure to encounter protests against its profit-driven plans to mega-harvest the small crustacean currently suffering population decline in delicately balanced biomes.
These vulnerabilities feed China’s greatest flaw: its lukewarm and contradictory embrace of public accountability mechanisms. China’s leaders say they want open connectivity and uncorrupted cross-border institutions based on consultation. Yet, as a one-party regime, it requires secrecy, dissimulation and unchallenged power. Several leading Chinese international relations scholars have told me privately that their country can’t succeed globally unless it opens its power structures to much greater scrutiny, both at home and abroad. Its currency must be eternal vigilance, wise deference to complexity, humble open-mindedness. They have a point: the fundamental weakness of every expanding empire is bombast and vulnerability to public exposure and public rejection. This weakness is especially threatening to an empire born within the information age. Put bluntly, democracy shortages are China’s greatest weakness.
This is a 650 word extract of a 5,503 word essay by John Keane. Get your copy of AFA11: The March of Autocracy to read the complete piece, along with contributions from Linda Jaivin, Sam Roggeveen, Darren Lim and Natasha Kassam.