To enhance its economic and political clout, China has made substantial inroads across Southeast Asia on the back of multi-billion-dollar infrastructure and investment deals, notes analyst Philip Heijmans. This is how China will engage with the world for the foreseeable future. At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Wednesday, a political conclave held once every five years to present the leadership’s governing agenda, Xi Jinping, arguably China’s strongest ruler in decades, will solidify his rule and reinforce an expansive foreign economic platform that will shape the region for years to come, he writes for The Atlantic:
Such future dealings abroad are unlikely to come with any pledges toward democratization attached. In Cambodia, for example, China hasn’t slowed its investments despite Hun Sen’s crackdown on democracy and basic freedom. Facing vocal challenges from opposition groups ahead of next year’s general elections, he has begun actively silencing pro-democracy institutions, expelling the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute [a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy], forcing Radio Free Asia to close its Phnom Penh office, shuttering the The Cambodia Daily, jailing opposition party leader Kem Sokha on allegedly phony charges of treason and collusion with the United States, and calling for the withdrawal of Peace Corps volunteers. On Monday the National Assembly moved to redistribute all of the main opposition party’s legislative seats.
“China’s propensity for coopting, pressuring, and even bullying Southeast Asia’s rulers is creating potentially double-edged swords for Beijing,” says Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “A corrupt, entrenched local elite can be bought into alignment with China, as has happened in Cambodia. But, such cronyism can prompt opposition from civil society actors who are thereby more likely to blame China for local exploitation and repression, as has happened in Myanmar.”The pernicious effects of Beijing’s soft power are also being felt in advanced democracies like Australia, notes analyst Helen Clark:
Feng Chongyi (right), an associate professor at the University of Sydney, was held for ten days by Chinese officials after a research trip to China earlier this year. The harassment likely stemmed from his open criticism of China’s rising role in Australia, including state control over civil society organizations and higher learning institutes at Australian universities.
“China’s influence has succeeded in shaping public perceptions and opinions about China, and even government policies toward China,” said Feng. “Even my freedom in Australia is increasingly under threat from China’s ‘soft power,’’’ he recently wrote.