China’s rise not making world more authoritarian – for now


Democratic uprisings are worrisome for Chinese leaders as they could spill over and inspire similar anti-government protests at home, notes Julia Bader, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. For example, the color revolutions in the former Soviet republics in the early 2000s triggered the Chinese to restrict NGOs operating in China and led to the bolstering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to a bulwark against anti-regime activity in Central Asia. Even the much more distant Arab Spring in Northern Africa provoked fears of a domino effect in China, so Chinese security forces have cracked down on domestic democracy activists, she writes for Democratic Audit:

Because China’s noninterference policy is so clearly skewed towards incumbents, we should be able to observe this at the level of individual governments if China’s rise indeed leads to more authoritarianism in the world. In a recent article, I investigated how several forms of bilateral interaction with China – state visits, trade dependence, arms trade, and two proxies for Chinese development cooperation and investments –may strengthen an incumbent leader’s position in power.

The research results are mixed, she adds:

  • On the one hand, intense trade relations with China significantly prolong authoritarian rule in China’s trade partners. Authoritarian leaders and regimes remain longer in power when China is an important export destination, i.e. exports to China as share of total exports are relatively high. Interestingly, this effect cannot simply be attributed to oil-producing countries. Neither is it exclusively driven by African countries some of which are highly export-dependent on China.
  • On the other hand, however, my analysis suggests that China’s influence is rather overstated, at least for the period directly after the end of the Cold War until the end of 2008, which I investigated. Neither bilateral high-level diplomatic visits, nor the transfer of arms, nor any other forms of bilateral interaction with China significantly bolster the power of authoritarian leaders or regimes. This is not to dismiss the possibility that interaction with China has been vital for individual governments, but in statistical terms we cannot observe that it systematically advantages and prolongs the tenure of incumbents.

So, despite China’s questionable engagement with some of the world’s worst despots, accounts that attribute authoritarian persistence in the world to the rise of China seem to be overblown, Bader concludes. RTWT

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