The Chinese Communist Party exercises sovereignty over 1.4 billion people. In doing so, it suppresses free speech, regulates political activity and exercises a pervasive program of propaganda in education, the arts and the news media. There are no elections of the sort we are familiar with, the judiciary has limited independence, and the internet is closely monitored and tightly censored.
Things have been worse: the first 40 years of CCP rule were marked by episodic violence and ruinous economic folly. More recently, however, CCP rule has resulted in both domestic peace and remarkable prosperity for the Chinese people. According to the World Bank, Chinese GDP per capita grew 34-fold between 1960 and 2015.
Yet, the menace of earlier times has never entirely gone away. For example, the CCP would likely unleash its People’s Liberation Army on Taiwan if the island ever declared independence. It’s hard to think of other instances where the threat of war is contingent on a single utterance.
Given the stark contrasts between how China and Australia are governed, how, if at all, should our foreign and strategic policy take account of such profound differences? From a hardnosed realpolitik perspective, the nature of China’s governance would be deemed irrelevant to how we deal with them. The exception would be if China’s system of government was likely to make it behave either favorably or unfavorably towards us.
I argued last year that CCP ideology does indeed predispose it to seek an international role for China inimical to our interests. My argument was simple. Just as the United States created an international system mirroring its own constitutional arrangements post WWII—hence the notion of countries as ‘international citizens’—we should expect the CCP to try and do the same. The problem is that the CCP notion of a citizen’s rights differs fundamentally from ours. While my simple model might not pass muster among political scientists, it has the merit of explaining China’s eagerness to form a G2 with the United States—though, I suspect, only as a stepping stone to a Sino-centric endpoint.
Setting aside the potential realpolitik implications of CCP rule, there remains the underlying question about the legitimacy of one-party rule and the extent to which it should influence our approach. Attempts to avoid the question by arguing that growing Chinese prosperity legitimises CCP rule miss the point; there can be no legitimate rule without informed consent.
At some level, I think that most Australians would like to see the Chinese people enjoy the same rights and privileges that we do. But while that might be congenial, our aspiration on behalf of the Chinese people comes with both a caution and a caveat—each of which shape our approach to the CCP.
The caution is to be careful what you wish for. A transition from one-party rule to a more pluralistic system could lead to worse outcomes, not just for us, but also for the Chinese people. CCP rule has delivered more than three decades of economic growth but, with sky-high debt levels and an economy in transition, there are massive challenges ahead. There’s no guarantee that a new regime could navigate those risks as well as the CCP and its technocrats, let alone that it would respect democratic freedoms any more than Putin’s Russia does today.
In terms of our strategic interests, a post-CCP regime in Beijing might be even more difficult to deal with. Any new regime would be all but compelled to continue the hard-edged nationalism that CCP propaganda has carefully nurtured since 1949. Built on a sense of historical victimhood and pre-ordained greatness, Chinese nationalism risks becoming the 21st century version of Germany’s grievances with the Treaty of Versailles. Given what’s at stake, it might be better to have the CCP keeping nationalism in check than, for instance, a populist regime of lesser caution.
The caveat has more to do with us than it does with China. Despite our democratic sensibilities, our misgivings about the legitimacy of CCP rule are tempered by our economic self-interest. It was no mistake that our Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, mentioned ‘values’ 10 times, ‘growth’ 313 times, and ‘economic’ 500 times. Part of the quid pro quo of our economic relations with China has been according its rulers all the trappings and deference due a legitimate government. No clearer example need be sought than when the Chinese and US presidents addressed the Australian Parliament on successive days in 2003.
While we can console ourselves that our trade with China benefits its people, it has also helped consolidate the power of the CCP. The ahistorical assertion that economic development and democracy go hand in hand provides only false solace. Indeed, the notion that one-party rule is superior to democracy is worryingly ascendant in some quarters.
Apart from the rare, sassy jibe about the need for China to embrace democracy, Australian diplomacy rarely publicly confronts the CCP on human and political rights. Such matters are reserved for an annual private bilateral discussion between officials. If human rights are defended in a forest…?
Only when our strategic interests are directly engaged—such as by Chinese aggression as in the South China Sea—does our voice rise above a murmur, but even then we’re careful. We lecture Fiji on democracy, even Russia rates a verbal ‘shirtfronting’ if we get a dander up, yet our deference to CCP sensitivities grows in tandem with our economic relationship and Chinese power.
So long as the rest of the world treats the CCP as the legitimate rulers of China, we have nothing to gain and much to lose by doing otherwise. If there was ever a debate in the West about what the right thing to do was, it was drowned out by the rush to turn a profit. It’s not that we’ve renounced our values; rather, like everyone else, our values have a price. As China’s power grows, we may soon find out what that price really is.
Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI.