ChinaThe Dawn of the Authoritarian Century?
Chris Ogden looks at how democracy is retreating in the face of China’s ‘Pax Autocratica’ – capitalism combined with state intervention and one-party rule
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China’s return to global pre-eminence over the last 40 years has resulted in a direct and resolute challenge to the liberal international order premised upon United States (US) and Western dominance. This Pax Democratica had been founded upon the central pillars of promoting democracy, free market economics, universal human rights and US hegemony.
As China grows stronger, it is beginning to translate its economic strength into formidable military, diplomatic and institutional capabilities. In unison with the country’s core authoritarian values and practices, they will form the basis of a rival world order – a Pax Autocratica. This new order significantly diverges from the existing order, seeks to challenge the core nature of global politics and ultimately to replace the Pax Democratica.
China’s New Order
Central to this challenge is China’s deep-seated Confucian and authoritarian basis that has shaped the country’s internal politics for the last 2,000 years. Giving its leaders near total control of China’s political, social and legal basis, as well as significant influence over its economic foundations, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to use this power to stabilise and harmonise the country based upon their unquestioned authority and power.
With its ascendant geo-economic and geo-political power, China is aiming to export these values outwards across East Asia and beyond, in order to harmonise the international order towards its preferred hierarchy. Principles of tian xia (“all under heaven”) and da tong (“great harmony”) collectively seek to create an internal order overseen by a single ruling group (the CCP), and an external international order that has China at its centre.
China’s criticality to the global economy is the key that allows Beijing to export its authoritarian values – and their legal basis – across the international system. Beijing has successfully morphed together the social and political and economic realms of their international order into an authoritarian-capitalist basis. As such, it has completely and publicly broken the supposed bond and dependency between liberal democracy and liberal trade, which brings into question entire areas of the liberal international order.
Crucially, China has been able to synthesize its own authoritarian values with those of global free trade, showing a clear resilience in its authoritarian basis, which other countries can replicate. This ‘China Model’ of economic development allows the state to be interventionist, binds the economy to one-party rule and resists a complete integration of neo-liberalism. The very tangible demonstration effect of China’s successful authoritarian-capitalist model is also an attractive tool that legitimises the CCP’s vision, appealing to autocratic leaders who wish to develop economically without democracy.
Beijing is now exporting this approach via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the largest infrastructure funding project in history, creating in-built interdependences between China and member countries. The BRI has also successfully pulled democratic countries into its ever-increasing orbit and is being used as a diplomatic mechanism to dissuade criticism of its internal politics. These include acknowledging the ‘One China’ policy, wherein countries must have no diplomatic relations with Taiwan, must not criticize the CCP concerning Xinjiang or Tibet and must align with China in the UN Security Council.
China is further injecting the different values, practices and – overall – identity underpinning its vision of international order into international affairs. Beijing does this through the construction of new multilateral institutions built upon these different principles. This creation is underpinned by its economic clout (especially compared with a weakening US) and vast amounts of outward FDI used to draw other countries to China.
Such an undertaking is most evident concerning the ever-expanding Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) but also carries over into the security domain with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). These regimes challenge the exclusivity of Western-created international organisations and are re-orientating the international order along more China-centric lines, especially in terms of its “state-led development” and “social-welfare” economic models. Within these dynamics, notions of tian xia are also prominent with Beijing seeking to realise a more representative and equitable global power structure (for developing world regions) that places China at its very highest echelons.
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A Global Convergence
As such, Beijing is now able to articulate an alternative vision of international order that is frequently premised upon different economic, institutional and normative conditions and is becoming increasingly legitimate in the eyes of many world leaders. Social peer recognition from other countries – who are reflecting and replicating certain principles and behaviours – is also conferring legitimacy upon China’s authoritarian world vision.
Across the world’s other great powers – the US, Russia and India – there is growing evidence of policies and behaviours that are clearly authoritarian in nature and which (especially from Washington and New Delhi) undermine their democratic foundations. Such tendencies are also evident in the United Kingdom and across Europe. These factors imply a greater contemporary global convergence towards authoritarianism, which is then filtering out into the international sphere, reinforcing its pervasiveness and primacy.
Reinforcing this trend, and amidst intensifying “democratic backsliding”, a 2021 survey noted that only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a fully functioning democracy.
Apart from indicating a general weakness infusing the liberal international order, this assertion underscores the current order’s lack of sufficient resilience to resist a China-centric international order and henceforth the long-term realisation of a Pax Autocratica. It also shows the declining relative influence and stature of Western countries, their associated values and worldviews and by extension the Western-centric liberal international order, all of which are further undercut by their domestic autocratic turns.
The US’s denouement is reflective of the wider historical rise and fall, and ebb and flow, of international orders across time. Domestic changes in the US may also accelerate an autocratic future. If Donald Trump were to successfully run again for the US Presidency, or if a similarly minded Republican leader were to emerge, then an authoritarian (even fascist) US may emerge. Such an eventuality would confirm the end of Pax Democratica and herald the beginnings of a China-inspired and China-centric Authoritarian Century.
Chris Ogden is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and the author of The Authoritarian Century: China’s Rise and the Demise of the Liberal International Order