China’s relationship to democracy is a closely watched issue on the world stage. As the largest authoritarian nation in the world, and within a decade potentially the world’s largest economy, China exerts significant influence on the balance of democracy across the developing world.
For decades, foreign observers and many Chinese reformists have focused on China’s own internal political movements, watching as it alternately becomes more open to dissent and competing voices, then clamps down. These days, China actually appears to be regressing, despite its capitalist economy and some recent protests in cities like Dalian. Over the past year, the government has cracked down hard on any protest groups, and has increasingly monitored and filtered the Internet and microblogging sites. According to Yasheng Huang, a China specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, China’s political system actually was more liberal in the 1980s than today.
While observers have focused on China’s internal politics, however, an important and worrisome change has been taking place outside its borders: Beijing increasingly appears to be thwarting democracy in countries surrounding it. Local officials from Cambodia, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, and other Asian nations increasingly receive training in China, where they learn repressive Chinese judicial, policing, and Internet control tactics. It has pushed neighboring nations to crack down on activists who criticize China, even outside the borders of the People’s Republic. In Central Asia, meanwhile, China has helped create a regional organization to prop up authoritarian rule.
In a new piece in the Boston Globe, I examine China’s challenge to democracy in Asia. You can read the whole piece here.