Can the ‘China model’ offer the Arab world an alternative to the West?
Western governments and civil society organisations long have advocated for more democracy in the Arab world, defined in terms of Western political systems: constitutions that guarantee individual rights; one-person, one-vote elections; multiparty legislatures; independent judiciaries; heads of state with limited powers and civilian control over military and security forces. The message in a nutshell: “You should be more like us.”
Democracy advocacy accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union. Western powers, especially the United States, no longer valued anti-communism over democracy and began to criticise the very governments that it had armed and bolstered during the Cold War. A veritable democracy industry arose in Washington, as non-profits and think-tanks jumped onto the democracy bandwagon, producing reports and critiques and conducting programmes in the Arab world designed to instil Western political values.
The pinnacle of the democracy movement came during the administration of President George W. Bush, when a phalanx of so-called neocons seized ideological control of US foreign policy with the mission of imposing democracy on the Arab world, starting with Iraq in 2003. Their argument was that democratic governments in the Arab world were the best way to combat religious extremism, expand neo-liberal economics, and — importantly to the neocons — make peace with Israel.
The Iraq invasion and its calamitous aftermath, however, demonstrated that democracy-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun was not such a wise policy.
Then, in 2011, the Arab world erupted: The “Arab spring” offered hope to Western democracy advocates that finally, at last, Arabs had seen the light and would replace authoritarian regimes with vibrant, multiparty, Western-style democracies.
This did not happen — except in Tunisia, which is still a work in progress.
By 2017, the Trump administration had essentially deleted the traditional talking points on democracy from the US lexicon. Pro-democracy NGOs and think-tanks still do their thing but their influence is negligible. Trying to remake the world in the Western image no longer seems to be a viable project. More importantly, the people and countries of the Arab world must be questioning whether it even is a desirable path to follow.
And for good reasons.
For any model of government to be appealing, it must be seen to work — that is, provide social stability, economic growth, basic services and rational decision-making. In recent years, the Western model of government has brought us decision-making gridlock, ethno-nationalist and neo-fascist political parties, secessionist movements, disastrous referendum votes, unpopular heads of state and economies essentially managed by central bankers (because elected officials cannot make coherent decisions).
The West is rich; it can get away with incompetent and inefficient systems of government. The overall much less-rich Arab world, however, can be excused for not rushing to adopt the Western model of government. US President Donald Trump was wise to drop democracy-promotion, especially as he himself is an example of the crazy things that Western democracy can produce.
There is another model out there and one that is becoming increasingly attractive to people throughout the non-Western world. In a report by the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based consultancy, Ian Bremmer wrote that “China’s political model, despite its domestic challenges, is now perceived as stronger than it has ever been — and at a moment when the US political model is weakened.”
In response to those in Washington who continue to advocate for Western-style political reform, Bremmer said: “In terms of the legitimacy of government in the eyes of its citizens, the US may be in at least as great a need of structural political reform as China.”
Bremmer, who is president of the Eurasia Group and a professor at New York University, argued that one of the attractions of the China model is that Beijing does not force it on others: “That’s attractive for governments that are used to Western demands for political and economic reform in exchange for financial help,” Bremmer wrote.
What is the China model? As Daniel A. Bell, dean of the School of Political Science at Shandong University and author of “The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy,” explained it: “China has evolved and implemented — in highly imperfect form — meritocratic mechanisms to select and promote political leaders with superior intellectual, social and moral qualities.”
This may not be done through one-person, one-vote elections but the result is an efficient and effective government.
Bell does not present China’s political system as a utopia. He acknowledges its flaws, especially related to individual freedoms but he argues that, if China continues to “innovate and reform its system” while democracies “rest on their laurels and cast aspersions on political alternatives,” the Chinese model will become the globally dominant one.
Bremmer concluded: “Since 2008, we’ve seen a gradual erosion in global perceptions of the attractiveness of Western liberal democracies. There is now a viable alternative.”