Prospects for a Chinese model of domestic law and China's impact on international law

China’s model for law at home and the PRC’s goals in affecting international law are, in their content, undemocratic. Whether they pose challenges, and potential threats, to the rule of law and, in turn, democracy elsewhere in Asia and beyond depends on how influential they become and in what ways. The potential for spreading a Chinese model of law and authoritarian governance has been rising with China’s evident economic success accompanied by political stability and with the Chinese regime’s warming to the idea of promoting emulation of the Chinese model abroad. But, for now, the ambiguities of law’s place in a still largely implicit and not fully articulated China model, the still-modest efforts by Beijing to promote a Chinese model abroad, and the notably limited soft power appeal in other countries of the Chinese example—among other factors—have limited the prospects that propagation of the Chinese model will imperil democracy or democratic prospects elsewhere in Asia or further afield.

China’s embrace of international legal norms that are adverse to democracy is long-standing (although not static), and China’s ability and will to influence international law have been growing. But the effects, for now, remain limited, and the PRC’s agenda is still largely defensive. Beijing often seeks mostly to parry or undercut foreign efforts that seek to pressure China to become more liberal-democratic or that aim to strengthen pro-democracy international legal norms that are at odds with the PRC’s preferences and interests.43 China’s positions on democracy-relevant aspects of international law (including state sovereignty, human rights, and sources of international law) do not (yet) amount to a coherent, anti-democratic, alternative vision of international law.44 China may become more assertive in shaping international law, developing or revealing a more clearly revisionist, system-shaping agenda. China has come closest to doing so in Asia, through Beijing’s occasional flirtation with notions of Asian values and creation of Asia-centered, international law-relevant institutions. But, even short of such more ambitious undertakings, China may press more effectively for its views on international law, including support for norms with undemocratic content, in ways that undermine existing international pro-democracy norms or, more broadly, erode the coherence of international law and, thus, an international rule of law that has included many democracy-supporting elements in a rules-based international order. If such developments occur, the threat to the rule of law and democracy in other states, especially in Asia but also in the wider world, will become more serious.

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