Tension Between Democracy and Authoritarianism

Many believe that the notion of a stable and prosperous authoritarian system advocated by the China Model discourse is a direct challenge to the assumptions of the democratic world (Ambrosio 2012: 385). This has been described as both China and international actors riding each other’s tiger (Fan 2002: 88). Therefore, many argue that there is a deep anxiety in the West about China’s pathway to power (Wu and Zhu 2011: 1412). With its sustained economic growth and rising military strength, China wants the established US-led international community to acknowledge its “Chinese characteristics” as it joins in. However, the West tends to interpret “Chinese characteristics” as China’s hidden agenda to modify the agreed rules towards its own interest (Fan 2002: 72).

Thus, the spreading of the China Model discourse fundamentally undermines the current international order that has been established based on the normative and material power of the West (Ambrosio 2012: 385). Furthermore, there are those who are concerned that China’s rise further strengthens the relative legitimacy of authoritarianism globally (396). Ultimately, China’s rise generates a crisis not only in China but also in the West’s perception of its own normative underpinnings (Jones 2014: 132). The financial crisis both in Southeast Asia and across the globe has provided a significant opportunity for China in terms of justifying its political-economic system for domestic development and China has in turn promoted its development experiences to other developing countries (Jiang 2011: 338). Thus, the comparison between the two models is also used to facilitate policy making in the West (Wei-Ming 2008: 59). The discourse of “the Chinese threats” or “Chinese opportunities,” which is a staple of Western foreign policy (especially in the United States), in turn helps construct the Chinese “Other” (Shirk 1982: 149).

This is even more a case in the wake of economic crises since 2008, “when the debate about economic governance, forms of transnational governance, and the very nature of the global order itself has occupied a central place” (Breslin 2011: 1323). China’s 30 years of rapid economic growth and its successes in dealing with the financial crisis have seriously undermined neoliberalism (Ambrosio 2012: 396). For many countries, a primary objective is to find the best approach for balancing relationships between citizens, society, market, state and the global economy, and in turn to align to the most viable international normative order that can produce the greatest gains in the economic performance of their own countries (Chin and Thakur 2010: 122). The discourse of the China Model demonstrates this quest by taking the third way of continued internalization of globalization, by which China would selectively adopt some global practices and norms, alongside registering its desire to rewrite some others (Chin and Thakur 2010: 120). Thus, the effectiveness of the China Model entails a learning process among policymakers in developing a worldview, which is concerned with assessing what works and what does not work in China. This is what is often called “mimetic isopmorphism” (Ambrosio 2010: 382; DiMaggio and Powell 1983): “a different understanding of the way the global order should be constructed” (Breslin 2011: 1324).

In this sense, some believe that the discourse of the China Dream is less to do with culture, and more with the global operation of capital and ideological claims (Khiabany 2007: 481). However, as we have discussed, the discourse of the China Model is deeply embedded in the discourse of the China Dream and in the process of China’s nation building. The attractiveness of the China Model to international society is not simply in terms of its statist and mercantilist economic system (Chin and Thakur 2010: 119); it is attractive also because of China’s way of building a potential global order that allows for plurality, harmony and a virtuous society, and for solving problems peacefully (Breslin 2011: 1329). In this sense, the China Dream discourse is a domestic corollary to China’s perspectives on international relations (Joshi 2012: 183).

As a consequence, the discourse of the China Model has provided an attractive recipe for other developing countries’ development through encouraging other countries to imitate it (Chen and Goodman 2012: 169). In other words, “the state has simultaneously encouraged globalization and at the same time, tried to control for globalization’s impact on China’s economy, its culture, and on state policy and the state itself” (Zhu and Pearson 2013: 1215). Thus, as Kavalski argues, by presenting itself as the very antithesis to cosmopolitanism, the normative power of the China Model discourse acts as “a metaphor for difference” in the context of the seeming “hegemony of neoliberal cosmopolitanism” (Kavalski 2013: 249-250).

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