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Robert Bianchi has lived and worked in China and the Islamic World for the past two decades. He has a PhD in Political Science and a Law degree, both from the University of Chicago. His new book focuses on how the new “Silk Road” is transforming global politics. Bianchi has a discerning vision which neither excuses nor vilifies his subject. He is especially insightful on how the One Belt One Road initiative will have blowback into China. Here is an excerpt from the book.
——Marvin Zonis

Clamorous Democracies and Unruly Dictatorships

by Robert Bianchi

China is encountering particularly strong headwinds in Muslim countries with vibrant democratic traditions. Where democracy predated the rise of Chinese influence, it is being tested and invigorated at the same time. Opposition parties, citizens’ groups, and independent journalists constantly criticize the bargains their governments strike with Chinese partners. It is common for projects to be renegotiated or cancelled because of popular objections over alleged favoritism, environmental damage, labor violations, and civil rights abuses. In many cases, democratic institutions are still struggling to overcome long legacies of military rule and social inequality. Nonetheless, these societies are unlikely to succumb to a new wave of authoritarianism inspired by Chinese investments and ideologies. In fact, China’s leaders are increasingly worried that political contagion will run in the opposite direction—from tumultuous democracies on the New Silk Road toward a more restive collection of young netizens and educated middle-classes in dozens of Chinese cities.

Each country presents China with a formidable set of headaches—political, economic, and religious. In Pakistan, competing regions and ethnic groups demand greater transparency and equity for dozens of projects that China touts as the grand opening for the Silk Road as a whole. Leaders in Islamabad and Beijing have no choice but to comply because of the enormous strategic and military stakes at risk—countering Indian ambitions in South Asia, fending off separatist threats to Xinjiang, and securing land routes for Middle East oil that still has to travel through the Straits of Malacca.

Tensions with Turkey are more deeply rooted in persistent religious and ethnic quarrels over the fate of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. No matter how much Ankara and Beijing relish the prospect of wielding Eurasian power against Europe and the United States, they cannot escape the rounds of mutual recrimination that follow every outburst of rebellion and repression in Xinjiang. Compared to the passions of Sino-Turkish clashes, the Pakistani haggling over routes and costs seems tame indeed.

With Indonesia, on the other hand, the Chinese are doubly vulnerable. Racial and religious prejudice against Indonesians of Chinese background threatens both government and private business deals. At the same time, Jakarta is determined to project maritime power and to lead the creation of a broader Pacific community—ambitions that openly contradict China’s desire for preeminence in East Asia. Indonesian politicians can use the threat of Islamic militancy to great advantage, seeming to restrain it when Beijing is pliable and quietly encouraging it when China becomes overbearing.

Nigerian democracy is particularly vexing for Chinese efforts to promote the Silk Road as a pan-African venture. Beijing would like to turn Nigeria into a keystone of stronger South-South alliances that can wage a common struggle against Western control over the international system. But China’s intrusive and disruptive presence has engendered popular resentment all across Africa. Instead of developing into a showcase of Sino-African collaboration, Nigeria seemed to confirm former colonies’ fears that China would be just another domineering empire perpetuating dependency and subverting native industries. Fearing a failure that could reverberate throughout Africa and beyond, China’s leaders scrambled to show their commitment to Nigerian industrialization. Beijing quickly boosted investments in infrastructure and energy and, then, gave new pledges to relocate factories and technology to make Nigeria an export platform for Chinese manufacturing. China’s willingness to take on greater risks in such a troubled partnership stemmed from its conviction that Nigeria was important not only for building influence in all of Africa, but also for expanding its reach in Latin America where economic nationalists voiced similar accusations that Chinese policies were making independent development impossible. Beijing reasoned that it had to turn around its African relations if it wanted to gain greater access to skeptical South American regions that Washington still treats as its backyard.

Dealing with Silk Road partners ruled by authoritarian regimes is also troublesome for China, especially when they appear increasingly unstable and alienated from their own populations. The recent uprisings in Iran provide a poignant example of a common dilemma. The mullahs and security forces can contain the blazes with Chinese-inspired controls over the internet and social media, but they cannot prevent future ignitions or rule out a wider conflagration. On the other hand, reformers have little hope of winning meaningful freedoms or promoting a less adventurous foreign policy. There is no sign of an authoritarian silver bullet to quash unrest or of a revolutionary breakthrough that could propel the country in a new direction. As Beijing expands the New Silk Road, it confronts similar problems in one country after another. Stronger linkages between domestic politics and transnational relations promote ongoing turmoil and crisis management across interdependent regions and cultures. This certainly represents an important surge in transcontinental connectivity, but hardly the kind that Chinese planners anticipated.

China’s deep misgivings toward Egypt flow naturally from a heightened awareness of these dangers. For Egyptians, the Arab Spring of 2011 replaced a hated dictator with an even more ruthless tyrant, creating the widespread expectation that another revolt was just a matter of time. In contrast to Iran, Egypt has few assets to recommend it as a Silk Road partner. It is a country in perpetual debt with declining diplomatic influence—especially as China develops multiple shipping routes to bypass the costly Suez Canal. In Egypt, Chinese leaders see all of the critical factors pointing in a negative direction. Geopolitically, it is increasingly unstable and marginalized. Economically, it seems like a bottomless money pit that no single donor could hope to rescue. And, religiously, it has crushed all hopes for a liberal Islamic future, allowing extremist and terrorist movements to fill the vacuum. The more Cairo presses Beijing for closer ties and larger investments, the more the Chinese back away—convinced that the country is ruled by a frightened and greedy clique intent on wringing as much profit as possible from foreigners and Egyptians alike.

Taken together, the evidence from these key countries suggests that China’s leaders will find no peaceful havens or extended eras of goodwill—not along the New Silk Road or in their own society. China’s actions provoke various types of popular mobilization and protest that, in turn, influence attitudes and actions inside China as well. In this sense, the unrest and stalemate in many Silk Road countries resonate with China’s own predicament—recalling the turmoil of its recent past and foreshadowing its likely future.

Reverberations across Chinese Society

Blowback from the New Silk Road—particularly its key Muslim links—takes many forms and travels multiple routes. Chinese security forces continue their preoccupation with the threats of terrorism and religious extremism radiating from Xinjiang. However, the most serious consequences are aggravated grievances of the Han Chinese. This is particularly important for the younger, more educated middle classes in the booming and choking cities—not just the first-tier conurbations of the east, but the 30 to 40 metro-regions that span the entire country.

The greatest blind spots in the party-state vision are not the remote and exotic lands of Islam, but the most talented and disheartened people living right under their noses. China’s rulers are well aware of their growing vulnerabilities due to widespread discontent over pollution, food safety, and a host of obstacles to social mobility such as rising costs of education, housing, and healthcare. But the leadership cannot accurately assess the relative dangers of applying too much coercion or too little, of fostering creativity too broadly or too narrowly. Precisely because of the authoritarianism they embody, they are bound to make miscalculations about social risks followed by halfhearted efforts at damage control.

Projecting greater power around the world will not protect China’s rulers from their own people. It will merely intensify China’s domestic problems by linking them to mounting grievances in many other countries. Holding up the roof domestically for another decade—or even another generation—will only make it fall with greater force when the weight proves too much to bear.

China’s statecraft is struggling with a split personality—daring and imaginative in foreign relations, but timid and paralyzed in domestic governance. Each day the contradiction between overreach abroad and underperformance at home becomes more glaring and more incompatible with the balance and moderation that are so celebrated in traditional Chinese culture and philosophy.