When I first visited China in the 1980’s, the tallest building in Shanghai was the fourteen story Peace Hotel; when I returned a few years later, there were over fifty skyscrapers over fifty stories. So China’s economic miracle is no surprise to me. But up till now, it has consisted mostly of supplying low price goods to Western consumers at very competitive prices. Now China is planning to provide over a trillion dollars of capital investment loans to poor nations around the world.
Called the One Belt and One Road Initiative, the plan is extremely ambitious in both geographic reach and financial cost. While the American Marshall plan after World War II was limited to Western Europe and provided the equivalent $800 billion in developmental aid, The Chinese initiative will aid countries ranging from China’s western border to Eastern Europe and down into the Indian subcontinent. China has already provided $300 billion of infrastructure loans and plans to spend a trillion dollars more. The Atlantic gives a good overview.
China’s motivation is not altruistic. These are loans, not grants. And it hopes to spur development in its Western provinces and also develop strong trade ties across Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Like the the U.S. with the Marshall plan, China also has political goals. It claims to be only trying to create a “community of shared future for mankind” to replace the United States’ new “America First” philosophy. But one facet of this future will be acceptance of the legitimacy of the the Chinese political and legal models.
And therein lies the problem. The idea of promoting prosperity in poor countries is an excellent one, but not at the price of endorsing the Chinese Communist Party’s disdain for democratic government, human rights, and the rule of law. If you have any doubts about the repressive nature of the Chinese political model, I suggest you look at this iconic photo (see above) of Chinese army tanks bearing down on a lone student demonstrating for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Of course, 1989 was a long time ago, but the Chinese conception of law as order has showed is itself a constant. In the 1980’s there was a lot of optimism that we could “export” the ideal of the rule of law with its emphasis on individual rights and independent courts to countries like China. Many American law schools established “sister school” relationships with Chinese law faculties. And the Chinese government even appeared to tolerate the emergence of human rights lawyers who represented clients in disputes with governmental authorities. But even then there were clouds on the horizon; some of these lawyers had problems keeping their law licenses.
Then on July 9, 2015 the storm broke. That was the day that the Chinese government started arresting human rights lawyers and activists all over China. Since then over 200 lawyers have been questioned, detained, and often imprisoned. Those who admitted “guilt” were released with a warning. Those who refused were jailed and tortured. Think for every lawyer arrested how many other young lawyers have decided to stay away from human rights cases. Here is the story of one idealistic young lawyer who was arrested that fateful day and is still in prison two and one-half years later.
We should never forget that the Chinese system is not limited to trade; it also includes a party-controlled dictatorship and a disdain for the rule of law, at least when applied to democratic and individual rights. And just as American political ideals and goals were inextricably intertwined with the Marshall plan, the Road and Belt initiative will have a dramatic impact on the political landscapes of the countries participating.
But One Belt and One Road also constitutes a danger to citizens of Western democracies. We sometimes talk as if democracy, human rights, and the rule of law were part of the natural structure of the universe, but that’s not true. The American experience with these ideals is only an experiment and the “human rights” aspect of it a rather recent experiment. And, just as after the American success in World War II, the ideological landscape shifted towards American political values, should China become the dominant world actor that same landscape will tilt in their direction.
And that’s when the values of liberal democracy would gradually become less the voice of the future and more a relic from the past. In the abstract, individual constitutional rights protected by an impartial judiciary seem self-evident, but in practice the concrete decisions enforcing individual rights, like a woman’s right to choose an abortion, are often quite controversial. We are reminded every day that large numbers of Americans would feel very comfortable with a populist majoritarianism immune from judicial scrutiny. It wouldn’t take much to turn the tide in their favor.
If we want to live in a world — and a nation– where humans rights are protected by independent lawyers and impartial judges we must be prepared to fight for that goal. One way is to promote an America that leads in a world-wide effort to end poverty and spread the growth of liberal democratic institutions. But right now we must start by informing ourselves about the dangers of the Chinese initiative.