China Has Big Plans for Your Future

comments 6
Democracy's Constitution / lawyers without borders

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.



  1. Nchen says

    Dear Professor,

    Before you sent out the alarm about the danger of China, please make sure you correctly use the name of the project, it is “One Belt and One Road”, not “Road and Belt”. To someone who does not understand the Chinese culture and language ,this may seem to be a superficial difference to you.

    More importantly, by not knowing the correct name of the Chinese initiative when it’s been reported by every major newspaper in the United States and around the world, your article can be easily dismissed for questionable accuracy.

    If you are so concerned about the danger of China, what are you doing at home about the erosion of democracy and civil rights by Donald Trump and the Republican Congress ? And which country will more likely to start a war with North Korea? Not China.

    As a U.S. citizen, our first responsibility is to make sure America is a shining example of democracy and justice. I hope you can devote more time worrying about what this Administration will do taking us down a very dangerous road.


    • Mr. or Ms. Nichen,

      First, thanks for the correction on the proper name of the project. I have corrected it in the text and apologize if my error demonstrated cultural insensitivity. I have great respect for the Chinese culture.

      Secondly, I agree with you that Americans should be embarrassed by much what President Trump has done this past year. . While my blog is aimed at law, not politics, I think you will find many of its posts reflect my disagreement with Trump.

      Finally, I note that you do not appear to contradict my portrayal of the Chinese record on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. I would be very interested in your comments on these issues and predictions for developments for the future.

      John Denvir


    • Thanks, David. I value your advice, but I am quite satisfied with the my audience, both in quantity and quality; I do hope they look at the web site you mention to see how the Chinese model works out in practice.



    Thanks for sharing, your personal experience shaped, observations and insights on the “really big” picture.


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