While the United States spends 2020 drawing and quartering itself, China continues to solidify internally then view outward. It has thrown its weight around the South China Sea and poured plenty of capital into the Belt and Road Initiative, a multinational infrastructure project valued at seven times the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. It has subtly tried to remove the liberal democratic “bias” from international rules.
What is China up to with all this global assertiveness? Some experts say that it is simply flexing its new muscles, as the United States did in the early 20th century when it bullied countries in Central America and the Caribbean Sea. But others worry that China is in the early stages of the sustainable strategy to use its rising wealth and technology to supplant the United States and to dominate on the world stage.
In fact, Xi Jinping and the ruling party are doing what the United States and other great powers have often done by shaping their international environment to favor the survival of their own domestic regime. United States administrations tended to use authority to bias the international system toward democracy. The ruling party of China is trying to build a bias for autocracy into the same international system.
A clue to this ultimate goal comes from the ruthless suppression of all potential dissent in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, even at the cost of broad international condemnation. The leaders of China perceive the hostile environment of meddling democracies and many liberal international institutions behind that condemnation from the world.
To grasp how the ruling party is tackling the hostile environment, we can borrow a concept from evolutionary theory known as niche construction. So in biology, a species evolves when its environment selects for certain traits by giving them a reproductive advantage. A species also affects its environment, sometimes to the point where it can bias natural selection. Some beavers change their environment by making dams. Such beavers catch more fish and over time become predominant.
A country can be thought of as an organism with genetic material and an environment. The genetic material is a kind of domestic regime, such as democracy or autocracy. The environment is what affects the survival of the domestic regime. It includes foreign powers, as well as the rules and norms by which countries operate. Indeed, the United States has always constructed niches to safeguard federal institutions.
The Monroe Doctrine of the 1820s was an effort to prevent the European monarchies from overturning the infant republics of Latin America. In the 1930s, the Great Depression and spread of fascism and communism had nearly finished democracy. In the 1940s, the United States built the niche known as the liberal international order. As the Second World War ended, the leaders of Britain and the United States realized that the protection of democracy takes multilateral military and economic alliances, and use of coercion and funds to contain communism abroad.
This niche of the liberal international order functioned as designed, since democracy survived in the United States and other wealthy countries. In the 1980s and 1990s, the niche rose as democracy and capitalism spread across many less wealthy countries. China itself evolved under the liberal niche and adopted a somewhat capitalist economy.
Xi knows the United States and other democracies believe that the liberal world order will erode autocracy in China as it did in the Soviet Union. So it should surprise no one that the ruling party is now trying to reshape the international environment to select for autocracy. For the United Nations, China is pushing to alter human rights rules to stress “rights to develop” over individual rights against the government. It is also trying to change critical internet rules to allow for “cyber sovereignty.”
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that China launched in 2014 is less concerned about reforming the institutions of borrowers than is the International Monetary Fund. Beijing trains foreign officials with how to develop an economy without democracy and exports new surveillance technology to grateful autocracies in Asia and Africa.
Those who detect a reversal in the 20th century spread of democracy, or dangers for democracies themselves, are not imagining stories. Plenty of the blame lies with the democracies themselves. Their governments have altered the liberal niche so it skews the economy, alienates many citizens, and undermines democracy. Meanwhile, China is shifting its international environment to select in autocracy. How far it succeeds could decide the fate not only of that regime but of global democracy.
John Owen is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and also a senior fellow at the Democratic Statecraft Lab of the Democracy Initiative.