The  ‘Chinese Model’ Distracts Turkish Admirers from the Absence of Democratic Governance

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP Photo: Jason Lee

This month’s 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is an opportunity to consider what the “Chinese model” has come to represent for its admirers in Turkey and, indeed, the wider Middle East, and to remind ourselves of its dangers. Of course, despite the global retreat of liberal democracy – including, perhaps most significantly, in parts of the West itself – not even the most repressive of regimes today will actually embrace the bloody suppression of dissent. After all, autocrats crave legitimacy. And populist nationalism, by definition, is predicated on popularity among the people (notwithstanding Machiavelli’s preference for fear over “love”). Nevertheless, for today’s autocrats, the “Beijing consensus” formed post-Tiananmen offers a form of statecraft that avoids the “dangerous” calculus of genuine democracy (i.e., losing power in a fair contest).

Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a prime example of today’s autocratic leaders who pay lip service to elections while rejecting liberalism. Indeed, the manner in which he has outright rejected his party’s defeat in the Istanbul municipal elections shows clearly that we can no longer use the words Turkey and “fair elections” in the same breath.

It is no surprise that when leaders like Erdogan show admiration for the Chinese model, the inconvenient matter of Tiananmen never comes up. For instance, when Erdogan talks about Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he characterizes it only as a bloc with growing economic and political power. “The Shanghai Five [the former name of the SCO] is better and much more powerful than the European Union, and Turkey has more in common with them in terms of shared values,” the president said in 2013.

For Turkey, the allure of China, the most powerful member of the SCO, is what happened after Tiananmen in 1989, when the country embarked on a model of “state-led capitalism,” or capitalism with “Chinese characteristics.” Under this model, China achieved a unique place in the world by growing at an unprecedented and uninterrupted pace. While this is celebrated without the massacre ever being mentioned, it is clear that the social contract that underpins the Beijing consensus emerged as a result of the brutal crackdown.

Hardliners within the Communist Party understood the ontological challenge the student movement represented for the regime. They had to act swiftly. And once dissent was crushed, any dangerous foreign ideas that had been allowed to infiltrate the country in the 1980s and encouraged political freedom and human rights had to be forcefully dispersed as well. What then emerged was a much simpler compact between the Communist Party and the Chinese people: the state will provide jobs and improve living standards; in return, the people will support the regime.

A crucial aspect of the Beijing consensus that appeals to today’s autocrats is the fact that it turns upside down the narrative of the contemporary West, that economic modernization inevitably leads to political liberalization. Or, to paraphrase a favored Wall Street Journal maxim, free markets equate to free people. This explains how the West became democratic and free. In Europe and the United States, the industrial revolution, economic development and the emergence of a powerful middle class preceded the entrenchment of liberal democracy based on free elections, property rights and universal suffrage.

The Chinese model offers something radically different: economic development as a means of maintaining autocratic stability. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive grip depends on high economic performance. At the same time, jobs and prosperity do not automatically lead to democracy. In fact, when people are economically satisfied, the theory goes, they will favor status quo stability over the risky adventure of political change. On the other hand, if a state can’t provide for the people, the latter will have no reason to remain peaceful – ample examples of which can be found in the Arab Spring.

This, in essence, is the lesson of the Chinese model that all non-liberal states have taken to heart. From the Middle East to Latin America, autocrats have absorbed the fact that the safest way to maintain power is to keep people employed and on track toward middle class status.

In Turkey, Erdogan knows he needs a strong economy to maintain autocratic stability. In Egypt, the new strongman of Cairo knows he must provide for his people if he is to avoid the fate of the last strongman of Cairo. Today, most Arab regimes follow some variant of the Chinese model. From energy-rich countries to states with public sector-dominated jobs markets, much of the Arab world still lacks a system of governance that connects economic competitiveness with democratic accountability, transparent institutions and the virtues of liberalism.

In the Middle East, Turkey is the largest example of the Chinese model. And of its key, fundamental failing. Erdogan has failed where the Chinese have not (yet). Now that the Turkish economy is in sharp decline, Erdogan’s chances of maintaining autocratic stability are diminishing. Yet the Beijing consensus offers no prudent answer to that. Without the safety valve that fair elections can provide for unhappy people, Erdogan is taking Turkey to a tryst with disaster. One should pick one’s statecraft model with care.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.