Voting hands and ballot box. Image: iStock
Voting hands and ballot box. Image: iStock

As they have ruled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with absolute power and, at times, an iron rod since its founding in 1949 and will do all that is necessary to maintain a tight grip on power, Chinese communist leaders will never accept democratic elections in the world’s most populous country.

But they also have many reasons to detest free and fair elections in other countries. One of these is that a newly-elected government tends to upend China-friendly policies cultivated by Beijing and pursued by a previous administration. Recent elections in Malaysia, Maldives and Brazil, three countries geopolitically important to China, are cases in point.

In Malaysia’s general election in May, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad toppled Najib Razak, who had been accused of corruption and now faces 38 corruption charges.

During the election campaign, Mahathir blamed his one-time protégé for selling off Malaysia to China and vowed to reconsider China-backed projects should his opposition coalition win. That’s exactly what the 93-year-old leader, who was already Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, did after his party’s election triumph.

In an interview in July, he accused his predecessor of agreeing to Chinese-backed deals, which he deemed overpriced and lopsided. And for this reason, he decided to suspend them. His state visit to Beijing in August, during which he met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, didn’t make him change his mind.

At the end of that five-day trip, the veteran politician again slammed Najib’s “stupidity” for endorsing Beijing-backed infrastructure projects and reiterated that such “projects will not go on.” As a result, he has now halted or canceled his country’s joint projects with China worth at least $23 billion.

Mahathir’s charges against Najib are not surprising. Under the latter’s nine-year premiership, Kuala Lumpur was very cozy with Beijing. Malaysia became one of the largest beneficiaries of investments linked to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s massive, ambitious and controversial infrastructure program.

During his China visit, Mahathir also warned against what he called “a new version of colonialism,” which was then interpreted as a rebuke to Beijing’s increasing economic and political dominance in the region.

While it is unclear whether his remarks were primarily aimed at Beijing, it is indisputable that his decision to suspend the China-funded projects was a big blow for China and its BRI. Under Najib’s leadership, Malaysia was a strong supporter of Beijing’s signature policy – or more precisely, Xi’s pet project, which is aimed at enhancing China’s global influence.

But now, the fourth-largest economy in Southeast Asia – a vital neighborhood that China seeks to draw closer – has become the first regional nation to have publically pushed back against Beijing’s global infrastructure ambitions. What’s more, as it has done that so vocally, Malaysia’s backlash has attracted widespread international attention, which is certainly not good for the juggernaut and its trillion-dollar program.

The PRC faces similar opposition following the presidential election in Maldives in September. Economically, the country of 440,000 people is not very important to China. Yet, despite its small size, geopolitically, the Indian Ocean archipelago nation is of great significance to Beijing due to its strategic location on a sea lane linking the Middle East and East Asia. That’s why China has competed with India, its regional rival, for influence in this island nation.

India established its diplomatic mission in Maldives four decades ago and the two sides enjoyed close ties until 2012, when Mohamed Nasheed, the island’s first democratically elected president, was forced out in a coup.

Coming to power after a controversial election a year later, Abdulla Yameen adopted an authoritarian, pro-China and anti-India posture. As a result, Malé’s relationship with its traditional partner sharply deteriorated whereas its relationship with China, which just established its embassy in the island in 2012, remarkably deepened.

Besides signing a Free Trade Agreement with China, Yameen joined its BRI, allowing Chinese companies to heavily invest in the Maldivian infrastructure, trade, and energy sectors and receiving huge loans (reportedly about $1.3 billion) from China. With such a debt, which is equal to more than one-quarter of its GDP, the island was identified as one of the eight BRI participants most vulnerable to what is often called China’s “debt-trap diplomacy.” The strongman leader also granted long-term leases on some of Maldives’ small islands to Beijing. All of this led some to charge that he had handed over his country to China.

Yameen’s autocratic rule and his overtly pro-China policy were the two main reasons for his defeat in September 23’s election, which was largely won by Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who promised to restore democracy and improve relations with India and the West.

Yameen’s downfall was a defeat for China and its BRI, while Solih’s victory could be seen as a win for Maldives’ democracy and India’s strategy. In February, when Yameen imposed a state of emergency and rounded up Supreme Court judges and opposition leaders, New Delhi was urged by the Maldivian opposition to intervene.

Around that time, the Global Times, a vocal offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s flagship newspaper, warned India not to interfere, stating that “the Maldives’ sovereignty should be respected [and] the political unrest should be left to the Maldivian people to address.”

Like the US and other Western countries, India criticized Yameen’s move, but it didn’t intervene, and that turned out to be a wise decision. This is because, as the Chinese state-run newspaper advised, it’s better to leave the “Maldivian people to address” their country’s affairs and decide its direction.

What the Global Times didn’t understand or envisage is that, as in any free and fair election in any democratic country, the Maldivian people voted for the one they thought is right to lead their country, and that one is Solih – not autocratic and pro-Beijing Yameen.

Their rejection of Yameen and their support for Solih, who will be sworn in on November 17, is certainly a huge international setback for China. While Maldives’ new leader is unlikely to cancel all major China-backed deals, he will definitely reconsider his country’s ties with Beijing and New Delhi, probably favoring the latter over the former.

Whether Beijing realizes and accepts it or not, as illustrated by recent elections in Malaysia and Maldives, it is now clear that cozying up to authoritarian leaders, throwing cash around, using money to buy influence or overreaching in democratic countries can be very counterproductive

Whether Beijing realizes and accepts it or not, as illustrated by recent elections in Malaysia and Maldives, it is now clear that cozying up to authoritarian leaders, throwing cash around, using money to buy influence or overreaching in democratic countries can be very counterproductive.

Its overreach caused similar outcomes in Brazil. In its election early last month, the world’s fourth-largest democracy elected Jair Bolsonaro as its new president.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate, repeatedly and vehemently criticized China, describing it as a predator looking to dominate key sectors of Brazil’s economy.

His unfriendly stance toward China was also evidenced by his trip to Taiwan early this year, making him the first Brazilian presidential candidate to have visited the island democracy since the South American nation recognized Beijing as the sole Chinese government under the “One China” policy in the 1970s.

The former army captain and long-serving congressman, with highly polarizing extremist views on women, minorities and other issues, is undoubtedly a controversial figure. That said, by electing him, rather than Fernando Haddad, a candidate from the Workers’ Party, the Brazilians rejected the Workers’ Party and its policies.

Under this leftist party, which had won the last four presidential elections, Brazil steered away from the US and moved closer to China. The Asian giant is now the South American nation’s biggest trading partner, with $75 billion in bilateral trade last year. The PRC has appeared ubiquitously present in Brazil’s main sectors, including infrastructure and energy. This led Bolsonaro to warn, “The Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil.”

Bolsonaro is also a professed admirer of US President Donald Trump. Given all of this, the 63-year-old leader, who will take office on January 1, will undoubtedly overturn Brazil’s foreign policy, shifting his country’s allegiance from China to America. Such an overturn is, again, a big blow for Beijing.

Brazil is the biggest nation – and China’s most important partner – in Latin America, a region that China has sought to court and deepen ties with. Between 2015 and 2019, Beijing plans to invest $250 billion in the region and about $500 billion in trade. China’s increasing presence and influence in America’s backyard has raised alarms in Washington. Both Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former and present secretary of state, warned regional countries of China’s actions and intentions.

The nation of 209 million people is also a member of BRICs – a grouping of the five so-called emerging powers, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which has long been seen as providing an alternative to the US-led liberal international order. Of late, Beijing has often used this platform to communicate – or galvanize support for – its opposition to the Trump administration’s policies. But, apparently, Bolsonaro doesn’t like the grouping, with some even suggesting that he may take his country out of it.

Given Brazil’s importance in Latin America and its membership in BRICS and other groupings, such as the G20, Bolsonaro’s pro-America, or more precisely, pro-Trump, posturing is surely a headache for China.

All in all, Beijing would certainly not be faced with recent pushbacks from Malaysia, Maldives and Brazil if these countries had not held elections in recent months.

In his speech to the national congress of his ruling Communist Party last October, Xi Jinping extolled “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” boasting that such socialism now “offers a new option for other countries and nations.” On another occasion, China’s most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong said China’s “new type of political party system” is “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.”

To many, notably those in the West, the “socialism with Chinese characteristic” or the “new type of political party system” that Xi praises and seeks to export globally is just a form of authoritarianism.

Arguably, the Chinese supremo praises and promotes China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or authoritarianism in order to justify his party’s – and indeed his own – tight control at home.

He does so also because he wants to maintain and expand China’s influence and interests abroad. However, as shown by the cases of Malaysia, the Maldives and Brazil, that isn’t an easy task. That such (relatively) young democracies – let alone old, established ones – will follow China’s authoritarian model is a distant, if not unthinkable, prospect.

Against this backdrop, perhaps, instead of seeking to export their model, the Chinese leadership should look at why these nations are turning against their country and its BRI. If not, China may face similar backlashes from other countries in the future.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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