Building Democracies for the 21st Century: Confronting the China Model with Robust Institutions

By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist

Photo Credit: AFP

The United States has historically advocated its own institutional values abroad. The support of these values, namely liberal democracy, rule of law—both internally and internationally—and open capitalist markets, provided the foundation of what is today called the ‘rules-based liberal international order.’ The U.S. has supported its values on a global stage, from the Marshall Plan post-World War II in Western Europe to US support for civil society and institution building today through the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). However, in the wake of the Iraq War quagmire, democratic victories of illiberal and authoritarian-minded leaders from Europe to the Middle East, and the seeming success of the ‘China Model’ of authoritarian capitalism, a rising number of policymakers and pundits at home and abroad—including within the Trump Administration—question the conventional wisdom of advocating these instruments.[i] Ongoing debate about the efficacy of grooming liberal institutions abroad, however, underscores the need to better articulate the pragmatic economic advantage rule of law and liberal democratic institutions provide: accountability, due process, and checks and balances against elite usurpations. Unlike the China Model, these characteristics mean greater political and economic security and stability in the long-term that benefit the United States and its interests.

After the Second World War, the United States used the Economic Cooperation Act of 1948—the Marshall Plan—to rebuild Western Europe, transforming its constituent countries into healthy democracies and viable economic partners.[ii] During the Cold War, however, the US track record on promotion of democracy and rule of law abroad was mixed, oftentimes preferring perceived stability provided by anti-communist but authoritarian regimes in developing countries.[iii] The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s left capitalism to reign supreme as the economic system, with the United States as the dominant global power. Even the surviving, nominally-‘Communist’ states such as the People’s Republic of China adopted the trappings of capitalism and became more enmeshed in the global marketplace. The United States and its allies largely acted as the guarantors of this system, while benefiting economically. They also acted to promote the expansion of the liberal order politically, encouraging the development of constitutional democracy abroad in the belief that such political systems would be friendlier towards the West. The underlying premise of democracy promotion is rooted in democratic peace theory, which postulates that established democracies do not generally go to war with one another.[iv]

Over the better part of the past decade, however, questions have arisen over the effectiveness of promoting democracy produce stability. The failure of the Iraq War to quickly establish a stable democracy in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion undermined the notion that the U.S. could effectively promote democracy abroad without spending significant blood and treasure.[v] Subsequently, the chaotic and short-lived democracies that arose from the Arab Spring witnessed the emergence of illiberal Islamists in democratic elections, as with the rise (and fall) of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.[vi] Similarly, the earlier 2006 Palestinian election brought the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas to power in Gaza.[vii] Democracy in these instances appears to have merely provided radicals with a path to power. The examples of extremists’ victories in nascent Middle East democracies reiterate the importance of promoting the development of liberal institutions—such as foundational constitutions and coequal branches of government—rather than simply the basic mechanisms of democracy. Even if they rose to power democratically, such radicals had no institutional checks to prevent them governing with impunity. In the case of the Egypt after 2011 Arab Uprisings, the U.S. and Egyptians both emphasized mass politics and elections, rushing to the polls with less of a focus on the establishment and institutionalization of a means to constrain the powers of the rulers within a framework of rule of law. [viii] Thus, the 2012 Egyptian elections ultimately led to an unstable majoritarian regime under the increasingly authoritarian President Mohamed Morsi who was soon toppled by popular pressure and a concerned military. Had more stable institutional checks been in place to prevent the excesses of the Morsi government, perhaps the people and the military would not have needed to overthrow the regime by force.

Internationally, liberal democratic government has entered a decline.[ix] Meanwhile, authoritarian states such as the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, and others have advocated for an alternative means of achieving stability, often labeled the ‘China Model.’[x] The China Model is premised on ruling elites encouraging national economic development through private sector growth and investment while maintaining strict political control domestically, thus avoiding the messiness inherent in democracy.[xi] The underlying rationale is that these political systems offer a more stable and thus more attractive place to invest. This model appears to be gaining traction globally.

However eager Western companies may be to do business in the Chinese market, China and other illiberal states face major dangers due to the lack of rule of law. These states rely on ‘rule by law’—rather than ‘rule of law’—and instead of respecting existing laws as precedent, can easily change or ignore them in order to act in a way favorable to their own interests. Recently, Chinese officials have ‘disappeared’ people that run afoul of the government, including most notably the President of Interpol, Meng Hongwei.[xii] This ultimately creates an environment where investors may fear arbitrary detention and confiscation of assets, with no guarantees of due process and fair adjudication. Ruling elites, with no checks on their power, can indulge in corruption with impunity and silence those who shed light on wrongdoing or mismanagement.[xiii] Corruption, lack of transparency, and arbitrary ‘rule by law’ undermine US economic interests at large, and pose a challenge to enterprise risk management for firms both domestic and international. The China Model may be lauded today, but its flaws are numerous, and undermine its long-term effectiveness, particularly the desirability of those markets that espouse it.












[i]Thomas Carothers and Frances Z. Brown, “Can U.S. Democracy Policy Survive Trump?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 1, 2018,

[ii] “Bipartisan Foreign Policy: The Marshall Plan,” accessed October 15, 2018,

[iii] U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, “Democracy Promotion: An Objective of U.S. Foreign Assistance,” by Marian L. Lawson and Susan B. Epstein, R44858 (2017) 4,

[iv]Dan Reiter, “Is Democracy a Cause of Peace?” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, January 2017,

[v] Christian Caryl, “The Democracy Boondoggle in Iraq,” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2013,

[vi] Malise Ruthven, “Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Financial Times, February 7, 2018,

[vii] Scott Wilson, “Hamas Sweeps Palestinian Elections, Complicating Peace Efforts in Mideast,” The Washington Post, Janaury 27, 2006,

[viii] H.A. Hellyer, “No Fear: Morsi’s Rule of Law,” The Brookings Institution, March 10, 2013,

[ix]“Decline In Democracy Spreads Across The Globe As Authoritarian Leaders Rise,” National Public Radio, August 3, 2017,

[x] Daniel A. Bell, Timothy Garton Ash, Andrew J. Nathan, and Taisu Zhang, “Is the China Model Better Than Democracy?” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2015,

[xi] Yuen Yuen Ang, “The Real China Model,” Foreign Affairs, June 29, 2018,

[xii]Shannon Tiezzi, “Michael Caster on China’s Forced Disappearances,” The Diplomat, Janaury 10, 2018,; Wanf Xiangwei, “China’s Detention of Ex-Interpol Chief Highlights the Arrogance of Its Anti-Corruption Investigators,” South China Morning Post, October 13, 2018,

[xiii] Calum MacLeod, “China silences anti-corruption activists,” USA Today, July 30, 2013,; “Russia: Authorities Try to Silence Dissent, Anti-Corruption Protests,” Freedom House, March 27, 2017,

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