Maithripala Sirisena, the latest democratically elected winner in China's backyard.

Photographer: Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Asian Democracy Surrounds China

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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Some Chinese commentators have brushed off the defeat of Mahindra Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's pro-Chinese president, as a tactical setback to China's economic and strategic expansion in the region. And it's true that Sri Lanka will continue to need, and to benefit from, Chinese investment.

The real threat posed to China by Rajapaksa's surprising loss, however, is different. This marks the third big Asian election in the last 12 months in which voters have installed a new leader: first in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi thumped the incumbent Congress Party; then Indonesia, where Joko Widodo, an outsider, won over voters with his record of competence as governor of Jakarta; and now Maithripala Sirisena's upset victory in Sri Lanka. That kind of turnover at the top must give pause to China's Communist Party leaders, who see the mandate of heaven as an institutional birthright.

A look at the map is instructive: As Freedom House notes, "Over the past five years, the Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady gains in political rights and civil liberties." On China's border, autocratic Myanmar has just gone ahead with the first municipal elections in six decades in Yangon, its biggest city, and plans to hold general elections in late 2015. In Taiwan, the ruling Nationalists (who favor closer ties with mainland China) just got a drubbing in local elections. In China's near abroad, Afghanistan's recent election--for all its flaws--also marked a significant step forward for its fledgling democracy. 

China itself is wrestling with how to keep officials honest without a free press, and how to hold them accountable for their performance without elections. Since Deng Xiaoping's revolutionary ascendance in 1978, China's Communist leadership has made mind-boggling gains in reducing poverty and increasing economic output. But the severity and extent of President Xi Jinping's current anti-corruption campaign, not to mention its politically motivated targeting, reflect the inevitable shortcomings of China's top-down approach to governance, which has also imposed enormous costs on its citizens' human freedoms. As an Economist editorial recently noted, the use of targets to ensure bureaucratic performance has led to, among other things, "wasteful overinvestment and environmental disaster … and the illegal barbarism of forced abortions." At the opposite extreme is a remarkable column by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who waxes over the one-party state's displacement of the U.S. as the world's largest economy without shedding a single tear over how this was achieved.

China recently succeeded in squelching demands by protestors in Hong Kong for greater freedom of political choice, in this case largely without resorting to brute force. In times past, when outsiders have criticized such behavior, they have been met with two responses: "Don't interfere with China's internal affairs" followed often by the admonition that such criticism will "hurt the feelings of 1.35 billion Chinese people." 

That's a lot of people. But it's also a lot fewer than the 2 billion-plus Asians who live under leaders more or less of their own choosing. They may be onto something.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net