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.
This is unquestionably a problem for China’s unelected, authoritarian and generally unaccountable leaders, except to their party. For decades China has buffered itself with dysfunctional and certainly undemocratic neighbours, but this is beginning to change. More importantly, millions of Chinese citizens now travel abroad, as tourists and also students. They will be increasingly aware of both the weaknesses and successes of democracies. China’s authoritarian rulers can only maintain their control in a developing economy with an increasingly educated population, by outperforming their neighbouring countries. That will not always be easy but since Deng Xiaoping China’s rulers have established a successful record by improving living standards.Back to top