With Beijing working to spread its ideas across the globe, Joshua Kurlantzick travels from Asia to Africa to determine whether the 'China model' can be duplicated. From my seat by the banks of the lazy, dark-brown Mekong River, the skyline of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, doesn't exactly remind me of New York, or even Bangkok. Clusters of low-lying slums, tiny houses with metal roofs, pack in next to open-air markets and squat, basic shops selling staple foods imported from Thailand. In the sidestreets, beggars missing limbs - the legacy of decades of civil war - beg for change or food from backpacker tourists with dreadlocked hair. At noon, with temperatures topping 40ºC, the entire city seems to stop; even the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis park their vehicles under trees and lie down.
But when I walk south, along the river's bends, I suddenly come to a district that seems completely out of place. In front of skyrocketing scaffolding, Chinese construction crews in broad-brimmed hats and gray shirts work furiously, stopping only for short cigarette breaks. All around them, other Chinese companies have already made their mark on the low-rise town, putting up swank hotels and office blocks. Chinese bankers have set up shop, offering loans so that Chinese firms in town don't have to deal with Cambodia's archaic banks.
The Chinese construction crews are but one part of Beijing's new relationship with Cambodia. While a decade ago China had virtually no links at all to Cambodia - Beijing supported the Khmer Rouge during the civil war, a point not easily forgotten - today China has become Cambodia's most important foreign patron. Besides its investment and trade, China now provides over $600 million in annual aid, making it the country's largest donor. And unlike Western countries, China doesn't insist that the Cambodian government meet human rights standards to keep getting aid. Beijing funds local Chinese-language schools and establishes scholarships so Cambodian kids can go to university in China; it builds cultural centers in Phnom Penh. "We've become almost totally reliant on China," one top Cambodian official told me. "They have influence over every section of the government."
But all this generosity comes with a cost. In the 1990s, when the United Nations and Western donors remained the major outside influence on Cambodia, the country developed a vibrant, if rough form of democracy - political parties often settled disputes with gunfire. Idealistic young men and women one generation removed from genocide launched an alphabet soup of NGOs to protect worker rights, train journalists and monitor human rights abuses. But by the end of the 1990s, Western interest had waned, and China became the major foreign actor in Cambodia. Cambodia's human rights climate has since deteriorated: the prime minister and his party repress all opposition, often through brutal methods, and Western donors have little leverage now that the Phnom Penh government can turn to China instead. When I visited the embassy of France, which ruled Cambodia for 90 years prior to independence, I met with a senior economic official and asked him if he had any idea how much China gave to Cambodia, or where it went. He offered a Gallic shrug and sighed. "No," he said. "No one knows." Alongside scholarships for students China now offers vast training programmes for the Cambodian government: defense training for the tiny army; economic training for ministers; justice training for police and judges. In these training sessions, Cambodian officials say, their Chinese counterparts demonstrate how China does it: how China encourages investment yet gets hold of foreign technology and skills; how it encourages private enterprise while simultaneously ensuring that businesspeople continue to support the regime; in essence, how Beijing has overseen three decades of staggering growth without losing political control. And in a country that has tried to embrace Western-style capitalism and free trade - Cambodia inked a trade deal with the United States in which America agreed to import a certain quota of Cambodia-made garments and Cambodia guaranteed high labour standards in textile production - yet still failed to put a real dent in poverty, China's promise of rapid growth finds an audience in Phnom Penh. Over the past two decades, the liberal, free-market Washington Consensus has alienated many developing nations, both because it failed to reduce inequality and because its promoters came to poor countries with such smug sureness. And as the Washington Consensus fails, China's model of development has gained traction. At first, as China began to develop itself, it had no plans to promote its model as an alternative to the West. But over the past five years, as Beijing has seen Western economies stumble and seen the fruits of the initial efforts to cultivate its soft power a decade ago, it has begun actively marketing the China model abroad. Indeed, to some Chinese leaders, the export of the Chinese system would represent the most powerful form of soft power - the spread of an idea, not merely cultural programmes or language schools. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that Chinese leaders arrived at this realisation; certainly the first serious discussions of spreading the "China model" began in 2003 and 2004, as the war in Iraq descended into disaster and America's reputation began to sink. In China's model, the state lets in investment and foreign expertise, but prods foreign firms to transfer skills and technology to Chinese companies. Beijing uses the lure of its vast consumer market to essentially force foreign companies to sign up to this bargain; if you want to open joint ventures in China, you have to share knowledge with your Chinese partners, which of course allows them to quickly produce competitors to your own products. Beijing also allows some degree of free-market enterprise, in order to boost living standards and create a kind of pressure valve, giving Chinese the chance to explore economic and social freedoms. But at the same time, Beijing protects critical industries like auto-making and finance, so that the government never loses control of economic reform. Openings in the Chinese economy have not been matched by strides toward political freedom. China co-opts potential dissidents and works to ensure the contentment of the middle classes - potential protest leaders - by targeting social welfare programmes to their needs and deploying nationalist rhetoric to keep faith in the regime. These carrots are balanced by occasional returns to old-fashioned repression, which the government rolls out when potential opponents look likely to attract a wide following. Realising the power of ideas, China itself has begun proselytising, though training programmes, aid disbursements, and other tools of soft power, reaching far beyond its backyard in Asia to exert influence throughout the developing world. And in an era of global financial anxiety, the Chinese may not have to advertise: the country's economic success sells itself. From Vietnam to Syria to Iran, leaders have embraced the idea of the China model - upon taking power Bashar Assad ordered his advisers to develop a China-style plan for Syria, and the Vietnamese leadership has sent its most prized officials to China to study Beijing's economic reform programmes. But this desire to mimic China - blessed with massive foreign investment and the world's largest domestic market, which makes foreign suppliers drool - raises a critical question: can the China model be replicated?
Five years ago, when I first started researching the idea of a China model, most Chinese officials vehemently denied Beijing had anything to teach the world. The idea of a "Beijing Consensus", first proposed by journalist Joshua Cooper Ramo, had not inspired any serious research by Chinese academics. "China is still poor... We need to help our own society... We need to learn from others" - these were the standard responses I got. Back then, none of my Chinese contacts would have considered that Beijing could bring its lessons to Africa, the Middle East or Latin America. China is no longer so meek. In Chinese academic circles, a proxy for government debate, senior researchers now analyse what Beijing can teach the world, and how to bring those lessons to other nations. After publishing a book on China's soft power - its ability to influence other nations through the appeal of its ideas and culture, rather than just its pure force - I was invited last fall to a conference on the topic in Asia. Most of the other attendees were Chinese academics. Expecting the same "aw shucks" attitude I had seen in the past, I was shocked by the confidence, even cockiness, of some of the Chinese participants about China's growing role in the world. In their sureness and their sense they had something unique to offer other countries they reminded me mostly of Americans. The state press, like the People's Daily, has become almost boastful about China's model. And with China still lagging decades behind America's military strength, some Chinese leaders have realised this softer influence could be the sharpest tool in China's diplomatic arsenal, allowing Beijing to build alliances around the world. To be sure, China did not develop its model in order to challenge the US - the aim, beginning in the late 1970s, was to build China itself into a modern country. But by the 2000s, Beijing's leaders began to see they could fill a vacuum being left by the US and other Western nations. Today Beijing's strategy has become a comprehensive programme that involves not only outreach to foreign leaders, but the promotion of Chinese ideas to midlevel and junior officials overseas. Over the past 10 years, China has developed extensive training programmes for foreign officials, modelled in some respects on the visitor programmes run by the US State Department. I found that these Chinese programmes, which once included just visits to special economic zones and general discussions, have become far more specific, setting aside generalised discussions in favour of teaching the Chinese approach to particular issues, from economic development to local governance and judicial systems. Officials from abroad who have attended these sessions told me they were essentially demonstrations of Chinese institutions and practices - including, for the benefit of other authoritarian regimes, lessons in "counter-terrorism" that highlight various tools to suppress dissent. The strategy also includes cultural outreach, which softens China's image and helps pave the way for the export of the China model, since countries where China enjoys a positive reputation will be more likely to embrace Chinese involvement. "As the significance of Chinese economic power has grown, China also wants to become a major world cultural power," argues Deng Xiaogang, who studies Chinese soft power at the University of Massachusetts. China has founded the Confucius Institute Project, modelled on European cultural organisations like the British Council, which establishes Chinese language and cultural studies at local universities around the world; in some poorer countries, like Cambodia, China provides funding for Chinese-language primary schools and sends young volunteers to teach English or work on other local development projects. As one Chinese official told me, Beijing realises that to compete in the world today it has to cultivate public opinion in countries where government decisions are not made by fiat among a small circle of insiders. This is a highly sophisticated revelation for an authoritarian regime where government decisions are made by fiat among a small circle of insiders. Hence the paradox of Chinese soft power, which hopes to sway possible critics among the media, trade union leaders and political activists abroad - while limiting the freedoms of these actors within China.
Thailand is next door to Cambodia, but it seems like a different world. In place of the one-story shacks in Phnom Penh, the wealthier Thais have built skyscrapers and neon-lit shopping malls so gargantuan I often got lost in one of the biggest, Mahboonkrong, where local university students with gelled-back hair and moisturised skin come to buy the latest expensive mobile phone accessories. But China's model has become as attractive here as it is in much poorer Cambodia. As Thailand struggled to recover from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, its elites wondered whether Thailand's strategy of development - opening the country to free trade - had failed. When the United States tried to sign a free-trade deal with Thailand several years ago, thousands of Thai demonstrators surrounded the hotel where the trade talks were taking place, essentially barricading the negotiators inside. The talks failed. Instead, Thailand inked a trade deal with China. When I recently visited towns in the north, near the Mekong River, I found them swamped with Chinese businessmen on the make, anxiously punching their ultra-fancy mobile phones, a sure-fire status symbol in northern Thailand, and trying to ink investment deals. According to several Thai senators, local politicians have increasingly applied Chinese economic lessons. When Thailand's military took power in an elite-backed coup in 2006, it quickly tried to impose capital controls similar to China's. As they watch some key industries fold up from competition, Thai technocrats now discuss ways to protect Thailand's most strategic industries, like the idea floated earlier this year to create a "rice cartel" of leading exporters. "Businesspeople here, they go to China and they see how streamlined everything works, how the state makes it easy for investment," Vikrom Kromadit, a powerful Thai industrialist, told me, as we chatted on the top floor of his office building, overlooking the choking smog of downtown Bangkok. "They wonder why we can't have that here." The China model first gained traction in Southeast Asia, where many countries already had deep trade links to China, large ethnic Chinese communities, and, like Thailand, histories of growth under their own soft authoritarian regimes. Some Southeast Asian businesspeople and politicians have begun to question whether their freedom, hard won over the past two decades, is actually holding back growth. In the Philippines, where for decades top leaders defended Manila's noisy democracy, doubts have begun to creep in as one "People Power" revolution after another paralyses the streets and the economy. When I visited Manila last year, some of the protesters had created an almost permanent street camp; each day they headed out along Manila's broad boulevards to harass pedestrians and drivers stuck in unmoving traffic with denunciations of the government. "Our politics are killing us," says Federico Macaranas, a former senior official under Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos and now a professor at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila. "All the politicians can do with their time is respond to protests."
The China model has now begun to spread well beyond Southeast Asia, nowhere more visibly than in Africa, where China may soon become the most important foreign power. One soaking wet day in rainy season, I arrived in Blantyre, the largest commercial city in Malawi, a nation in southeastern Africa bordering Mozambique and Zambia. Malawi is hardly the Africa of the imagination - no vast, unpopulated plains where elephants and buffalo roam free. With one of the highest birth rates in the world, Malawi seems more like poor parts of South Asia ? some 13 million people on a tiny sliver of land, and a per-capita income of less than $150 per year, one of the lowest on earth. During the day, Blantyre's streets teem with people, elbow-to-elbow. Outside the city, squatters live rough on denuded mountainsides, where they have ripped up all the vegetation for shelter and sustenance. For decades, even after most of the world recognised China, Malawi remained one of the only countries to recognise Taiwan, along with a few other small African, Central American, and Pacific island nations - a fact that continued to enrage Chinese officials. Malawian officials didn't favour Taiwan for idealistic reasons - as they told me, Taiwan simply offered them a good deal. Taiwan provided a steady flow of aid to Malawi, and when Taiwan's president travelled to the country, the Taiwanese embassy threw gala parties for Malawian officials reminiscent of a presidential visit to London, not a trip to the rundown capital of Lilongwe. (Taiwanese diplomats who served in Malawi told me that they were afraid to eat Malawian food like the staple nsima porridge, so they stuffed themselves with instant noodles at home before heading to these banquets.) But by last year, Malawi, like most of Africa, had begun to feel the full force of China's diplomatic offensive. Local residents started noticing Chinese traders in the markets in Blantyre and Lilongwe, peddling cheap clothes, phones and sturdy kitchenware alongside the local women selling tomatoes and withered peppers. Chinese businesspeople began settling down in the country, sleeping in tiny guesthouses or even sometimes in cars or their stalls in the market. Trade between the two nations multiplied more than 40 times between 2006 and 2008. Beijing opened commercial offices in the country, a quiet first step China has often employed to hone in on Taiwanese territory. And behind closed doors, Chinese officials apparently wooed Malawi's small political class, offering aid packages dwarfing Taiwan's. Battered by repeated famines, Malawi wasn't about to turn down a better deal, and Malawian officials were awed by China's wealth and, on visits to the country, by the pace of its development. In January of 2008, Malawi cut its links with Taiwan and recognised Beijing, a move Taipei called the "greatest insult" - and which China's state press celebrated like a World Cup victory. Shortly afterwards, Malawi's president visited Beijing, where he received $286 million in grants and soft loans, while some reports suggested that, eventually, Malawi would get $6 billion in aid windfalls. China has made extraordinarily rapid strides across Africa in the last five years, setting the stage for the spread of the China model to regions with little history of contact with Beijing. To cultivate this relationship, and also to win Africa's rich natural resources, Beijing has made Africa the focus of its global aid disbursements and, perhaps even more important, has lavished attention on Africa at a time when the continent's leaders feel ignored by the West. At a summit of nearly every African nation, held in Beijing in 2006, Chinese officials treated the visiting heads of state like royalty, closing the streets of the city for them. Meanwhile, of the thousands of university scholarships China hands out each year, roughly 20 per cent go to Africans, and they have become coveted, the way places at Cambridge once were. One Chinese friend who attended university in Nanjing marvelled at the number of African students in his class, many of them children of African politicians, who often used their ties to Nanjing to set up businesses back home importing Chinese goods. The continent's leaders purposely hold meetings of organisations like the African Development Bank in China to study China's model: at the Bank's summit, held in Shanghai, top officials scrambled for sit-downs with local economic planners. Numerous African nations are setting up special economic zones to lure foreign investment, modelled on those in China. Even Rwanda, only a decade after its genocide, is eager to learn from China: I discovered a small Rwandan commercial office in southern China, where lone diplomats tout trade ties and try to learn how Beijing streamlines bureaucracy to cater to investors. Beijing's success in Africa seems to have given confidence to Chinese officials, who now realise they can exert influence far from their own borders. Once shy of venturing into Latin America, China has in recent months signed new oil and gas deals with Venezuela, inked a trade deal with Chile, and wooed Brazil with the idea of building a coalition of large developing nations that would serve as a counterweight to the G8 of rich industrialised nations. China has also waded into the Middle East and Central Asia, the historic provinces of the US and Russia, respectively. Besides growing oil deals, Chinese officials, I've found, clearly see sympathetic regimes in the wealthier states of the Middle East - governments with sophisticated management, cash reserves and satisfied middle classes, all critical ingredients to pulling off China-style reforms. China learned from the Gulf when it set up its own $200bn sovereign wealth fund, and some Middle Eastern nations have already embraced elements of the China model, which match economic pluralism with limited political participation. Iran in particular has eagerly grasped onto the China model. Among business-orientated conservatives fearful that Iran's reform-minded young will prove impossible to contain, the idea of the China model has become shorthand for allowing limited reforms and some foreign investment, enough to placate the younger generation without abandoning clerical rule. But can it work? Can you take a model developed for a country of one billion, with an educated populace and vast foreign investment and a disciplined political class, and bring it to Malawi, or Iran? In China the complex intermarriage of state and private enterprise produced astonishing growth but has also created the world's largest corruption problem. Chinese officials have blown millions in Las Vegas and Macau, built lavish Party offices complete with karaoke rooms and spas, or simply absconded with the money - China's own internal auditing, according to Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment, uncovered $170bn in misappropriated funds between 1995 and 2006. Yet China has continued to function, because the state's hand is not overwhelming all private enterprise. In a country like Angola, where graft is far more endemic, any attempt at state-managed economic change could result in so much corruption it would stifle any growth. I found that in countries similar to China, the model fits easily and works well. Vietnam, which studied the Chinese example carefully, has created one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and today even Chinese investors flock to northern Vietnam, where they build factories to take advantage of labour that works harder and cheaper even than in China itself. Other countries with disciplined, relatively forward-thinking leaders could successfully apply Chinese lessons. Latin American states, for example, have their own history of state-controlled development, which makes for an easy fluency with the China model. Cuba under Raúl Castro would seem a likely candidate, given its disciplined leadership and a large expatriate community to power the early days of reform and economic opening. Indeed, when I attended a closed-door session with American intelligence officials examining China's influence in Latin America, I found this was exactly what they expected: With Raul in charge, a rapid acceleration of Chinese influence and contacts with the island, followed by Chinese-authored reforms. Under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has already taken steps based on the China model, like assuming much greater state control over Petroleos de Venezuela, the major oil company. Argentina, long run by the statist Peronists, has also reasserted government dominance of major industries. But many autocratic regimes do not study the positive - and difficult - aspects of Chinese economic reforms: the need to surrender state control of some sectors, the willingness to let technocrats, not politicians, manage most of the nation's economic affairs, the ability to slash bureaucratic regulation in order to encourage investment. "I don't think any of the Latin American countries have taken the time to really study what China did," says Daniel Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank focusing on Latin America. To leaders like Assad, the China model promises robust growth without any surrender of state control over the population or the economy; Syria's embrace of the China model has consisted, thus far, of placing a new name on the old politics, in which state bureaucrats dominate every facet of the economy. Even if leaders are willing to embrace the more difficult reforms the China model demands, the basic economics of many states make success unlikely. Iran, with an economy based on one major export and no expatriate community able or willing to invest, could not possibly match China's record growth rates.
On an egg-frying day in hot season, I walk up to the entrance of Laos' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a classically squat communist edifice. One security guard outside, apparently responsible for guarding the tiny, isolated country's top diplomats, naps in the shade. Another appears too busy eating sticky rice to bother me. I head inside and find my way to the offices of Laos' China experts, bare rooms decorated with a Laos tourism calendar three years out of date. When I sit down with the ministry's China specialists, they tell me they are diligently examining China's reforms, and planning how they can attract foreign investment to Vientiane, the capital. I'm sceptical - sleepy Vientiane produces little of substance other than the excellent Beer Lao, and after dark it becomes like a ghost town. But they reassure me they have already lined up commitments from Australian, Thai, and Chinese investors, and that the Lao government will ensure that, as in China, all this investment brings technology and expertise to Lao workers. Later that day, I headed to another part of Vientiane. Sitting down with a group of Laotians and foreigners who work in northern Laos, I hear a very different story. "The north is like a Chinese colony now," one aid worker told me. "Laos has opened up to Chinese investment and wants to learn from China, but Chinese businesspeople are just coming in, buying up land, and making plantations for rubber... The local farmers get almost nothing from it and the Lao government is too weak to prevent the Chinese from buying up everything." The Laotians' anger at China's growing influence is not unique. In other, more powerful countries, it has exploded more forcefully - and may yet present the greatest obstacle to further expansion of the China model. In 2007, during an extensive state tour of Africa, Chinese president Hu Jintao was forced to cancel part of his trip to Zambia because of security fears: two years earlier, accidents at a Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia killed fifty-one Zambians, and anti-China demonstrators later took to the streets of Zambia's capital, where they targeted Chinese-owned businesses and rallied outside the Chinese embassy. In fact, on his trip Hu faced one popular protest after another in other parts of the continent. In South Africa, powerful trade unions condemn China for exploiting workers and exporting cheap goods that undercut South African manufacturers. All across the continent, activists voice similar concerns, fearing that Africa will become - as it was in colonial times - merely a source of raw materials for a foreign power. Such discontent is not limited to Africa: when I visited the Philippines, local green groups were considering boycotts of Chinese goods to protest the jailing of Chinese environmental activists. In Central Asia, I was told by several democracy activists working in Kyrgyzstan, the most liberal state in the region, that civil society groups and journalists fear China's growing influence, convinced that the spread of the China model will end the country's relative openness. The global economic crisis may present an opportunity for China to make further inroads in areas previously under the sway of Western powers. But its appeal depends on its astounding economic growth, which may be imperilled by a worldwide depression. Already China seems to be facing its first real downturn in more than a decade: laid-off workers in the Pearl River Delta, the heartland of China's manufacturing sector, have besieged their factories, demanding back pay from managers who simply vanished. Some 10,000 factories in the Delta have closed this year alone, and the government expects more pain. Indeed, China's economy may slow next year to its weakest growth in years - though it will still outpace Western economies four or five-fold. And if Beijing can right its economy while the West is still suffering - it recently announced a $500 billion stimulus package - it will be in an even stronger position to export its model to the rest of the world. Indeed, if the global financial crisis continues to spiral out of control, Western leaders might start applying for some of those Chinese training seminars. Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World.