5 min read

Brief #100: Nicaragua, democracy, press freedom

1. Nicaragua

Nicaragua switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China on Thursday, December 9.

The decision speaks to the magnetism of Beijing largess, both economic and political. But it also highlights the limits of China’s economic pull and the US’ ambivalent role in the competition for recognition between Beijing and Taipei.

Beijing claims there was no “economic precondition” from Nicaragua for the switch. But Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, surely expects an economic return. We will see the two sign a string of trade, investment and aid deals in the coming months and years.

Taipei can’t hope to outspend Beijing. Yet, there are limits to China’s economic pull. Panama switched recognition in 2017 and El Salvador in 2018. The records of their economic relations with China post-switching paints mixed pictures.

Nicaragua’s case should be no different. On trade, imports from China dwarfs exports to China. On infrastructure investment, local resistance is likely. One mega-project has already failed. In 2013, Nicaragua and a Chinese business tycoon signed a deal to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The $50 billion project was abandoned due to a lack of funding.

The allure and limits of Beijing’s largess are not new, so why did Nicaragua not switch earlier?

US cables released by Wikileak suggests that Nicaragua may have been ready to switch recognition as early as 2008, but Beijing refused. From 2008 to 2016, Beijing and Tapei observed a diplomatic truce. The competition for recognition reignited shortly after Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party took power in Taiwan.

Part of what finally drove Nicaragua into Beijing’s arms is US policy. On November 15, the US imposed new sanctions on Nicaragua for the recent “sham election.”

The irony here is that in March 2020, the Trump administration signed a law to help Taiwan keep its few maintaining diplomatic allies. The law threatens to punish countries that switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The US had stopped giving aid to Nicaragua earlier and couldn’t use aid as leverage.

In short, Nicaragua needs China’s money and diplomatic support. On this occasion, Beijing’s crunchy carrot beat Washington’s stick.

The next ones to watch are Haiti and Honduras.

2. Democracy

The US Government hosted a Summit for Democracy last week. Beijing heavily criticised the US for using the concept of democracy to serve its geopolitical interests. The tussle between the two over the idea of democracy is a vivid reminder of the power of ideas in international politics.

Notwithstanding China’s criticism, the Summit was controversial. The US Government had to judge which countries were democratic and which were not to invite countries. Democracy is a sliding scale, not a binary matter, so there will always be questions concerning the guest list. For example, in Asia, the Philippines, Pakistan and India were invited while Bangladesh, Thailand and Sri Lanka were not.

For China, the Summit for Democracy is perceived as a “Summit against China”. And it is especially incensed that the US Government invited Taiwan.

Days before the Summit, Beijing released a white paper titled China: Democracy That Works”. This document praises China’s “whole-process people’s democracy under CPC leadership”:

Whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state. It is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a true democracy that works.

China’s claim to be a democracy is not new. Democracy (民主) is one of the 12 Core Socialist Values. The PRC Constitution states that the country is governed by a “people’s democratic dictatorship that is led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants”.

According to the CCP, “democracy” and “dictatorship” are not in conflict. In the words of the white paper:

China upholds the unity of democracy and dictatorship to ensure the people’s status as masters of the country. On the one hand, all power of the state belongs to the people…on the other hand, China takes resolute action against any attempt to subvert the country’s political power or endanger public or state security, to uphold the dignity and order of law and safeguard the interests of the people and the state. Democracy and dictatorship appear to be a contradiction in terms, but together they ensure the people’s status as masters of the country. A tiny minority is sanctioned in the interests of the great majority, and “dictatorship” serves democracy.

Peace is war. War is Peace.

If “democracy” can be (re)defined to include “dictatorship”, then it would have lost its original meaning.

Yes, we recognise that democracy is a contestable concept. For example, for much of history, only property-owning male citizens could participate in the politics of “democracies”. Can we call the political system before the enfranchisement of women or racial minorities “democracy”? Today, debates exist as to whether residents (not just citizens) should have the vote, the role of the Electoral College in the US, and the proposed Voter ID law in Australia.

The above are valid questions about democracy. And Beijing is correct that “there is always scope for improving the system of democracy”. However, Beijing’s contorted rhetoric that China is a “democracy that works” merely obfuscates debates about real democracy.

3. Press freedom

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ’s 2021 prison census found that “the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record”, with China remaining the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row.

The CPJ’s census shows that China has 50 journalists in jail. It includes journalists in government custody but explicitly excludes “those who have disappeared” or non-journalists targeted for tenuous associations with the media, such as those who send materials to media outlets.

Reporters without Borders (RSF), in an investigation focused on journalism in China, found that at least 127 journalists (professional and non-professional) are currently detained in China. It called on democracies to “dissuade the Beijing regime from pursuing its repressive policies and to support all Chinese citizens who love their country and want to defend the right to information”.

The findings by CPJ and RSF are depressing but not surprising. The Chinese Government has increased its pressure on journalists and media organisations in China since COVID started. Zhang Zhan 张展, a citizen journalist, was sentenced to prison for her reporting on COVID. Chen Qiushi 陈秋实, another citizen journalist, was missing from February to September 2020 after reporting on COVID from Wuhan. Additionally, the human rights situation in Hong Kong has worsened since the passage of the National Security Law, severely impacting journalism in Hong Kong.

Information control in China is not just about the jailing of journalists; it’s not even just about censorship. It is about guiding opinions, including algorithmic recommendations that prioritise “positive energy” and “destroying social resources” of regime critics.

On another note, the day after CPJ published its census, while the US hosted the Summit for Democracy, a UK court ruled that the US could extradite Australian citizen Julian Assange. According to the CPJ, this is a move that will “seriously damages journalism”. RSF similarly condemned the decision.

By Adam Ni and Yun Jiang