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China and US Should Jointly Promote Economic Development in Arab World

Jin Liangxiang, Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies
July 16, 2013
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The recent removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in Egypt has indicated again that western style democracy characterized by one-person-one-vote elections is not suitable for the Arab world, at least right now. It is economic development that remains at the core of various agendas that are facing Arab countries in Middle East, and none of political advancements can be available without solid economic foundation.

China and the US, respectively number two and number one economies, should work jointly to promote the agenda of economic development in the troubled region.

The West likes to claim one-person-one-vote elections should be the main, even the only, source of legitimacy. But that does not explain the cases in many non-western countries. It is true that elections should be one source of legitimacy. Western governments are not the only ones to drive their legitimacy via elections but some Middle East countries like Turkey and Iran who have very fashionable elections. However, that does not mean that other sources are not relevant.

In addition to elections, government performances in economic development should also be crucial in the construction of legitimacy. China offers a good example. Chinese government has long been enjoying support from its people. The reasons are multiple. But the primary one should be its performance in economic development. Since the adoption of reform and opening up policy, China has achieved tremendous economic development. In most of the years since then, the growth of China’s GDP per capita has been above 9 percent. A basic demand from the people is to get rid of poverty and have a decent life.

It is obvious that western style democracy is still enthusiastically followed across the world. Arab countries are no exceptions. But upon close observation one can easily find that western democracy has delivered little success in non-western countries, especially in underdeveloped countries. The logic is actually very simple.

Worse economic situations do amplify political and social tensions. Without modest economic developments, people could easily go to the streets to express their discontent. That method always leads to disorder. Those with high unemployment due to poor industrialization are even more vulnerable. The instability would also make it difficult for a country to attract foreign investments.

Egypt might be a good example of this. Egypt is a typical Arab country since its GDP per capita remains at the middle level of Arab countries. According to the April 2013 statistics from the IMF, Egypt’s GDP per capita is US$3111.87, and it is listed as number 122 among all the 185 members. Besides its low GDP per capita, Egypt like many other Arab countries, does not have substantial industrialization that can keep the unemployment rate at a reasonable level.

Hosni Mubarak’s collapse can be attributed to many reasons. For instance, he stayed in power for too long without being genuinely elected, and he even intended to pass power to his son. But the most crucial reason was that he delivered too few economic benefits for the people, while being indifferent to the serious corruption of his bureaucracy and his family. It was poor economic performance that undermined his legitimacy, which was largely built on his personal charisma.

The recent removal of President Mohamed Morsi is even more poignant. Judging by western standards, Mohamed Morsi should have strong legitimacy. But poor economic conditions are always the enemy of political stability. Dissatisfaction out of economic reasons does not only disturb the social, political and economic order, but also disrupt the transition. The confrontation between Morsi's government and the protestors primarily stemmed from a poor economic situation.

It is likely that more and more governments in the world will have to take elections as one source of legitimacy in the future. The Arab people and their incumbent governments should never forget that the source of legitimacy in economic development should be equally important, and should even be the precondition of democracy. Both the stories of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi are very illustrative of this.

It is unlikely that Egypt will go back to the years without genuine elections. It is clear that unchecked power is the instrument that politicians employ for selfish interests. On the other hand, those politicians should be aware that once elected, their primary goal should be economic development, which should be the best way to strengthen their legitimacy.

China and the US are both great nations with successful experiences in delivering economic achievements and political advancements, and have the shared interests in maintaining regional and global stability and prosperity as well. But they do have differences in ways of governance. Americans question China’s government for being too much reliant on performance legitimacy while Chinese scholars would like to challenge US efforts to promote democracy, which is not necessarily agreeable in countries with other cultural and development backgrounds.

Debates should not be obstacles of cooperation. The Middle East should be one area, in addition to the Asia-Pacific region, where China and the US will have a chance to test their new type of great country relations. Both China and US should help the Arab world, especially those in trouble, to develop their economy, which should be regarded as a primary goal of these countries.

Both China and the US could also map out long-term plans of economic cooperation with these Arab countries. The purpose of such plans should be to increase investments in and import from Arab countries. 

Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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