The "Strong Leader" Trap: The Unintended Consequences of China's Global Investment Strategy

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Johns Hopkins University
How does China protect and pursue its commercial interest in risky environments? I draw from political sociology’s analysis of patrimonialism, economic sociology’s embeddedness, and cultural sociology’s symbolic interactionism to formulate what I call the “strong leader trap” in international political economy. I find that China – in this case, the Chinese Communist Party and the key ministries - seeks and befriends “strong leaders,” defined as those who are willing and capable of using violence to constrain mobilization, circumvent institutional checks, and hold significant elite-mass support. Through major foreign direct investment (FDI) and development finance projects, I argue that China tries to win over these strong leaders in hopes of securing protection for Chinese firms. China ends up selectively working with the host country leader due to their own institutional practice of promoting “strong” provincial elites and valuing non-interference. These processes are reinforced by the tendencies of host country leaders and their regime to sell the strength of their regime alongside the economic and political interests of brokers from the Chinese and host country sides. Depending on the gap between strengths, there are four possible outcomes that result in significant political and social costs for China: cancellation, pushback, missed opportunities, and inaction. Empirically, I demonstrate cancellation and pushback, two possible processes that emerge from the preferences to work with strong leaders, contrasting Chinese investment in the Philippines under Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010) and Rodrigo Duterte (2016-), Malaysia under Najib Razak (2009-2018), and Indonesia under Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (2014-). Primarily, I draw from 200 in-depth elite interviews with Southeast Asian politicians, oligarchs, Chinese policy elites, firm representatives, and political brokers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. To get at perceived strength, I use the interviews with the Chinese elites to get their views on the leaders’ strength. I interviewed the Southeast Asian elites to cross-reference what the Chinese elites thought. To get at actual strength, I interviewed 30 country experts, particularly those who closely studied the regime of the four Southeast Asian leaders. To avoid issues with elite interview data, I use state documents, firm records, and host country newspapers.
International Political Economy, Sociology, Political Science, China, Southeast Asia