The impact of the recent military coup in Myanmar, aka Burma, has been felt far beyond the country's borders. Just days into Joe Biden's presidency, the event posed an early test of US foreign policy, his administration swiftly condemning the junta's actions and imposing sanctions. China, by contrast, chose neither to condemn nor approve of its neighbour's military power grab, simply "noting" the event and expressing hope that all sides would properly manage their differences. A Chinese state media report even stretched the ever-imaginative bounds of doublespeak, referring to the coup somewhat ludicrously as a "cabinet reshuffle".
All of this has led to speculation that Beijing's rather muted, non-partisan statement may not have reflected its true stance, and may even indicate tacit approval of the takeover. For one thing, China's foreign minister Wang Yi met with the orchestrator of the Myanmar coup Min Aung Hlaing just weeks prior. It is also notable that Beijing, along with Moscow, wielded its Security Council veto to stop the UN condemning the junta's actions.
As a result, Xi Jinping's administration has been forced to deny any involvement in the Myanmar coup, emphasising its core principle of non-intervention, and going as far to say that the current situation is "absolutely not what China wants to see." There may some truth to this: Beijing had until very recently been forging increasingly close ties to Burma's now-detained democratic leaders. And as important as Myanmar's domestic politics are to China, its priority there will be the security of its economic investments, particularly those pertaining to Xi's flagship Belt and Road initiative.
Whatever China's actual position on the coup, one thing is certain: together with its authoritarian allies, it has so far gained more from this episode than the US and the other Western democracies. For while Beijing must now deal with the immediate problem of having serious political instability on its doorstep, the event may eventually prove to be a boon for China's unique brand of authoritarianism. Just consider these seven similarities between recent events in Burma and Beijing's own practices.
1. Militaristic muscle
First there is the imagery of armoured vehicles rolling through Naypyidaw and other parts of the country. The moment of the coup was apparently accidentally captured in the background of a woman making an exercise film, a modern day version of the tragicomic "tank man" incident in Beijing following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. While China has rarely used armed force domestically since then, military hardware remains a hallmark of Beijing's authoritarian brand and is routinely celebrated in grand televised parades.
2. Information blackout
The second Chinese-style authoritarian quality of recent events in Myanmar is the prolonged Internet blackouts seen during the coup on February 1 and several times since. This a tactic China has used in certain localities, such as Xinjiang, at times of heightened civil unrest. Burma's new junta now proposes legislating for permanent internet censorship of certain platforms, effectively creating its own version of China's "Great Firewall".
3. Nullified election
In addition to trying to control cyberspace, the junta have taken another leaf directly out of Beijing's book by nullifying the results of November's election, alleging fraud. It is striking similar to what happened last September in Hong Kong, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed the legislative council election for a year with approval by China's National People's Congress. Officially attributed to fears of COVID-19 transmission in polling stations, the delay was widely believed to be motivated more by the poor prospects of pro-Beijing candidates.
4. Lengthy incarceration
For those who oppose the coup, Myanmar's military rulers have threatened jail sentences of up to 20 years. One need only look at the anti-government protests in Hong Kong to see comparisons with Chinese authoritarian practices. Many of the city's notable pro-democracy activists and young protestors are now serving time in prisons or rehabilitation centres. Used both as a threat and as a punishment, incarceration is still one of the main ways that Beijing seeks to eliminate dissent.
5. Indefinite detainment
In a similar vein, the pre-trial detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratically elected colleagues has been one of the defining features of this recent coup. It has greatly disappointed citizens and international onlookers, for whom the release of "the Lady" in 2010 was a watershed moment in Burma's democratisation. Now the junta is once again doing what has always been standard for its Chinese counterparts: indefinitely placing untried threats to its rule in detention or under house arrest.
6. Conjured pretexts
Another way in which Myanmar's military appear to have emulated Beijing is in conjuring up pretexts to provide a legal veneer for those detentions, blackouts and nullified election results. Most notably these have been used to explain the sudden arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Initially charged with the curious crime of illegally possessing walkie talkies, she now faces an additional (and just as curious) charge in relation to Myanmar's natural disaster law. Beijing often applies similarly dubious charges to its targets, especially the broad-brush charge of "endangering national security".
7. Military-civil fusion
Above all, recent events in Burma have underscored the intertwining of military and civil power in the country, in a way sadly reminiscent of the pre-2011 reforms. While the PRC has never been under the direct rule of the military, many aspects of civil society remain highly militaristic, from mandatory cadet drills in schools and universities, to the presence of armed guards outside all public buildings. Recent years have seen a resurgence of attempts to fuse aspects of civilian and military life in China, not least in its tense border regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
Conclusion: Same, same but different
By making these comparisons, I do not mean to suggest that the Myanmar government is or has ever been a close replica of the PRC. I also do not believe that the above similarities are the result of a conscious strategy by China to spread authoritarianism overseas. Despite their geographical and cultural proximity, and being founded just one year apart (in 1948 and 1949 respectively), the two state's systems have always maintained notable differences.
Perhaps chief among those differences is the Burmese regime's tolerance of religion relative to China. As I discovered on a trip to the country in 2018, people in Myanmar are extremely religious, mostly practicing as Buddhists but also Christians and Muslims. This contrasts with the PRC, where organised religion has never been as prominent as in Southeast Asia, has always been viewed warily by the party-state, and has faced increasingly repressive controls in recent years.
This difference in the two countries' religious affairs speaks also to a major difference in their politics. In China, the CCP's aversion to religion has been to preserve itself as the country's ultimate spiritual authority, with Leninist one-party rule as the only true doctrine. Myanmar, however, has lacked such an all-encompassing ideology, despite also being a nominally "socialist" system. This lack of any doctrinal political orthodoxy may not only help to explain the regime's continued tolerance of religious practice, but also its flirtation with liberal politics over the past decade.
The Tatmadaw's liberal flirtation points to another key difference between the Chinese and Burmese political landscapes: the presence in the latter of a popular pro-democracy figure. Since being released from house arrest in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi has not only been co-opted by the military establishment, but also remains loved by the people of Myanmar. China, on the other hand, has lacked any such popular figures except in a few exceptional regional cases, like the exiled Dalai Lama in Tibet, Joshua Wong in Hong Kong, or the now imprisoned former party secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai.
Aung San Suu Kyi embodies the last major difference between Myanmar and China that I'll mention here: how the two nations fit into a broader international context. A London-educated, British-married, fluent speaker of English, the Lady has captured the international attention in a way unlike any mainstream PRC political actor since Mao. Unlike China, Burma's history as a British colony gives it a cosmopolitan legacy that mainland China has never really had. And as a small, poor country, Myanmar has prudently forged connections with numerous international partners such as Singapore, its largest foreign investor in 2020, partly in an effort to avoid over-reliance on China.
Postscript: Whither Burmese liberal democracy?
If Burma's political system continues to differentiate itself in these ways, then the country may yet be able to turn things around and return to a more liberal path. But the current signs are not good. Following the recent coup, it appears that Myanmar's historic distinctions from China may be fading, that its experiment with democracy may be over, and that its strong men leaders may increasingly look to Beijing as a model for illiberal, heavy-handed rule.
Should more Western democracies and even Asian powerhouses like Singapore and Japan decide to punish Myanmar and withdraw investment from the country, then Naypyidaw's authoritarian turn is only likely to accelerate. The Chinese government may not openly advocate this, and will certainly want to distance itself from any direct involvement in the Burmese military coup, which would not serve its global image well.
Yet Myanmar's increasing adoption of Chinese-style methods of repression will have a validating effecting on Beijing's modes of governance and bolster its regional interests. And this comes at a time when China is already enjoying renewed confidence in its authoritarian system, credited with handling the COVID-19 pandemic much better than its liberal Western peers.