The Chinese government has made considerable efforts to increase its influence in the Middle East for years, especially in Lebanon. However, should China succeed in its quest for control, it would not only threaten Western interests, but it could be the beginning of the end to pluralism in Lebanese society.
In a Zoom briefing hosted by The Philos Project on August 12, Philos founder and president Robert Nicholson spoke with Philos’ Lebanese research fellows Julie Tegho and Habib Malik about the state of affairs in Beirut following the explosion. The fellows provided firsthand accounts of the moment the explosion occurred, as well as how it continues to affect their lives. They also speculated and shared insights into the future of Lebanon given the current economic crisis, and what the necessary next steps are for rebuilding the once-prosperous nation. In particular, Malik mentioned how, in order to receive money and aid from various Western countries and non-governmental organizations, the Lebanese government must implement serious reforms. There is one country, however, that would not require them to do so: China.
China is no stranger to serving as many corrupt governments’ only option in times of economic crisis. Unlike Western nations or development banks, China requires very little of its borrowers in terms of governmental reforms. Instead, it uses its “generous” unconditional aid to struggling countries to build its global empire, often perpetuating the existing corruption in the process. In his article for Foreign Policy, Moises Naim analyzes this pattern of “rogue Chinese aid,” citing instances in Nigeria, the Philippines, and other corrupt developing nations where the Chinese government offered money in exchange for influence and access to raw materials.
China has been working on increasing its economic influence in the Middle East for several years, which can be seen by the growing number of Chinese products found on store shelves throughout the region. It has also become a significant trading partner with energy exporters in the area, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Recently, however, China has gone even further in its attempts to expand its dominance, specifically in Lebanon. Not only has it provided Lebanon with copious aid throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also offered emergency medical assistance immediately following the explosion in Beirut.
As Malik and Tegho made clear in the Philos briefing, Lebanon has reached a historic low point, and it seems unlikely that it will dig itself out of this crisis without external assistance. So the question becomes, Who will supply this desperately needed aid? Increasingly, it looks like China will be the knight in shining armor. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has suggested that Lebanon should welcome Chinese investment. Furthermore, former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab stated that China has already offered to help end the electrical power crisis in Lebanon that has persisted for several decades. The government of China has also expressed its enthusiasm for rebuilding the destroyed port in Beirut. What would the Chinese Communist Party get in exchange for its generosity? The extent to which their influence would begin to exert absolute control over Lebanon is unclear. Still, one thing is certain: this kind of foreign intervention in Lebanon would give the Chinese regime control over many facets of the country, which would pose an undeniable threat to pluralism in one of the only remaining pluralistic societies in the Middle East.
The Chinese Communist Party continues to keep a tight grip on any kind of religious practice within Chinese borders. Given that Karl Marx, the father of communism, believed religion to be “the sigh of the oppressed creature,” or essentially, a phony placeholder for true happiness, it is unsurprising that this is the case. Additionally, China and Iran have been aligned on many issues over the past 20 years, culminating in a recently leaked document that suggests the two countries are entering into a long-term strategic partnership in politics, trade, security, and culture. Many Christians in Lebanon are already fed up with the conditions under which they live, given the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s stranglehold on the country. In a comment to CBN News, Tegho stated that “the [Lebanese] Christian community seeks a stronger stance from the international community, notably France and the US, to guarantee a future for them.” However, she also notes that “they don’t see that happening any time soon.” Adding strong influence from a foreign government that remains hostile and antagonistic to religious pluralism and that has no intention to combat corruption could be the final straw for many of them, as their hopes for Western intervention dwindle.
Ultimately, as Malik highlighted in The Philos Project’s briefing, should China step in and become Lebanon’s “savior,” the country would inevitably shift away from Western principles and toward the axis of Syria, Iran, and China. If the Chinese regime forces Lebanese Christians to live under oppressive and impoverished conditions, a mass exodus would likely take place. Therefore, if the West remains interested in promoting pluralism in the Middle East and preserving one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, it must turn its eyes to Lebanon and provide suitable alternatives to Chinese intervention. Failure to do so could be a crucial and catastrophic mistake.