The ‘Strong Leader’ Trap: The Unintended Consequence of China’s Global Investment Strategy

Event details

PSC Seminar Series

Date & time

Tuesday 18 May 2021


Online Zoom event


Alvin Camba


Maxine McArthur

How does China protect and pursue its commercial interest in risky environments? I find that China – in this case, the Chinese Communist Party and the state 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 find that China tries to win over these strong leaders in hopes of securing the protection for Chinese firms. However, there is a disconnect between the perceived and actual strength of the leader.

Depending on the gap of both strengths, there are four possible outcomes that result in significant political and social costs for China. 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 Arroyo (2001-2010) and Duterte (2016-), Malaysia under Najib (2009-2018), and Indonesia under Jokowi (2014-). I draw from 80 in-depth elite interviews with Southeast Asian politicians, oligarchs, Chinese policy elites, firm representatives, and political brokers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Alvin Camba is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Korbel School of International Studies at the Univerisity of Denver. His research is on the political economy of development, particularly examining how Southeast Asian states pursue development in the context of China’s rise. He has done extensive fieldwork in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines for his PhD research on how China pursues and protects its commercial interest in the risky environment of Southeast Asia. You can find his published works here.

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