China claims to be more democratic than America

THE LEADS of the Chinese Communist Party have waited a long time for liberal democracy to appear as fragile as it is today. Now, filled with contempt for a dysfunctional West, they think their time has come. Irritated, in particular, by President Joe Biden’s summons of more than 100 countries to a virtual democracy summit on December 9 and 10, including Taiwan, an island that China claims as its territory, China responds with combat speech. Officials take every opportunity to explain why their ever-authoritarian and at times ruthless political system is not only suited to a great country trying to become prosperous and strong: the party’s defensive line for four decades. More and more, they are going on the offensive. They insist that China’s political model is so effective, and so responsive to the wishes of the people, that it is more fully democratic than that of the United States.

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In the words of a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, American democracy is in a “disastrous state”, calling into question the legitimacy of this country as the host of such a summit. In a video call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed compassion for his Hungarian counterpart, whose increasingly autocratic government is also not invited. Mr. Wang condemned America for excluding certain countries, adding that the test of a democracy should be whether a government “meets the needs of the people and gives them sufficient sense of participation, satisfaction and gain.” .

The free world – that is, in a broad sense, societies in which governments can lose elections, and in which even the rich and powerful are (sometimes) held accountable by independent judges, public bodies uncensored press, opposition politicians and civic groups – should not underestimate this Chinese. challenge.

Chinese talking points over the one-party regime have some appeal in more countries than Mr. Biden will admit. This is not only true in states courted by Chinese money or the diplomatic support of local despots. Many countries feel little nostalgia for the post-1945 era dominated by the US-led world order and are hungry for alternatives. In an online address to African leaders on November 29, President Xi Jinping mixed up promises to send covid-19 vaccines and further open Chinese markets to African exports with speeches of “true multilateralism” which offers freedom, justice, democracy and development. He also criticized “interference in internal affairs, racial discrimination and unilateral sanctions”. Xi’s audience will have heard a coded reference to China’s willingness to block or mitigate US-led attempts to pressure rights violators or kleptocrats in forums such as the UN. In an article attacking Mr. Biden’s summit, co-authored with Russia’s Ambassador to America, China’s man in Washington, Qin Gang, went further. The pair called it a violation of the UN Charter for any power to interfere in the affairs of other countries in the name of the fight against corruption or the protection of human rights.

It is nothing new for autocrats to co-opt benign sounding labels. During the Cold War, a fast track to a labor camp was to voice dissent in a country with “democratic” in its official name, from North Korea to East Germany. Contrary to Mr. Qin’s state-centered description of the UN Charter, tensions between state sovereignty and the protection of individual freedoms have been hidden, unresolved, in the founding documents of this body from the start. The Chinese version of multilateralism ignores these tensions. But the arrogance behind China’s claims to be “an extended, process-scale socialist democracy,” to use Mr. Qin’s clumsy phrase, is growing. This confident rhetoric of Chinese-style democracy rests on biased claims about the extent to which the public is consulted on new policies and the legitimacy the party derives from the much-vaunted successes of covid control within the government. China’s borders to managing decades of economic growth.

Describing how governments obtain mandates to govern, political scientists distinguish between the legitimacy of inputs (e.g., electoral victory) and the legitimacy of outcomes or performance (i.e., successful policies). Chinese leaders claim to benefit from a legitimacy of contribution based on public consultation, overseen by local and national “people’s assemblies”. Yet the party does not allow elections that it could lose. Journalists who report errors hidden by state media are silenced or jailed, making it difficult to speak of informed public consent. In Hong Kong, which once enjoyed many Western-style freedoms, the government is busy crushing a semi-democratic parliament and local councils with laws requiring members to be pro-government “patriots,” while politicians opposition are imprisoned.

When the People’s Democratic Dictatorship Doesn’t Work

If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, rigged elections are the homage of a dictator to true democracy: an admission that popular mandates offer moral authority. Bold claims for the legitimacy of performance are also risky. If covid control gives Xi a mandate, were his predecessors illegitimate when officials spent months mismanaging a previous fatal disease? SARS? If the economy slows, will the party, by its own logic, still deserve to govern?

The China Association of Public Diplomacy held a “Democracy Dialogue” in Beijing on December 2 on what democracy is and who defines it. “Chinese democracy is not for a few, it is for all the people,” Lu Yucheng, vice foreign minister, told participants. Sadly, the system he described practices majoritarianism, not democracy. It is a form of tyranny in which individuals are crushed to displease the party, whether they are feminists, human rights defenders, gay activists, creators of art deemed “unhealthy”, underground Christians or Uyghurs.

China is creating a zero-sum contest between autocracy and democracy. The timing is strange, as China still needs foreign know-how to complete its ascent. If countries know that Chinese success will be seen as proof of their decline, some might wonder why they should help. Liberal democracies are in trouble. But as they reflect on how to engage with a strong China, they have a vote.

Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
What Peng Shuai reveals about the one-party regime (November 27, 2021)
Xi Jinping-Joe Biden Talks Do Not Herald a Thaw (Nov 20, 2021)
China will stick to zero covid policy, for now (November 13, 2021)

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Why China Says It is a Democracy”


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