Before Biden’s democracy summit, China says: We’re also a democracy
By Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers
As President Joe Biden prepares to host a “summit for democracy” this week, China has counterattacked with an improbable claim: It is a democracy, too.
No matter that the Communist Party of China rules the country’s 1.4 billion people with no tolerance for opposition parties; that its leader, Xi Jinping, rose to power through an opaque political process without popular elections; that publicly calling for democracy in China is punished harshly, often with long prison sentences.
“There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms,” the State Council, China’s top governing body, argued in a position paper it released over the weekend titled “China: Democracy That Works.”
It is unlikely that any democratic country will be persuaded by China’s model. By any measure except its own, China is one of the least democratic countries in the world, sitting near the bottom of lists ranking political and personal freedoms.
Even so, the government is banking on its message finding an audience in some countries disillusioned by liberal democracy or by U.S.-led criticism — whether in Latin America, Africa or Asia, including in China itself.
“They want to put on a back foot, put on the defensive, what they refer to as Western democracy,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
China’s paper on democracy was the latest salvo in a weekslong campaign seeking to undercut Biden’s virtual gathering, which begins Thursday.
In speeches, articles and videos on state television, officials have extolled what they call Chinese-style democracy. At the same time, Beijing has criticized democracy in the United States in particular as deeply flawed, seeking to undermine the Biden administration’s moral authority as it works to rally the West to counter China.
“Democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration; it is to be used to solve the problems that the people want to solve,” Xi said at a gathering of top Communist Party leaders in October, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. (In the same address, he ridiculed the “song and dance” that voters are given during elections, contending that voters have little influence until the next campaign.)
On Sunday, the foreign ministry released another report that criticized U.S. politics for what it described as the corrupting influence of money, the deepening social polarization and the inherent unfairness of the Electoral College. In the same way, officials later sought to play down the White House announcement that no U.S. officials would attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February by saying none had been invited anyway.
China’s propaganda offensive has produced some eyebrow-raising claims about the fundamental nature of Communist Party rule and the superiority of its political and social model. It also suggests that Beijing may be insecure about how it is perceived by the world.
“The fact that the regime feels the need to consistently justify its political system in terms of democracy is a powerful acknowledgment of the symbolism and legitimacy that the term holds,” said Sarah Cook, an analyst who covers China for Freedom House, an advocacy group in Washington.
When officials introduced the government’s policy paper Saturday, they seemed to compete over who could mention “democracy” more often, while muddying the definition of the word.
China’s system “has achieved process democracy and outcome democracy, procedural democracy and substantive democracy, direct democracy and indirect democracy, and the unity of people’s democracy and the will of the country,” said Xu Lin, deputy director of the Communist Party Central Committee’s propaganda department.
At the heart of Beijing’s defense of its political system are several core arguments, some more plausible than others.
Officials cite the elections that are held in townships or neighborhoods to select representatives to the lowest of five levels of legislatures. Those votes, however, are highly choreographed, and any potential candidates who disagree with the Communist Party face harassment or worse.
The legislatures then each choose delegates for the next level, up to the National People’s Congress, a parliamentary body with nearly 3,000 members that meets each spring to rubber-stamp decisions made behind closed doors by the party leadership.
When Xi pushed through a constitutional amendment removing term limits on the presidency — effectively allowing him to rule indefinitely — the vote, by secret ballot, was 2,958-2.
China has also accused the United States of imposing Western values on other cultures, an argument that might resonate in regions where the two powers are competing for influence.
China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, recently joined his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov, to denounce Biden’s summit as hypocritical and hegemonic. Writing in The National Interest, the conservative magazine, they alluded to support for democratic movements in authoritarian countries that became known as “color revolutions.”
“No country has the right to judge the world’s vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick,” they wrote.
Pointing to the ways that American and other Western societies have been torn by political, social and racial divisions and hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic, China is also arguing that its form of governance has been more effective in creating prosperity and stability.
As officials often note, China has achieved more than four decades of rapid economic growth. More recently, it has contained the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, with fewer deaths throughout the pandemic than some countries have had in a single day.
Skeptics reject the argument that such successes make China a democracy.