China says it is more democratic than America

THE LEADER of the Chinese Communist Party have long waited for liberal democracy to look as fragile as it is today. Now, full of contempt for a dysfunctional West, they think that their moment has come. Particularly angered by President Joe Biden‘s calling of over 100 countries to a virtual summit for democracy on December 9th and 10th – including Taiwan, an island that China claims as its territory – China responds with talks. Officials take every opportunity to explain why their ever-controlling, sometimes ruthless political system doesn’t just fit well with a large country seeking to get wealthy and strong: the party’s line of defense for four decades. They are increasingly going on the offensive. They insist that China’s political model is so effective and so responsive to the people’s wishes that it is more completely democratic than America’s.

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According to a spokesman for the Chinese State Department, American democracy is in “a catastrophic state,” which calls into question the country’s legitimacy to host such a summit. In a video call, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi regretted his sympathy for his counterpart from Hungary, whose increasingly autocratic government was also not invited. Mr. Wang condemned America for excluding some countries, adding that the measure of democracy should be whether a government “meets the needs of the people and gives them a sufficient sense of participation, satisfaction and gain.”

The free world – these are generally societies where governments can lose elections and where even the rich and powerful are (sometimes) held accountable by independent judges, uncensored news outlets, opposition politicians, and civic groups – shouldn’t underestimate this Chinese challenge.

Chinese discussions of one-party rule are resonating in more countries than Mr Biden would like to admit. This does not only apply to states that are being wooed with Chinese money or diplomatic support for local despots. Many countries feel little longing for the post-1945 era, which is dominated by the American-led world order, and are eager for alternatives. In an online address to African heads of state and government on November 29, President Xi Jinping mixed up the promise to ship Covid-19 vaccines and to further open the Chinese markets to African exports with the talk of “true multilateralism”, the Creates freedom, justice, democracy and development. He also criticized “interference in internal affairs, racial discrimination and unilateral sanctions”. Mr. Xi’s audience will have heard an encrypted reference to China’s willingness to pressure US-led violators or kleptocrats on forums like this one U.N.. In an article attacking Mr Biden’s summit co-authored with Russia’s ambassador to America, China’s man in Washington, Qin Gang, went even further. The couple called it a violation of that U.N. Charter for any authority to intervene in the affairs of other countries in the name of the fight against corruption or the protection of human rights.

It’s not new for autocrats to adopt good-sounding labels. During the Cold War, a quick way to a labor camp was to express dissenting opinions in a country with “democratic” in its official name, from North Korea to East Germany. In contrast to Mr. Qin’s state-centered description of the U.N. The charter, tensions between state sovereignty and the protection of individual freedoms lurk unsolved in the founding documents of this body from the start. China’s version of multilateralism ignores these tensions. But the boast behind China’s claim of “being a comprehensive socialist democracy with a whole process,” to quote Mr. Qin’s crude phrase, is growing. This confident talk of Chinese-style democracy rests on some tendentious claims about the extent to which the public is consulted about new policies and the legitimacy the party has drawn from much-vaunted achievements, from controlling Covid within China’s borders to managing it over decades Economic growth.

When describing how governments obtain government mandates, political scientists distinguish between input legitimacy (eg an election victory) and output or performance legitimacy (ie successful politics). China’s rulers claim input legitimacy based on public consultations monitored by local and national “people’s congresses”. But the party does not allow elections that it could lose. Journalists reporting hidden errors by state media are silenced or imprisoned, making it difficult to speak of informed public consent. In Hong Kong, which used to enjoy many Western freedoms, the government is busy smashing a semi-democratic parliament and local councils with laws requiring members to be pro-government “patriots” while opposition politicians are jailed.

When the people’s democratic dictatorship doesn’t work

If hypocrisy is the toll the vice of virtue pays, rigged elections are a dictator’s homage to real democracy: an admission that popular mandates offer moral authority. Even bold claims to legitimacy are risky. If control of Covid gives Mr. Xi a mandate, his predecessors were illegitimate when officials spent months mischarging a previous fatal illness, SARS? According to its own logic, if the economy slows down, does the party still deserve to govern?

The China Public Diplomacy Association held a “Dialogue on Democracy” in Beijing on December 2nd about what democracy is and who defines it. “China’s democracy is not for the few, but for the whole people,” said Lu Yucheng, a deputy foreign minister, to the participants. Unfortunately, the system he describes practices majoritarianism, not democracy. It is a form of tyranny in which individuals are crushed for displeasing the party, be they feminists, human rights lawyers, gay activists, creators of “unhealthy art”, underground Christians or Uyghurs.

China creates a zero-sum competition between autocracy and democracy. The timing is unusual because China still needs foreign know-how to complete its rise. When countries know that Chinese success is being cited as evidence of their decline, some may wonder why they should help. Liberal democracies are in trouble. But as you think about how to deal with a confident China, you have a voice.

Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
What Peng Shuai reveals about one-party rule (11/27/2021)
Talks between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden Don’t Announce Thaw (November 20, 2021)
China will adhere to a zero-covid policy for the time being (November 13, 2021)

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


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