Beijing, which was not invited to the virtual gathering on Thursday and Friday, has reacted with scorn and derision, denouncing the summit as an “exercise in hypocrisy” to promote US hegemony.
Further infuriating Beijing, Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy it claims as part of its territory, was invited, as was Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist and former legislator from Hong Kong now exiled in London.
In response, China has ramped up propaganda efforts in a bid to promote an alternative model of “democracy,” twisting the definition of the term to fit its own authoritarian one-party system.
“This is a preemptive strike against Biden’s Democracy Summit,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Now China feels that it needs to be not only on the defensive, but also on the offensive as well.”
Over the weekend, Beijing held its own two-day virtual International Forum on Democracy, joined by politicians and scholars from more than 120 countries.
In his keynote speech, Huang Kunming, the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda tsar, extolled China’s so-called “whole-process people’s democracy” — a concept put forward by Chinese leader Xi Jinping — describing it as a “true democracy that works.”
Huang later expounded on the theory, confusingly insisting it “integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.”
In tandem to the event, China’s cabinet, the State Council, released Saturday with fanfare a white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works.”
“There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms. Assessing the myriad political systems in the world against a single yardstick and examining diverse political structures in monochrome are in themselves undemocratic,” the 13,000-word document said.
By most international standards, China is the opposite of a democracy. The ruling Communist Party has held onto power for more than seven decades since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There is no separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, freedom of association, expression and opinion, periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage or independent media — which are essential elements of democracy defined by the United Nations.
And China sits squarely near the bottom of most international rankings on political and personal freedoms, including the annual “freedom score” given by Washington-based NGO Freedom House, based on 25 metrics of political rights and civil liberties.
Chinese activists calling for democracy are routinely silenced, harassed and jailed, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison in 2017 after spending almost a quarter of his life behind bars.
Of course, none of this is mentioned in China’s latest propaganda offensive. Instead, it is attempting to muddy the waters as to what constitutes a democracy, said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
“This is a struggle over the global discourse on democracy. They (Chinese officials) have got used to the idea that if you assert something and repeat it enough times, you can actually go a long way,” he said.
Xi, China’s supreme leader, has repeatedly underscored the need for the country to “struggle for international discourse power.”
“If you’re backward, you’ll be beaten up; if you’re poor, you’ll have to starve; if you can’t speak, you’ll get a scolding,” Xi said in a speech in 2015, noting “getting scolded” is the only outstanding problem China needs to resolve.
And in the eyes of the Communist Party, the perfect time to speak up is now. Having managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Beijing is now holding that success up as evidence of the superiority of its political system. It is also seizing on the divisions sown under former US President Donald Trump as proof of the demise of Western political models.
On Sunday, China’s Foreign Ministry released a lengthy report attacking American democracy, listing the Capitol riot, Black Lives Matter protests and the country’s pandemic response as evidence of its deep-rooted flaws, dysfunction and chaos.
But China’s rush to proclaim itself a democracy may also be driven by a sense of increasing necessity.
Since Biden came to office, the US has reversed its inward-facing retreat from the global stage under Trump and doubled down on building alliances with like-minded partners to counter China’s rising influence — a challenge characterized by Biden as part of a broader ideological battle between democracies and autocracies.
While China’s self-declared model of democracy is unlikely to convince any democratic countries — especially among the developed world — Yang, the expert at University of Chicago, said it might find a more receptive audience in the global South.
China has framed its “democracy” as one that is more effective in addressing people’s needs, highlighting the country’s rapid economic development.
“I think some of the emphasis on producing results can actually be persuasive to people,” Yang said. “One cannot underestimate the percentage of people who are willing to sacrifice some elements of democracy for better economic welfare.”
The emphasis on performance also comes with inherit dangers, Yang warned. “When the economy is slowing down, you risk looking very bad. And when it worsens significantly into a crisis, it fuels questions (regarding legitimacy).”
But the Chinese Communist Party is also arguing that it is a “process-oriented democracy,” pointing to the country’s multi-tier legislative system as proof. In theory, delegates to the village- and county-level legislatures are elected directly by residents, who in turn are tasked with choosing delegates for the level above, and so on. At the very top of the system is the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp parliamentary body that convenes annually to approve major decisions and policies made by the party.
In practice, however, these grassroots “elections” are highly scripted affairs. And under Xi, it has become virtually impossible for independent candidates — especially those who disagree with the party — to play a role in the process.
In October, 14 independent candidates attempted to take part in the local People’s Congress elections in Beijing. They ended up being harassed, placed under house arrest or forced to take a trip out of the city, and none of them succeeded in participating.
“To put it simply, the Chinese ‘democracy’ is under the dictatorship of the Communist Party,” said Cabestan at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“So if you’re obedient to the party, if you accept the dictatorship of the party, you can participate in political life. If not, you’re excluded.”
In its white paper, the Chinese government argues that “whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders.” But even within China, there are signs many are not convinced by the official narrative.
On Weibo, China’s heavily-censored version of Twitter, a post by party mouthpiece People’s Daily on the foreign ministry’s attack on American democracy was flooded with sarcastic comments before censorship kicked in.
“Who has ever elected a representative to the People’s Congress? Who has ever cast a vote?” said one of the top comments. “I’m not even an ‘extra’ in the performance,” said another.
These remarks were later removed. Out of more than 2,700 comments, only a dozen were allowed to be shown — all critical of democracy in the US.
Another post by state news agency Xinhua on China’s “whole-process people’s democracy” has completely disabled its comment section.
A user shared the post, commenting: “(China is) so democratic that it doesn’t need the comment section anymore.”