Beijing – As U.S. 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.
The campaign carries echoes of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, which sparred for decades over the merits of their political systems, said Charles Parton, a China specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, a British research group.
“They are more keen, in a way, on an ideological competition, and that takes you back to the Cold War,” Parton said, referring to China.
Biden’s democracy summit, which administration officials have said is not explicitly focused on China, has also faced criticism, in the West as well as from China, in part for whom it invited and whom it left out.
Angola, Iraq and Congo, countries that Freedom House classifies as undemocratic, will participate, while two NATO allies, Turkey and Hungary, will not.
In a move likely to anger Beijing, the White House also invited two officials from Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its own; and Nathan Law, a former legislator in the semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong who sought asylum in Britain after China’s crackdown.
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.
They cite surveys like the one done by the University of Würzburg in Germany, which ranks countries based on variables like independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and integrity of elections. The most recent put China near the bottom among 176 countries. Only Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea and Eritrea rank lower. Denmark is first; the United States 36th.
In China, the Communist Party controls the courts and heavily censors the media. It has suppressed Tibetan culture and language, restricted religious freedom and carried out a vast detention campaign in Xinjiang.
What’s more, China’s vigorous defense of its system in recent months has done nothing to moderate its prosecution of dissent.
Two of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, are expected to face trial at the end of this year on charges that they called for more civil liberties, according to Jerome Cohen, a law professor specializing in China at New York University. A Chinese employee of Bloomberg News in Beijing has remained in detention for a year, as of Tuesday, with almost no word about the accusations against her.
Under Xi’s rule, intellectuals are now warier of speaking their minds in China than at practically any time since Mao Zedong died in 1976.
“This is an extraordinary time in the Chinese experience,” Cohen said. “I really think that the totalitarianism definition applies.”
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