THE LEADERS of China’s Communist Party have spent a long time waiting for liberal democracy to look as fragile as it does today. Now, filled with scorn for a dysfunctional West, they think that their moment has come. Angered, specifically, by President Joe Biden’s summoning 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 is responding with fighting talk. Officials are seizing every chance to explain why their always-controlling, sometimes-ruthless political system is not just a good fit for a large country trying to become prosperous and strong: the party’s defensive line for four decades. Increasingly, they are 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 perfectly democratic than America’s.
In the words of a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, American democracy is in a “disastrous state”, calling into doubt that country’s legitimacy as host of such a summit. In a video call, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, commiserated with his counterpart from Hungary, whose increasingly autocratic government is also not invited. Mr Wang condemned America for excluding some countries, adding that the yardstick of a democracy should be whether a government “meets the people’s needs, and gives them enough of a sense of participation, satisfaction and gain”.
The free world—meaning, broadly, societies in which governments can lose elections, and in which even the rich and powerful are (sometimes) held to account by independent judges, uncensored news outlets, opposition politicians and civic groups—should not underestimate this Chinese challenge.
Chinese talking points about one-party rule hold some appeal in more countries than Mr Biden may care to admit. That is not just true in states wooed with Chinese money or diplomatic backing for local despots. Lots of countries feel little nostalgia for the post-1945 era dominated by the American-led world order, and are eager for alternatives. In an online address to African leaders on November 29th, President Xi Jinping blended promises to send covid-19 vaccines and further open Chinese markets to African exports with talk of “true multilateralism” that delivers freedom, justice, democracy and development. He also criticised “intervention in domestic affairs, racial discrimination and unilateral sanctions”. Mr Xi’s audience will have heard a coded reference to China’s willingness to block or water down American-led attempts to put pressure on rights abusers or kleptocrats in such forums as the UN. In an article attacking Mr Biden’s summit, co-written with Russia’s ambassador to America, China’s man in Washington, Qin Gang, went further. The pair called it a breach of the UN Charter for any power to interfere in other countries’ affairs in the name of fighting corruption or protecting human rights.
It is not new for autocrats to co-opt benign-sounding labels. During the cold war a quick route to a labour camp was to express dissent in a country with “democratic” in its official name, from North Korea to East Germany. Contrary to Mr Qin’s state-centric description of the UN Charter, tensions between state sovereignty and the protection of individual freedoms have lurked, unresolved, in that body’s founding documents from the start. China’s version of multilateralism ignores those tensions. But the swagger that lies behind China’s claims to be “an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy”, to quote Mr Qin’s clunky phrase, is growing. That confident talk of Chinese-style democracy rests on some tendentious claims about the extent to which the public is consulted about new policies, and about the legitimacy that the party draws from much-vaunted successes, from controlling covid within China’s borders to managing decades of economic growth.
Describing how governments earn mandates to rule, political scientists distinguish between input legitimacy (eg, an election victory), and output or performance legitimacy (ie, successful policies). China’s rulers claim to enjoy input legitimacy based on public consultation, overseen by local and national “people’s congresses”. Yet the party does not permit elections that it could lose. Journalists who report errors hidden by state media are silenced or imprisoned, making it hard to talk of informed public consent. In Hong Kong, which formerly 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 opposition politicians are jailed.
When the people’s democratic dictatorship doesn’t work
If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, rigged elections are a dictator’s homage to real democracy: an admission that popular mandates offer moral authority. Bold claims for performance legitimacy are risky, too. If controlling covid gives Mr Xi a mandate, were his predecessors illegitimate when officials spent months mishandling an earlier deadly disease, SARS? If the economy slows will the party, by its own logic, still deserve to rule?
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, it is for the whole people,” Lu Yucheng, a deputy foreign minister, told attendees. Alas, the system he described practices majoritarianism, not democracy. It is a form of tyranny in which individuals are crushed for displeasing the party, whether feminists, human-rights lawyers, 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 odd, for China still needs foreign know-how to complete its rise. If countries know that Chinese success will be called proof of their decline, some may ask why they should help. Liberal democracies are in trouble. But as they ponder how to engage with an assertive China, they have a vote. ■
Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
What Peng Shuai reveals about one-party rule (Nov 27th 2021)
Talks between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden do not herald a thaw (Nov 20th 2021)
China will stick to a zero-covid policy, for now (Nov 13th 2021)
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Why China says it is a democracy”