Dec 14, 2021 - World

China touts its own "socialist democracy" after Biden's summit

Illustration of podium with microphone in front of deconstructed Chinese flag
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Biden's Summit for Democracy demonstrated the resiliency of America's convening power and the appeal of democracy as an ideal. That sparked a heavy flurry of propaganda from Beijing.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is touting its "people's democratic dictatorship" model of governance as a superior alternative to liberal democracy.

What's happening: More than 100 countries met during a virtual summit last week at President Biden's invitation.

  • In his opening remarks at the summit, President Biden cast the struggle to renew democracy in the face of internal and external challenges as “the defining challenge of our time" and said "democracy needs champions."

China wasn't invited, but it was the elephant in the room.

  • China's rise as an economic and geopolitical power under the direction of an authoritarian one-party state has challenged the Western assumption that democracy is inherently better at promoting prosperity and human well-being.
  • Some analysts have pushed the Biden administration to create an "alliance of democracies" to counter Beijing — and this summit seemed to be a big step in that direction.

Beijing reacted with a major propaganda campaign that presented American democracy as defunct and hypocritical and claimed "socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics" was superior.

  • On Dec. 4, five days before the start of the summit, China's State Council published a white paper called "China: Democracy That Works," which used the term "whole-process people’s democracy" 24 times to describe the kind of democracy it says is implemented there — a vaguely defined term asserting that China's system incorporates the people's will throughout the policy-making process.
  • State media outlets plastered the airways with denunciations of American democracy as a violent and broken system run by the rich, with one article even comparing the U.S. system to Harry Potter villain Voldemort.

Background: CCP leaders have long used variations on the term "democracy" to describe China's political system.

  • Under Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, CCP officials touted China's "inner-party democracy," by which they meant a system of checks and balances carried out within the CCP (and not open to outside scrutiny).
  • "Democracy" was listed as one of the 12 "core socialist values" introduced in late 2012 as Xi assumed the presidency.
  • Xi first used the term "whole-process people's democracy" in 2019; the term resurfaced in October 2021 and was used extensively in the Chinese state media coverage surrounding the Biden-Xi virtual meeting in November.
  • The goal of such messaging is to "make the case before domestic audiences for the strength of China’s political system, as well as to throw off criticism internationally of China on human rights grounds," China Media Project's Stella Chen writes.

Between the lines: The CCP's long-standing attempts to rebrand its one-party state as a form of democracy, and simultaneously to redefine democracy in the party's image, demonstrates the ongoing appeal of the idea — and how party leaders can feel threatened by its power.

The big picture: The summit also demonstrated America's ability to gather many of the world's governments together in support of an American agenda, a very public sign of global sway.

  • The Chinese government has increasingly sought to convene international gatherings around its own political agendas, such as the Belt and Road Forum, held in 2017 and 2019, and the World Internet Conference, held annually since 2014.

Yes, but: Biden's goals of defending democracy and outcompeting China aren't perfectly aligned, Axios' Dave Lawler reports, as the summit's attendees demonstrated.

  • India, Vietnam and Thailand were invited, but all three governments are involved in severe human rights violations, or aren't even democracies at all.
  • American democracy, too, is facing severe challenges, with an uprising in Washington, D.C., earlier this year that challenged election results, growing barriers to voting access for minority groups, and rising socioeconomic inequality.
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