Why China Raged Over America’s “Summit for Democracy”

A United States-led democracy summit elicited a ferocious Chinese propaganda campaign aimed in part at redefining democracy in the Party’s own terms. The U.S.’ virtual Summit for Democracy, “part pep rally and part policy symposium” in The New York Times’ telling, purported to address “democratic renewal” and counter the “greatest threats” to democracies. Over 100 countries attended, including some experiencing democratic backsliding or “the state-led debilitation or elimination of the political institutions sustaining an existing democracy.” (The International Institute for Democracy labeled the United States itself a backsliding democracy for the first time ever this year.)

China and Russia were not present. At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers detailed China’s extraordinary effort to undermine the digital gathering:

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,” Mr. 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.)

[…] [Skeptics] 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.

[…] “This is an extraordinary time in the Chinese experience,” [Jerome Cohen, a law professor specializing in China at New York University] said. “I really think that the totalitarianism definition applies.” [Source]

China released two reports in the lead up to the summit. The first, a white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works” published by the State Council, hailed China’s governance outcomes. Its claims about democratic processes included stating that “the people have the right to vote and stand for election.” Encroachments on this right have been rife, however: earlier this year, for example, 14 independent candidates withdrew from Beijing’s district-level People’s Congress elections amid fears for their personal safety.

The second publication was a report issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The State of Democracy in the United States.” by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that leveled its spear at several obvious shortcomings in American democracy: partisanship, gerrymandering, and racism.

The reports were accompanied by a massive domestic and international propaganda campaign to promote China’s “whole-process people’s democracy,” a newly popular buzzword coined by Xi Jinping to argue that China—even though it is ruled by a single Party that does not conduct open elections—is as democratic as the United States, if not more so. A collection of screenshots captured and translated by CDT puncture this claim—for example, comments on many state media posts extolling democracy were heavily censored on Chinese social media. The internally directed campaign was matched by an outpouring on Western social media, especially Twitter:

See related tweets from Chinese government officials and state media related personages:

The German Marshall Fund’s Mareike Ohlberg commented:

Promotion of “Chinese democracy” was matched by criticism of American democracy. Wang Wen, the director of the state-linked think tank Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, told a crowd of diplomats and journalists in Beijing: “Many American politicians do not really put their voters’ interest first. Compared to other democratic countries, the U.S. is more like an oligarchic regime,” NPR reported. Some comments were less direct. State media outlet China Daily said the summit was “no different from what Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat got up to in those Hal Roach short films decades ago,” a dated reference to the Our Gang series, which debuted in 1922. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd reported on the strange trolling campaign launched by Chinese state media to sling mud on American democracy:

The drier descriptions in official documents have been mixed with colorful commentaries from state media. One by Xinhua News Agency likened the United States to Voldemort — and, by implication, the Chinese Communist Party to Harry Potter — to cast shade on U.S.-style democracy.

“Just like young Voldemort was a star of the wizarding world in his youth, American-style democracy’s early development was an innovation,” the article said. “But just as Voldemort went down an evil path, so has American-style democracy over time gradually changed and decayed.”

[…] “The U.S. has long been an example — bad or good — that China pays close attention to,” said [Mary Gallagher, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan.] “If the U.S. struggles in the next few national elections, that will be important in deciding how China moves forward with this re-articulation of its own political system.” [Source]

China’s rage was fanned in part by the participation of Hong Kong exile Nathan Law and representatives of Taiwan in the summit. In an address to the summit, Law suggested that the world may have failed to protect democracy because “some of you are afraid of upsetting General Secretary Xi.” Hong Kong’s security chief Chris Tang said Law “betrayed Hong Kong” by speaking at the summit. In a lengthy editorial, Chinese state news outlet Xinhua said Law would be “crucified on the pillar of historical shame.” China said the United States had made a mistake in inviting Taiwan. Furthermore, according to Taiwanese officials, China lured Nicaragua to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan in retaliation for its presence, leaving the island nation with only 14 official diplomatic partners.

At Foreign Policy, Mareike Ohlberg and Bonnie S. Glaser argued that China’s dramatic response to the virtual summit was driven primarily by the importance of “global discourse powers” to regime stability:

But for Beijing, being convinced the “East is rising and West is declining” isn’t enough; other major powers must be persuaded as well. The Summit for Democracy threatens to undermine China’s narrative by portraying the West, and the United States in particular, as resilient. Moreover, the official assessment of China’s rise and the United States’ decline does not mean the CCP can relax; it must struggle to achieve its victory. Like any authoritarian government that cannot be voted out of office yet is always fearful of being ousted violently by the people, the stakes are high. In the eyes of the CCP, genuine democracy poses a threat to the regime’s legitimacy and security.

[…] More than that, though, Beijing is genuinely worried by what it sees as Washington’s attempt to build “anti-China coalitions.” This is the lens through which it has viewed other initiatives such as AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. From Beijing’s perspective, the Summit for Democracy is yet another attempt to mobilize countries to curb Chinese influence and contain the growth of Chinese power—only this time, the number of countries involved is much larger.

[…] These attempts to define the Chinese political system as a democracy on par with or even superior to genuine democratic systems may seem ludicrous to many outside observers. But the party-state considers them crucial to its push to elevate China’s “global discourse power,” a buzzword that refers to the party’s ability to shape global conversations and set the definitions for key terms such as democracy, rule of law, and human rights. This is an area where China sees itself in direct competition with the United States and seeks to capitalize on its opponent’s relative decline. In fact, discourse power is seen as vital to the party’s ideological security, because as long as China lacks discourse power it is evaluated on Western criteria, which ultimately poses a threat to CCP legitimacy and therefore to regime security. [Source]

It was the United States’ own actions, not just China’s, that publicly imperiled the spirit of the summit. Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang appeared to have been censored as she presented on “countering digital authoritarianism.” Tang’s Powerpoint presentation included a map ranking countries’ civil rights protections, produced by South African NGO Civicus. Taiwan appeared as an independent country, and the only fully “open” society in Asia. With the map in the background, Tang said, “We believe that a completely open environment with free speech uncensored is perfect for letting digital democracy flourish.” Soon after, Tang’s video feed was replaced with audio and a static image. A full, uncensored version of Tang’s presentation is available on YouTube. Humeyra Pamuk, Michael Martina, and David Brunnstrom of Reuters reported that the decision to cut Tang’s video came from The White House:

One source told Reuters the map generated an instant email flurry among U.S. officials and the White House National Security Council (NSC) angrily contacted the State Department, concerned it appeared to show Taiwan as a distinct country.

Washington complained to Taiwan’s government, which in turn was angry that Tang’s video had been cut.

[…] A second source directly involved in the summit said the video booth operator acted on White House instructions. “It was clearly policy concerns,” the source said, adding: “This was completely an internal overreaction.” [Source]

Josh Rogan of The Washington Post contradicted Reuters’ reporting on Twitter, citing an “admin source” who denied the White House’s involvement:

The controversy provided rich fodder for Chinese propagandists. Nationalist tabloid Global Times gloated: “That’s what happens when you’re a running dog.” In its report on the spat, Guancha opined that the episode exposed Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party embrace of “democracy” as a sham aimed at declaring independence from the mainland.

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