China’s claim to practice ‘democracy’ is bid to undermine concept: analysts

Commentators say the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is pirating the term to boost its international image.
By Xue Xiaoshan
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China’s claim to practice ‘democracy’ is bid to undermine concept: analysts Chinese leader Xi Jinping addresses the UN General Assembly by video from Beijing, Sept. 21, 2021.
Recent claims by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that China has its own brand of "democracy" are a bid to water down the concept, and minimize its ideological power against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP), analysts told RFA.

As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans for a conference in December to "defend democratic values," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin hit out at the exclusion of authoritarian regimes, saying the U.S. shouldn't be allowed to claim ownership of the term.

"One should not try to turn democracy into Coca-Cola, which tastes the same across the world with the syrup produced by one country, and deprive countries of the right and freedom to explore their own democratic path, in total disregard of the diversity of history, culture, social system and development stage of countries," Wang told an Oct. 19 news conference in Beijing.

Wang also accused the U.S. of "inciting division and confrontation in the international arena and pushing the world back to the Cold War" in the name of democracy.

"It will only bring turbulence and chaos to the world and undermine the peace and development of mankind," he said.

Wang's diatribe comes after CCP general secretary Xi Jinping claimed democracy as "a key tenet" of his party's regime, and called for improvements to the nationwide system of People's Congresses, which run "elections" to choose representatives from a carefully controlled slate of CCP-backed candidates.

Analysts said Xi's used of the term to describe life under one-party rule by the CCP is deliberate.

"Xi Jinping and the CCP are attempting to essentially pirate the concepts of democracy and human rights in order to lessen their ideological power ... the threat that they pose ideologically to power of the CCP," Anders Corr, who publishes the Journal of Political Risk, told RFA. "China under the CCP is not a democracy. It does not have human rights. It does not have the rule of law."

"It attempts to portray itself as having all these things; it adopts the ideas and the concepts to try to promote itself and to try to conceal the ... genuine will of the Chinese people," Corr said.

Demonstrators holding yellow umbrellas and a placard with Chinese President Xi Jinping take part in a "Stand With Hong Kong" rally to mark the 2nd anniversary of democracy rallies in the Chinese-controlled city, in Pasadena, California, June 12, 2021. Credit: AFP
Demonstrators holding yellow umbrellas and a placard with Chinese President Xi Jinping take part in a "Stand With Hong Kong" rally to mark the 2nd anniversary of democracy rallies in the Chinese-controlled city, in Pasadena, California, June 12, 2021. Credit: AFP
'Cold War thinking'
He said Wang Wenbin's reference to "Cold War thinking" is an attempt to undermine attempts by democracies to defend themselves against the CCP's efforts to export its model of totalitarian rule and infiltrate the political and intellectual life of other countries.

"We could not have defeated the Nazis without confronting them," he said. "Confrontation is absolutely necessary when dealing with totalitarians like the CCP. This is what the CCP calls 'Cold War thinking'."

Xi claimed at the conference on People's Congresses that China practices "whole-process" democracy, because its 1.4 billion population takes part in such elections, as well as political consultations and other forms of decision-making.

"Democracy, a shared value of humanity, is a key tenet unswervingly upheld by the CPC and the Chinese people," Xi told an Oct. 13-14 conference on People's Congresses in Beijing.

Whether a country is democratic or not should be judged by its own people, not by a handful of people from outside it, he said.

In a 2013 essay analyzing one of Xi's early speeches as general secretary, former top CCP aide Bao Tong hit out at late supreme leader Mao Zedong for promising democratic governance when the CCP took power, then failing to deliver.

"It's a shame that that consummate showman Mao Zedong sang his siren song of democracy, but walked the road of fascist dictatorship instead," Bao wrote. "We, the Chinese people, should watch closely to see whether Xi takes the road to democracy indicated by Mao's brain, or the path to tyranny he followed with his feet."

Corr, who welcomed Biden's democracy summit as a necessity for democracies to defend themselves, said Xi's plan to "improve" democratic participation via the People's Congresses was essentially an attempt to confuse people.

"The National People's Congress (NPC) is a rubber stamp photo op," he said. "The concept of democracy is clearly very powerful and very popular around the world, so if Xi Jinping and the CCP go directly against [it], they will lose popularity both at home and abroad."

"If they claim that they are a different form of democracy, a better form of democracy, then they can essentially confuse people," Corr said. "The CCP is grasping at anything it can, ideologically, to justify its own existence."

Undermining actual democracies
The U.S. State Department warned in its statement on the summit that while democracies face the loss of public trust and the rise of populist governments internally, "authoritarian leaders are reaching across borders to undermine democracies – from targeting journalists and human rights defenders to meddling in elections all while claiming their model is better at delivering for people."

"Hostile actors exacerbate these trends by increasingly manipulating digital information and spreading disinformation to weaken democratic cohesion," it said.

Li Xiaobing, director of the West Pacific Studies Center at University of Oklahoma, said Biden's summit, slated for Dec. 9-10, represents a change in attitude to China, and to the threat posed by the CCP's global political and military ambitions.

"Now Biden is saying that ... the most important thing is to reaffirm democracy, which is a huge sore point for China, because it's tantamount to saying that it should engage in political reforms, put an end to one-party rule and set up a multi-party system," Li said.

"That is anathema to Beijing."

He said the CCP will never willingly let go of its position in a top-down political structure in which everyone does as they are told.

"Only people who toe the party line are allowed to stand in elections or win promotion; those who don't are denounced and punished," Li said.

Bill Bishop, who runs the online news site Sinocism, agreed.

"They have this process [to elect People's Congress representatives], but again, you're choosing people who've already been picked for you," he said.

"It's all about redefining and undermining the existing norms and the existing definitions," Bishop said. "It's all about taking control of ... the narrative power."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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