Chinese Democracy: An irony and a mockery of democratic principles

Chinese president xi jinping china

In the wake of recent developments in international economic and political relations, it can be undoubtedly said that China stands as the beacon of anti-democracy and a leader for autocratic regimes. Ranging from supporting self-appointed leaders in countries like Syria[1], close ties with Russia, supporting autocratic regimes worldwide, and undermining democratic institutions in developing nations, China is not leaving a single stone unturned to corrode democracy globally. Despite all these obvious efforts, it is ironic that China calls itself a democracy, amusingly, often better than democracies like the USA. Contrary to what scholars like Jason Brownlee call China’s strategy as “democracy prevention”, the world is rather seeing an emergence of the strategy of “democracy misappropriation”[2].

CCP, with the promotion of “democracy with Chinese characteristics,” is promoting a deceptive way to alter the discourse on democratic theory globally, contaminating it and seeking legitimacy for its model of “democracy of convenience”. China’s attempts to redefine and frame itself as a true democracy globally[3][4] are no better than building the Ship of Theseus, changing, rather crushing, all tenets of democracy and still calling it so.

Before identifying itself as a new and acceptable variant of democracy, China has many qualifiers to check. To begin with, China has to stop repressing Hong Kong and crumbling its pluralism, which it has been unleashing on the territory since its takeover two decades back. Beijing is crushing dissenters and democracy activists in Hong Kong, eroding its freedom and autonomy, and promoting Chinese propaganda in school curricula[5]. As per the national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong in 2020, any form of dissent is criminalized. Moreover, it takes a very arbitrary definition for crimes such as terrorism, subversion, secession, and collusion with foreign powers. This intolerance toward dissent is rampant across China and has only got worse over time.  Again, democracy sans dissent is not a true democracy. Suppressing dissent and right to organize and protest is very much in tandem with the core values of democracy. Moreover, democracy stands for pluralism and the protection of the rights of minorities. Thus, it requires China to mend its ways around excessive human rights violations, particularly against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority, who are kept in the “re-education camp” by CCP. In line with the ideals of democracy, it has to end the unfettered “digital authoritarianism” observed in China. The Chinese people constantly live under Bentham’s Panopticon, where everything is tracked, controlled, and censored. Raising your voice is not an option; loyalty to CCP is the only way to thrive. If one wants to protest, it has to be in a cordial manner, which pleases the Party. Rallies, protests, and press freedom are fables in China, or in case they happen, they are considered a bold act, threatening the CCP’s monopoly. As a result, Beijing’s policies are exploitative and opaque in every sphere, whether it is information dissemination, environmental degradation, investment in infrastructure, or human rights violations. Lastly, and most importantly, to call itself a democracy, China has to conduct free and fair elections. Challenging the democracy of the West, a speech delivered by the Chinese foreign affairs minister[6] mentioned that democracy does not need a "teacher", the people know best whether it is good or not”. Contrary to the showy democracy elsewhere, he called China a democracy based on majority, or “whole-process people's democracy.  However, what he means by whole-process people's democracy is something only China can decipher well. Given the mounting evidence against China, it is the farthest thing from democracy. In the context of this speech, the question posed by Ashutosh Varshney[7], an esteemed political scientist, takes the center stage: Can we have a democracy without elections? Though the minister did boast about elections at the grassroots level, however, that is it. The political system doesn’t provide any scope of people’s participation in elections for the leaders ruling the center or provincial capitals are absent. Thus, China owes an answer to the global community on how it qualifies as a democracy, given that its government is blatantly disregarding all of its tenets.

China's absurd claim to call itself a democracy is rather an attempt to undermine democracy worldwide. Moreover, China has been doing so systematically by building its allies in Africa, gradually increasing its economic presence in their territory, and consequently eroding the economic independence of many developing countries. As per a study by the International Republican Institute[8], China is creating economic situations, using its debt-induced investment policies, that these economies with fragile democracies become increasingly dependent on Chinese aid. This strategy provides Beijing with a firm ground to dismantle the democratic institutions. The debt-diplomacy is a part of, rather, a bigger ideological war between China and the West, or between authoritarianism and democracy. Moreover, by supporting a rank of illiberal and autocrats in fragile democracies, Beijing intends to suppress the rising global conscience against authoritarianism in the long term. Thus, China is emerging as an exporter of skewed political theories and anti-democratic norms and institutions in developing countries. Beijing is using its power increasingly to attack all the economic and political tenets of modern democracy: Free markets, rule of law, freedom of speech and expression. CCP is constantly interfering in the political and electoral processes of African nations like Senegal and Zambia, actively promoting the CCP-style governance and ensuring political and electoral outcomes favorable to Beijing. Such scenarios, in the future, have a high possibility of leading to the installation of puppet governments in these fragile democracies by China and promoting an authoritarian political system[9].

Expanding the definition of a concept is one thing; misappropriating and making it inconsistent with its core principles is another. Democratic theory tells us that a well-functioning democracy has three main principles: Popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality. Resultantly, these principles manifest as deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity[10]. Undoubtedly, the culture of deliberation doesn’t exist in China, as the Communist Party likes no voice but those who support it unquestioningly. Dissent is considered dangerous in the Chinese democracy. Moreover, the past few episodes of human rights violations in China have made its stand on tolerance to pluralism and democratic reciprocity quite clear.

We don’t live in a world with perfect democracies. Political systems of democratic nations are still in the process of democratizing themselves as much as possible, learning over time. However, destroying a sincere discourse on democracy through false narratives and propaganda, and exporting it across borders, modeling it as “true and majority driven” is fraudulent, a mockery of people’s rule.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/04/11/why-does-china-pretend-to-be-a-democracy/

[2] https://www.aei.org/articles/chinas-threat-to-global-democracy/

[3] https://thediplomat.com/2021/12/why-is-china-insisting-it-is-a-democracy/

[4] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/the-democracy-debate-in-china/

[5] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/hong-kong-freedoms-democracy-protests-china-crackdown

[6] https://www.guancha.cn/leyucheng/2021_12_03_617119.shtml

[7] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/ashutosh-varshney-writes-in-china-the-challenge-of-democracy-without-elections-8945690/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/06/27/chinas-efforts-undermine-democracy-are-expanding-worldwide/

[9] https://democracyinafrica.org/does-chinas-involvement-in-african-elections-and-politics-hurt-democracy/

[10] https://blog.oup.com/2017/09/three-principles-democracy-excerpt/

Xi Lao is a freelance journalist based in Taiwan.

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