The U.S. hosted the virtual "Summit for Democracy" on December 9-10. It is a striking irony that it occurred shortly after the U.S. chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which it invaded basically to establish "democracy" and eliminate terrorism.
Bombings of Yugoslavia, military intervention in Iraq and Libya, "democratic transformation" and "color revolutions" worldwide, triggered by the U.S., did not result in stability or prosperity, but all ended in turbulence, wars, humanitarian disasters and refugee crises, sowing the seeds of death and destruction, leaving nothing of value behind.
This political show depended on a purely American categorization. The Russian Foreign Ministry pointed out that it demonstrated how the U.S. prefers to create new dividing lines. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Thailand Don Pramudwinai said the gathering was a token of political manipulation stemming purely from political purposes. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto pointed out that it bore features of U.S. domestic politics.
Media outlets in the Middle East, including those across Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, called the event an American tool to meddle in other countries' internal affairs and maintain its hegemony.
All these showed how unpopular this self-choreographed play proved, and how much opposition the international community features.
To convene such a meeting against the backdrop of many problems in Western democracies is ironic. The intention is nothing but bashing countries that were denied participation, instigating ideological confrontation, and preventing the shaping of a global polycentric architecture; a complete distortion of democracy.
In the name of democracy
In fact, the idea of controlling the world under the pretext of "democracy" has been frequently used by U.S. presidents to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
President Woodrow Wilson declared that the U.S. would enter World War I in the name of making the world safer for democracy. The administration of President Jimmy Carter proclaimed to human rights and democracy as a determinant of American foreign policy. In 1983, the Ronald Reagan administration established the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to provide technical and material assistance to democracy programs abroad as well as the National Endowment for Democracy, which sought to support "democratic trends" in both communist and non-communist countries. The main objective there was not to establish the values of democracy, but to confront the communist bloc and its international influence.
President Bill Clinton spoke about what he called "democratic expansion" in 1993, and this principle resulted in the emergence of three documents under the name of National Security Strategy for Intervention and Expansion in 1994, 1995 and 1996. This strategy was based on aggressive intervention in all parts of the world in the name of "democratic expansion" as a mechanism to win more market space.
In conclusion, the U.S. has used "democracy" to serve its own interests. The attempt to take the American model as the main criterion, to forcibly transplant and impose it onto the whole world, only intended to provoke tension between different political systems and ideologies. This is further evidenced by the double standards in dealing with the values of democracy, human rights violations and corruption, which are condemned in countries that are treated as U.S. enemies, but overlooked in countries that are U.S. allies.
The real question
One year after U.S. President Joe Biden's inauguration, the world is becoming increasingly aware that his administration is trying to have something for everyone.
For balance of power realists, it has countered China by working closely with other members of the Quad alignment—Australia, Japan and India, and creating a new Australia-UK-U.S. nexus via the clumsily handled AUKUS submarine deal.
For liberal internationalists, it has re-engaged with global institutions, rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
For those advocating "restraint" in America's military might, it has ended the "forever Afghanistan wars."
And to appease democracy and human rights activists, it hosted the recent virtual meeting.
But the real question is: Are American interests determined by its position on other countries' democratic models?
In 2020, the integrity of the American elections was pulled into question, when there were unprecedented doubts that the president who lost the race in November 2020 would peacefully leave the White House. For the first time in U.S. history, armed groups occupied Capitol while groups on the other side called for the police to be defunded. This has laid bare the myth of the U.S. democracy.
The flaws in the American electoral system are self-evident. The rampant use of gerrymandering has manipulated the division of constituencies and compromised fairness and justice. The electoral democracy is actually ruled by capital and it is the game of the wealthy. The public is wooed when their votes are wanted, but gets ignored once the votes have been counted. The check-and-balance system has become a "vetocracy," with partisan interests put above national development. The vehement exchange of insults between Democrats and Republicans clearly indicates that U.S. democracy is seriously ill.
The U.S. has been politically polarized, socially fractured, and its democracy has increasingly been hollowing out, leaving its people increasingly disgruntled. The fact that 50 million people have been infected with and 800,000 died of COVID-19 indicates that its democracy brings only disaster in the ongoing epidemic response.
The yardstick of democracy
This "summit" attempts to fuse a vague notion of liberalism, as defined by general qualities of equality, tolerance and justice, with democratic procedures of rotation based on the principle of majority rule. But what has been at least missed out is: the principles of efficacy, the ability to compete successfully in economic and social development, and a degree of equilibrium of a governing system to ensure that majority rule does not turn into the tyranny of the majority.
No two leaves in the world are completely the same. Democracy is not mass produced with a uniform model or configuration for countries around the world. Even the Western forms of democracy are not identical. The American democracy began as a democracy of slave owners and an elite minority that only gradually expanded to realize the principle of "One Person, One Vote."
It is in itself undemocratic to use a single yardstick to measure the varied political systems and examine the diverse political civilizations of humanity from a monotonous perspective. Democracy is a common value shared by all humanity. It is a right for the people of all nations, not a prerogative reserved to a few. No country is entitled to monopolizing the right to define what democracy is or isn't. No country has the right to have other countries copy one's political system through "color revolutions," regime changes and even use of force.
The key criterion for whether a country is democratic or not is: whether its people are truly the masters of their own fate, whether their needs are met, and whether they have a sense of fulfillment and happiness. Ultimately, it relies on the support of the people and will be proven by its contribution to human progress.
Democracy is not only a way of domestic governance, but also a principle in global governance. In this globalized era, democratic governance is by no means about creating a small yard with high fences, decoupling or cutting off supply chains. Nor is it about pursuing protectionism or confrontation through alliance. Rather, democratic governance should aim to uphold free trade, strengthen connectivity, seek mutual benefit and win-win results, and make globalization fairer, more equitable, and beneficial to all.
The world needs to advocate the spirit of democracy in state-to-state interactions, promote correct approaches such as respect for sovereignty, equal-footed consultation, solidarity and cooperation, and make unremitting efforts for greater democracy in international relations.
Forming small groups and circles in the name of democracy tramples on the spirit of democracy. The world should oppose acts that undermine sovereignty or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries under the pretext of democracy or human rights.
A failed confrontation
The "summit" clearly has the purpose of creating an ideological instrument to be wielded against China. However, this attempt ignores the fact that China offers an alternative to the Western model for development, which is currently facing more challenges from within than from abroad. Branding the world's second largest economy as authoritarian or autocratic cannot explain the progress that has lifted it to world leadership status. In a country of over 1.4 billion people, 4.2 times that of the U.S., it is impossible to mobilize resources on the scale that China has through an authoritarian system.
What China has, is an extensive, whole-process people's democracy. It integrates process-oriented with results-oriented democracy, procedural with substantive democracy, direct with indirect democracy, and people's democracy with the will of the state. It is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society to ensure people's full participation not only in voting, but also in national governance, and in exercising state power through the National People's Congress and local people's congresses at different levels.
The idea of putting people first has featured in Chinese culture since ancient times. The Communist Party of China (CPC) was established with the mission to pursue wellbeing for all. With the slogans of anti-dictatorship, anti-autocracy and anti-oppression, it enabled the people to become masters of their own country. As the governing party, it has remained faithful to its original aspiration and founding mission: people-centered and serving the people wholeheartedly.
The system of multiparty cooperation and political consultations under the CPC leadership, a broad patriotic united front, the system of regional autonomy and the system of community-level self-governance are important parts of China's whole-process democracy. China also bears a unique political consultation system and corresponding institutions, which are important ways for the people to exercise democracy. Any matters that concern people's keen interests are broadly discussed to ensure that what they want is reflected in the final decisions. Most of the problems and conflicts of interests will have been addressed and suggestions are accepted prior to the decision-making itself, rendering the implementation of the policies easier.
The State Council Information Office released a white paper with the title China: Democracy That Works in early December. Its philosophy is laid out in five chapters: Whole-Process People's Democracy Under CPC Leadership, A Sound Institutional Framework, Concrete and Pragmatic Practices, Democracy That Works and A New Model of Democracy. The general thrust of these chapters is a critique of the Western political and economic system as epitomized by the U.S., and a noble defense and elaboration of Chinese alternative, with details and examples on how the whole-process democracy works, why China can't copy the so-called Western model of democracy, and why China is confident and has the strength in expounding on its democracy.
China's democratic process may not be the same as the U.S. version, but it is a process that leads to the articulation and effective management of social concerns.
China's confidence in elaborating on its own democratic practices sprouts from its experiences in creating a moderately prosperous society, rapidly improving the wellbeing of Chinese people, eradicating absolute poverty, and successfully fighting COVID-19. China's political system has paved the way for remarkable and globally eye-catching social and economic achievements.
What the world needs
Our world is going through a pandemic and changes unseen in a century. How to properly perceive, practice, improve and develop democracy is indeed a "question of the century," a question that bears on the future of humankind.
In essence, humanity's tireless pursuit of democracy over thousands of years has been aimed to find better systems and political structures so that humanity could be free from war, hunger and poverty, have happy lives, and enjoy equity and justice.
The world needs to delve into and examine the state of democracy in the U.S. The U.S. also needs to do some soul-searching. It must demonstrate that its democracy can in fact represent and deliver results for its own people, and accept at least the possibility that other forms of government could be better. Beyond U.S. borders, the contest of democracy should be an open competition to see which governments can deliver more--materially, intellectually and culturally. One measurement might be which country does the most to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
Two decades of Biden's 50-odd years in the public eye were spent during the Cold War and a third during the 1990s with the U.S. as the only superpower in the world. However, the frameworks, paradigms and doctrines of that era simply no longer suffice to meet the challenges of the 21st century. A bolder thinking is required, a mindset that shifts away from states, puts people first, sees the world as a planet carrying 8 billion people rather than a constructed system of 195 countries, and builds a community with a shared future for humanity.
In the face of global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, terrorism and economic downturn, what the world needs is not a "Summit for Democracy" that incites division and confrontation, but efforts to uphold true multilateralism on the basis of the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, strengthen solidarity and cooperation, and jointly tackle common challenges.
While China further develops and refines democracy at home, it will uphold principles for more democratic international relations, and remain a builder of world peace, contributor to global development and defender of the international order. The true meaning and value of democracy will ultimately prevail and continue to be enriched.
(Print Edition Title: A Shift in Democracy)
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and an expert on international studies
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