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Beijing and Moscow unite in efforts to redefine democracy itself

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Wednesday in Moscow in June 2019.
Mikhail Svetlov
Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace on Wednesday in Moscow in June 2019.

The world scarcely needed another ominous portent just now, but the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing surely provided one with chilling global implications.

Officials of the U.S. and a number of its democratic allies are boycotting these games in protest of Beijing's human rights record, including policies that minority Muslim Uyghurs in China regard as genocide.

But there in Beijing, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the games began, was Russian President Vladimir Putin in a grinning show of solidarity and simpatico. As former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor put it on CNN, "here are the [world's] two largest autocrats, apparently in sync."

Both have been at the top of their national power hierarchies for a decade or more (Putin's pre-eminence having begun in the 1990s) with no end in sight. Their authoritarian, one-party governments dominate public life in their immense, populous and nuclear-armed states. Both are currently using their expansive conventional militaries to pressure and threaten neighboring countries that have democratic governments.

In fact, if these winter games were being held in Russia, the U.S. and its allies would presumably still be boycotting them over the Russian forces that are now menacing Ukraine and its democratically elected government.

In their joint statement issued Friday, China supported Russia in rejecting any expansion of NATO, which Russia says is the issue it is pursuing with its armored divisions massed on its borders with Ukraine. For its part, Russia backed the Chinese version of the origins of COVID and the Chinese claim of sovereignty over the independent democracy on the island of Taiwan.

And in a pointed message to their international critics, the two autocrats declared it was only up to their own people "to decide whether their state is a democratic one."

Long-standing grievances

Both Moscow and Beijing have long chafed at criticisms of their authoritarian power arrangements by the U.S. and other nations. Both prefer to portray their countries as democracies – or as political systems with as much claim to the term democracy as those of the U.S. or its allies.

To that end, anticipating Olympic games they knew the U.S. and allies would boycott, the Chinese government in December released a 23-page "white paper" titled China: Democracy that Works.

In it, the unnamed authors argue that democracy "takes many forms and has many models" and that the ultimate criterion for judging a democracy was simply "whether it produced results."

They add that defining democracy according to just one model was, in itself, an anti-democratic notion: Why not let the people of each nation decide what was democratic for them?

In China, the white paper said, "the people" would always be "the masters of their country," because that was the commitment made to them by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the nation's ultimate repository of political power. The paper argues that one-party government is, in essence, democratic so long as it serves the higher goal of making the people the "masters of their country."

Taking that a bit further, the document asserts: "The CPC is committed to doing everything for the people and relying on them, and follows the principle of 'from the people, to the people.' It maintains close ties to the people and pools their wisdom and strength."

When and how do the people decide?

A critic might suggest testing that assertion in an election where the people had the chance to embrace or oust or modify the CPC. But the Foreign Ministry document argues that is not needed because the proof is in the results – the achievement of goals.

"Blind allegiance to one copycat version of (Western) democracy has caused great pain to the people," the document argues, suggesting the Chinese people wanted something different, something more effective (a term that appears eight times in the document).

Achievement and results are what matters, not the method for getting there.

As to considerations of method, the paper details the role of other, subordinate parties, as well as the conduct of thousands of elections at the local and regional level. But the also makes abundantly clear that these other parties operate – and meaningful elections are conducted — under the "supervision" of the CPC.

And the CPC remains the only party that can hold power. Xi is described in the white paper as being "at the core" of the CPC. He has been the party's premier figure since 2012 and officially president of the People's Republic of China since 2013. He is sometimes described as "the chairman of everything."

The paper described what it called "whole-process people's democracy," meaning a government devoted to the interests of the general public after the election and not just as a means of winning votes to gain power in the first place. Because the process is supervised throughout by the CPC, there can be not only smooth transitions but dependable results. And results, the paper argued, should be the true test – not only of what is effective government but of what is a superior democracy.

The document notes that China endured three decades of civil war and frequent famine from 1919 to 1949, including eight years resisting Japanese invaders, before the CPC under Mao Zedong took control. It then argues that the progress made in the seven decades since, described as "comprehensive socialist modernization," amounts not to a rejection of democracy but a redefinition of it — an improvement on the Western model.

"China has achieved considerable progress in developing democracy. To meet the new requirements of modernization and the people's new expectations for democracy, China still needs to make further improvements."

And the paper promises that "the CPC will continue to uphold this model of a people's democracy, embrace its people-centered development philosophy, promote whole-process people's democracy, ensure the sound development of democracy and pursue well-rounded human development and common prosperity for everyone.

Roots in a view of history

This effort is couched in a historical overview that argues democracy was an idea discussed by Chinese thinkers "thousands of years ago," but not achievable in the subsequent centuries of feudalism and dynastic rule. The document argues that in more recent centuries, when democracy was taking root elsewhere in the world, China was held back by European colonial powers that wished to exploit its people and resources.

A cartoon in China's state-run Xinhua news agency criticizes the money in the U.S. political system.
/ Xinhua
A cartoon in China's state-run Xinhua news agency criticizes the money in the U.S. political system.

Therefore, the paper concludes, given that the economies and societies of China (and many other countries) did not develop according to western models, it is to be expected that they would find their own path in their political system and develop "a new model of Democracy."

A second cartoon from Xinhua, the news agency of a country with one political party, mocks what it sees as the problems of a two-party system.
/ Xinhua
A second cartoon from Xinhua, the news agency of a country with one political party, mocks what it sees as the problems of a two-party system.

The superiority of this new model can be seen, according to the white paper, in the failings of the current U.S. and its allies to deal with COVID. The Chinese boast that their "zero-COVID policy" has kept the number of fatal cases remarkably low (reportedly in the single digit thousands or three deaths for every million people in the country).

But the current pandemic is just one example cited in the paper, which also says Western democracies have been guilty of "excessive democracy" in some cases or of "democracy deficit" or "fading democracy" in others.

Sharp criticism for the U.S.

A third cartoon on the state-run service mocks U.S. political gridlock.
/ Xinhua
A third cartoon on the state-run service mocks U.S. political gridlock.

The U.S. comes in for particularly sharp comment as the paper makes three indictments against American democracy. First, the U.S. model is now entirely driven by money that dominates elections and all the processes of government that follow. The accompanying artwork shows a rather grey-looking Uncle Sam bearing an armload of sickly green $100 bills.

Second, the paper says the U.S. model of democracy empowers the elite, the wealthy and well-educated who dominate both political parties and then use the parties to dominate the common people and subordinate their needs. Here, the cartoon that accompanies shows the letters WASP emblazoned on the dome of the U.S. Capitol, with "white" and "Anglo-Saxon" and "Protestant" spelled out in the windows and columns below.

Third, the paper says that when two nominally different parties divide the offices of political power they devote themselves to frustrating each other. This results in a "vetocracy" where Democrats block (or "veto") everything Republicans want to do and vice versa. Accordingly, nothing gets done. The results are failure and futility. The people are the poorer for it.

Many American critics of the current U.S. democracy – in both parties and outside of them — might agree at least in part with some of these sentiments. But they would probably propose a cure composed of their own favored reforms rather than a one-party system with a single ruler "at the core" of that one party.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.