Beijing derides Joe Biden’s summit and insists China is a great democracy

The Chinese government has launched a bitter public relations campaign targeting Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, arguing that the Communist nation also deserves recognition as one of the world’s great democracies.

In the run-up to the US president’s two-day summit, which opened in Washington on Thursday, Xi Jinping’s administration issued a flurry of white papers and seminars extolling the advantages of China’s political system and criticising America for trying to impose its democratic model on the rest of the world.

Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, accused the US of trying to “weaponise democracy, by openly convening this so-called Summit for Democracy to incite division and confrontation for geopolitical gains”.

Adding insult to injury in Beijing’s eyes, Biden’s guest list includes representatives of Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as part of its territory, and members of Hong Kong’s under-pressure pro-democracy movement.

“They are angry because the summit isolates China and undermines the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party,” said Yun Sun, a China foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. “It is not about Hong Kong or Taiwan [representation] per se, but something much deeper.”

The party’s supporters argue that democracy is ultimately more about ends than means, and point to the country’s success containing the Covid-19 pandemic and building infrastructure.

“China’s system works and is in line with China’s circumstances,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalization think-tank in Beijing.

“China has lucked out to have the system it has today because it treats chaos and instability as public enemies and maintains stability to develop the economy.”

China’s backers add that western democratic systems — and America’s in particular, with its emphasis on institutional checks and balances — often fail their citizens.

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator in Hong Kong, points to the changes in the territory’s Legislative Council since pro-democracy lawmakers resigned from the chamber en masse last year. The lawmakers had previously used their votes in the chamber to block many government bills.

“The opposition turned our legislature into a vetocracy,” Ip said. “They vetoed everything and opposed having anything to do with China. Being part of China, we cannot have a legislature that is opposed to our own country and holds up government business.”

While such arguments resonate within China, analysts have argued that the country’s lack of political and civil freedoms makes them harder to sell abroad.

“I don’t think people overseas are convinced,” said Sun. “What Beijing is playing with is the idea that democracy should not be defined by processes but by results in terms of governance. That might have its own internal logic but it is hard to convince others.”

Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat, agrees with Beijing’s supporters that “the idea that there’s only one trajectory for [democratic] political development is factually incorrect”.

But, he added: “I don’t think the Chinese version — no matter what you want to call it — is a very attractive one.”

China’s economy and population, Kausikan noted, was undergoing huge changes even as Xi was “eroding the party’s ability to adapt with his insistence on party and ideological discipline”.

“When your economy changes and your population changes, your political system has to evolve as well. That is one of the long-term questions I have about China,” he said.

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