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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory

April 10, 2021

Chinese-style Democracy

In a context of a general lack of knowledge about China in Latin America, it is not only that there is no such thing as a Chinese-style democracy; it is that it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese model is better just because it may be more effective. Democratic systems are neither infallible nor perfect because they’re based on freedom, checks and balances, rule of law, participation, transparency and human rights. And China's effectiveness stems precisely from the absence of all these attributes.
By Juan Pablo Cardenal

Democracia al estilo chino

The public spat between the United States and China at the recent bilateral summit held in Alaska, clearly showed that future relations between the two world powers will not only be very difficult, but could also escalate dangerously. This situation has been percieved as inevitable for years, given that China, emboldened by its economic power and self-confidence, rejects any scrutiny on issues that other countries might consider to be of their concern, but that Peking claims to be “internal affairs”: from its trade practices and cyber espionage to human rights and national security, among others.

The fact that this disagreement unfolded at the first meeting between the two countries since the Biden administration took office, only shows that President Biden won’t be able to avoid the underlying issue with China raised by his predecessor. Although one can object the manners, but the essence of what Trump put on the table, namely that there are structural problems in China's relationship with the rest of the world, is something that dates way back and is shared by governments, institutions and political, economic and social entities across the planet. And this perception, even more so in a context prone to the idea that the global spread of Covid-19 was due to Beijing's cover-up, is not going to disappear easily.

The Anchorage summit clearly displayed this discord, given that the United States hadn’t criticized Beijing so explicitly, convincingly, and publicly for human rights violations since before the 2008 financial crisis. Although human rights have traditionally been a weak link of the Chinese regime, at the end of Clinton’s term Washington decided to separate the matter from the trade relationship, leaving it largely unattended or off the agenda. With this and many other concessions over the past four decades, the US and the rest of the developed world contributed decisively to the strengthening of present-day China.

It is therefore not surprising that the communist delegation did not hesitate to present in Alaska the credentials of their authoritarian model. They went much further than staging a moral equivalence of the Chinese political system with democracies. In a harsh tone, they questioned the human rights situation in the U.S. and the health of American democracy itself, while reproaching Washington for its use of military force, its international financial hegemony, or for setting itself up - with the rest of the Western bloc - as the representative of the global order. "Many people in the United States have little confidence in their democracy", they observed; on the contrary, the Communist Party has "broad support from the Chinese people", they assessed.

Cumbre de Anchorage - Alaska

A complete amendment of Western democracies and a full-throated defense of a Chinese model that communist diplomats had no qualms in presenting as a "Chinese-style democracy", an obvious linguistic perversion that China’s state propaganda tries to disseminate and normalize. In fact, the official Chinese narrative has abandoned the ideological discretion it had in the past and insists, with increasing frequency, on the superiority of the Chinese model over democracies. This narrative is most apparent in China’s management of the pandemic, the alleged eradication of poverty in China and, in retrospect, the transition from Maoism to becoming the world's second economic power. All this is underpinned with a discourse by comparison to the Western disarray during the pandemic.

As a matter of fact, the preliminary findings of a study of disinformation and propaganda in the Spanish editions of Chinese state media, which is undertaken by Global Americans and CADAL, sheds light on how China takes advantage of the development of its own Covid-19 vaccine and its perceived economic success. These advances not only fuel the narrative of China as an emergent scientific and technological power but are also used to present China’s autocratic system as a suitable development model for the developing world. The analysis of content and terminology of a representative selection of articles reveals Beijing's efforts to disseminate a recognizable and seductive narrative adapted to Latin American audiences.

For instance, mentions of Chinese vaccines are often accompanied by positive wording, associating them with words such as efficacy, safety, contribution, responsibility, leadership or public good. In contrast, Western vaccines are linked to negative words such as death, disease, problem, adverse reaction, side effects, hoarding, nationalism, or delay, which then lead to suspicions about their efficacy and safety. However, these associations serve yet another purpose: based on this propaganda, the Chinese media deploy an ideological discourse to mislead the developing world.

Xi Jinping - VaccinesIt is a discourse wrapped in a perfectly calculated and diplomatically charged rhetoric of cooperation. Terms like friendship, aid, generosity, multilateralism, donation, responsibility or commitment, and government slogans like health community, a shared future for humanity and mutual respect are also part of the official storytelling. This way, the Chinese regime poses as a faithful ally for Latin America and as leader of the developing world in the face of western hegemony, for which it exhibits the supposed superiority of its model to address current and future challenges. A model that Xi Jinping believes "opens a new path for the modernization of other developing countries".

One single example is enough to dismantle the official Chinese narrative. Last October, China announced joining the COVAX program, which aims at a fair and equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. While presenting this step in the media as a milestone, that proved China’s responsibility, solidarity, and commitment, Chinese media omitted the fact that the government in Beijing resisted joining COVAX for months. When China reluctantly became a member, 165 countries had already signed up for it, including the bloc of European countries. A circumstance that, like so many others involving China, went largely unnoticed.

In a context of a general lack of knowledge about China in Latin America, the above should serve to make us wary of the "Chinese-style democracy" narrative disseminated by Chinese propaganda. It is not only that there is no such thing as a Chinese-style democracy; it is that it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese model is better just because it may be more effective. Democratic systems are neither infallible nor perfect because they’re based on freedom, checks and balances, rule of law, participation, transparency and human rights. And China's effectiveness stems precisely from the absence of all these attributes.

Translated by Dorothea Krueger.

Juan Pablo Cardenal
Juan Pablo Cardenal
Writer, journalist. Foreign correspondent in China for various Spanish newspapers between 2003 and 2014, focusing on China’s international expansion since 2009. Since then, he has done research on the consequences of China’s investments, infrastructure and loans in 40 different countries from 4 continents. The research resulted in books he co-authored, among them “La silenciosa conquista China” (2011) and “La imparable conquista de China” (2015), which were translated to 12 languages. Since 2016, he has directed research projects oriented to understanding China’s soft power and Beijing’s strategy to achieve political influence in Latin America. He has been a speaker in various international conferences and has published articles in El País, El Mundo, Clarín, The New York Times, Project Syndicate and the South China Morning Post. His last book is “La telaraña” (2020), on the internacional thread of political crisis in Catalunia.