On the issue of democracy

On August 20th, 2021, while answering one of the questions during the press conference, the official Spokesperson of the People’s Republic of China, Hua Chunying, expressed an interesting idea: “What is democracy? Who gets to define it? How to judge whether a country is democratic? These rights should not be monopolized by the US and its few allies.” According to the speaker, Afghanistan has become an example of the fact that an imposed or transplanted democracy doesn`t last long, and now the whole world is watching the consequences.

All of it suggests the following idea – what is democracy? And who actually has the right to decide what democracy is?

The origins of democracy, at least from the linguistic perspectives, are coming from the ancient Greek language, and the word itself consists of two parts: “δήμος” (demos), which is frequently used in a meaning of “people living on a certain territory”, and “κράτος” (kratos), what means “force, power”. And if in case with “kratos” everything is clear, “demos” keeps raising questions that many linguists want to answer. It is worth mentioning the fact that in many sources “demos” is translated as “people”, what is not quite correct because it also has a meaning of “territory, country, region”, and “free  people with civil rights” (different from foreigners and slaves). At the same time the meaning of “people” can also be found at three other Greek words: “λαος” (laos) – “people”, “οχλος” (ochlos) – “people (as crowd)”, “εθνος” (ethnos) – “people (as nation)”. According to Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, at that time “only male citizens who were older than 18 were a part of the demos.”

Moving from Ancient Greece towards modern times, it is worth paying attention to such document as “Magna Carta” (the Great Charter), created in England in 1215. It is considered to be one of the first documents which recorded some provisions of democracy – thus reflecting democratic values. However, it didn`t use the term “democracy”. It is noteworthy that the Constitution of the US had partially taken from Magna Carta, and many US officials mentioned the importance of this document. “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history… It was written in Magna Carta,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his inauguration speech in 1941. On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, the US President Barack Obama made a speech and stated that “the ideals of the Magna Carta inspired America’s forefathers to define and protect many of the rights expressed in our founding documents, which we continue to cherish today.”

As a result, it is clear that democracy as a defined term belongs to the West. That is why it is not surprising that it is the West who is trying to impose it on the others – by following its own vision and interpretation. What is not only incorrect, but can also lead to a tragedy – as the example of Afghanistan is demonstrating now.

Main states of the East and the West were formed without having any points of intersection, what is explained by geography and technical development progress of the past. Thus, their political systems were evolving in accordance with local peculiarities, so it fits in the logic that what was normal for the West, wasn`t always fitting in the Eastern worldview – and vice versa. As the Spokesperson of the PRC rightly noted: “<…> cold milk on a daily basis doesn’t agree with a Chinese stomach and chopsticks are not often used by Americans. A meal of hamburger or steak with fork and knife is not the only way to get one well fed.”

So is democracy.

Everybody knows that there are numerous definitions and interpretations of a term “democracy” which differ from each other, but again – they all are based on ideas and theories developed by the Western world, what leads to a logical question: is there an Asian definition of democracy? South American, Asia-Pacific, African? And if it exists, is it similar or different to the Western understanding, and to what extent? Yes, the Western interpretation was developed earlier, but it doesn`t mean that this interpretation is the sole possessor of the ultimate truth, because even it in its turn is based on the works of the ancient Greek scholars, who lived centuries ago in absolutely different environment and worked under completely different circumstances. That is why it is possible that there are other definitions which due to some reasons didn`t get much attention and that is why a few people know about their existence. So why now, at the age of globalization and strengthened interconnections, states are following what is being imposed on them by one country which itself is not a full democracy?

An interesting fact: the USA – the main “fighter” for democracy – is not a full, but a partial (flawed) democracy. According to the research on the democracy index, conducted by Economist Intelligence Unit, the USA ended up on the 25th place out of 167, with the result 7.92/10, while Norway – the top-1 – had 9.81/10.  But at the same time Norway (and also Iceland and Sweden, who occupy 2nd and 3rd place correspondently), were not spotted in any conflicts and try to adhere to neutrality, while the USA doesn`t leave the news pages covering events in the world.

The world is constantly developing, and the states are members of the international society, whether they want it or not. Nobody stays isolated even if they want to because it is just impossible. That is why interpretation and vision of political regimes is extremely important for maintaining stability in the international society. At the period of political tensions a careless expression towards another party, what can also be attributed to the accusation of being “non-democratic”, can result in a confrontation which will definitely affect the others. Saying that, maybe it is worth defining what is democracy after all? And what is the most important, to give a definition which won`t be a one-sided point of view, suiting only a certain group.

Otherwise, the whole world will go on living with a question – “does our country need your democracy?”

Anna Kolotova
Anna Kolotova
PhD in International Relations in Jilin University, China, postdoctoral fellow in Global Engagement Academy, Shandong University (Weihai), China. Contact: kolotov711[at]rambler.ru