In recent years, China has been following the adage that “he who controls the discourse controls the world” with increasing vigour. That is, the first side to describe a given phenomenon, with a new coinage emerging, determines global attitudes towards it. There are two nations, one on either side of the Pacific, the two main economies of the world. Both declare they have a constitutional republican system and respect for human rights. Yet, one is considered a model of democracy and an example to be followed, while the other is seen as an archaic authoritarian system built upon censorship and repression. We are, of course, talking about the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.
As recently as 15–20 years ago, it was generally accepted that the U.S. version of democracy was the model to aspire to, but this is no longer the case. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and the various reactions thereto around the world, Western journalists are increasingly giving in to the temptation to characterize this period of world history as a struggle between “democracy” (represented by the West, led by the United States, and “correct” non-Western countries such as Japan and Lithuania) and “authoritarianism” (China, Russia and the “enfants terrible of world politics” that joined them). One of the fallouts, therefore, is that there have been new turns to the discussion about whether China’s socio-political system can be called “democracy”.
Western observers are unanimous in their appraisal: “there’s no democracy in China.” However, the problem is that the very concept of “democracy” (a certain “power of the people”) is fluid. It is much like a “healthy lifestyle”—it is easy to assume that you are leading a healthy lifestyle, while your rival is not. How can you know for sure, though?
Even political analysis falls short. For instance, any researcher who was brought up in the Western paradigm of political science will argue that if there are no direct democratic elections and a separation of powers, this is no “democracy” but something entirely different. Neither exists in China, yet this does not stop Chinese scholars from proclaiming—with no hint of irony—that their country is indeed democratic, only in a distinctly Chinese way.
It is not only the definition of “democracy” that is fluid, so too is the genesis of democratic traditions. For example, it is generally accepted that the Western neo-liberal model can be traced back to the democratic practices of Ancient Greece and that the subsequent history of humankind is a single process of encouraging and improving such practices. However, what most people do not know is that democracy, even in Athens, was an expression of the oligarchic elite’s power at best, and this was done with the help of populism and appeals to the legitimacy of the “popular opinion.” A similar situation was the case with the Veche in medieval Veliky Novgorod. At the same time, proto-democratic procedures (for example, the election of chiefs among nomads or the self-government of agricultural communities in Ancient China) existed among all the peoples of the world in one form or another, and it is a mystery why some practices led to “good democracy,” while others led to “bad authoritarianism.”
Thus, when the Chinese talk about their own “thousand-year traditions of democracy,” they are not paltering with the truth, but sincerely believe it to be true. They call the political system they now have “democratic,” with China’s Constitution containing a reference to “a socialist state governed by the people’s democratic dictatorship, led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants.” Who said democracy was anything other than that? And who endowed someone with the right to decide what democracy is or is not?
It should be noted here that the term “democracy” has long been absent in the Chinese tradition. In fact, the word “minzhu” (民主, “the power of the people” or “the people are the masters”) was brought by Sun Yat-sen from Japan in the early 20th century. This was merely a re-rendering of the Japanese term “mingshu” (民主), which itself came from the Western notion of “power of the people.” The Hanzi and Kanji (which the Japanese originally adopted from China) are identical, but the wording first came from Japanese for a fact—much as the word “gongchanzhui,” 共产主义, meaning communism, as well as other “-zhui”-words (主义), which is something like the English “-ism”—and never appeared in classical Chinese texts.
On the one hand, the term “democracy” is borrowed, and so too is its understanding. On the other hand, the term has no historical base and can be filled with any content. Or, rather, its understanding can be corrected for the sake of political expediency or local conditions. And that is exactly what has happened to “democracy.”
In China, the term appeared on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution and the overthrow the Manchu-led Qing imperial dynasty. For Sun Yat-sen and his cohort, it was important that the “power of the people” (“minzhu”) was directly opposed to the “power of the sovereign” (“junzhu”, 君主). That is, any political system where the head of state is not the sole sovereign is seen as a democracy. Incidentally, Sun Yat-sen used the word “minquan” (民主, “sovereignty of the people”) in addition to “minzhu” (民主) to denote democracy, although most people consider these terms to be identical.
In any case, if we proceed from Sun Yat-sen’s understanding of democracy, we can say that a democratic state was founded in China in 1912, since power was seized by the party, and the party consists of the people and reflects the interests of the people. This is fundamentally different to the situation where power belonged to the Son of Heaven (the Emperor’s official title).
Of course, China’s political system of the 1910s to the 1940s—that is, before the Communist Party ascended to power—was far from the high standards of neoliberal democracy. If we were to put a label on it, we would say that it was a combination of the power of the oligarchy and generals, multiplied by the partocracy (the ruling Kuomintang party) and the cult of its leader Chiang Kai-shek. But this, of course, was also called “democracy.”
When the Communists came to power, Mao Zedong wanted to show that China would be a democracy—not the “bad” kind of democracy that reigned under Chiang Kai-shek, but a different, “new” kind of democracy. This “new democracy” (新民主), as it was called, was seen as a stopgap on the way to building a socialist society. It was still a single-party system (only it was a different party that was in power), and the position of leader (Mao Zedong) looked almost indistinguishable from that of emperor in the end.
The death of Mao Zedong was followed by a series of reforms that laid the foundation for the modern Chinese political system, where elections do take place, although the Party’s monopoly on power remains very much intact. The Chinese people define this phenomenon as “the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class” (a quote from the preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China). It is essentially a partocratic regime based on the one that once existed in the Soviet Union, only reimagined and improved.
One of the most striking features of China’s political system is the absence of the separation of powers. Officially, the only “state power” is the national people’s congresses—the institution through which the people exercise their power under the Constitution. People’s congresses are a multi-layered pyramid, at the very bottom of which direct and quite democratic elections are indeed held. What is more, the higher people’s congresses are made up of members of the lower ones, meaning that the pyramid works as one big filter. Thus, the people actually play an indirect role in the formation of the highest body of state power – the National People’s Congress (NPC).
It just so happens that most members of the people’s congresses at all levels are communists. While some opposition-minded figures may appear as if out of nowhere at the bottom of the pyramid from time to time, they will not make it past the multi-stage filter, and only proven and reliable people will end up in the NPC. The vast majority of these (although not all) are members of the Communist Party. It is only natural, therefore, that they act within the framework of party discipline and go along with decisions adopted by party congresses in the past.
The workings of this system are quite easy to trace if you look at key personnel decisions. For example, the party leadership for the next five years will be elected this autumn at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The new convocation of the NPC will convene somewhat later in March, where the President of the People’s Republic of China will be elected (or re-elected). Therefore, it would be logical to assume that it will be the General Secretary of the Central Committee elected (or re-elected) at the autumn Congress.
Other key appointments will be made in a similar fashion. For example, the second-highest person in the party hierarchy will become the head of government. Is that democratic? If you were to ask China’s idea-mongers, they would tell you that it most certainly is. The NPC is formed as a result of multi-stage elections. Theoretically, parties other than the CPC can compete for a parliamentary majority. But the main thing is that the Party represents the interests of the people, meaning that the power of the party is the “power of the people.”
Are Chinese people aware that their understanding of “democracy” is different from Western standards? Of course they are. Are they about the abandon their system in order to conform to Western standards? Of course not. What is more, Chinese politicians have been actively using the term “democracy” in their official rhetoric and stressing that democracy exists in China too. They do this in defiance of the West and its “monopoly on deciding where there is democracy and where it is absent.” China realizes that the West uses this monopoly to exert pressure on foreign policies of its opponents and seeks to demonopolize this function and achieve parity in the struggle for control over the information discourse at the very least.
This is most evident not in the concept of “democracy,” but rather in the concept of “human rights.” From a Western point of view, human rights are first and foremost the right of the individual to do or have something contrary to or regardless of the interests of society or the state. The classic liberal understanding of human rights is the triad of fundamental natural rights put forward by the British political philosopher John Locke, namely, the right to “life, liberty, and property” (the understanding is that the state was created to guarantee these rights, even though they may be contrary to the interests of the state).
For China, the very notion that the interests of the individual and the state may not coincide is inconceivable. The Western understanding of human rights thus not have any foundation. The Chinese concept of “human rights” (also absent in the traditional political and legal system) is also different. Human rights, as the Chinese understand the term (at least those I have had the chance to talk to), means, first of all, the right to food and a decent quality of life, and the state exists to ensure this. This implies that the highest interests of the state and the highest interests of the individual are one and the same.
Thus, as long as there is economic growth in the country and people are fed and clothed, the Chinese version of democracy and human rights will be supported by its people. And the idea that all the countries in the world will, as globalization marches forward, eventually adopt the Western socio-political system is no longer popular or seen as a given.
After the West emerged victorious from the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s and everyone wanted to be like the winners, it was the United States who perhaps had the moral right to say which countries were “democratic” and which were not, and everyone listened. What is more, both China and Russia sincerely wanted to become a part of the “global West.” But when it became clear that they would never occupy a place other than the periphery in this pro-Western global model, and that Western society had become a prisoner of its own agenda (poorly understood and not at all appealing for the “non-West”), people started to voice their criticism of the West’s monopoly on the right to play the role of arbiter.
Nowhere can these voices be heard louder than in Russia and China, and to some it may seem that they are singing this tune in unison. At the same time, the two countries have a number of differences and contradictions, and the Chinese political agenda is even less clear than the Western one. Thus, Russia and China should not be lumped together into some kind of “axis of authoritarianism,” not only because there is no military–political alliance between the two countries (this is just a formality), but also because the terms “democracy” and “authoritarianism” are little more than “labels” that rivals in the current political climate tag each other with in the struggle for control over the information discourse.
From our partner RIAC
Assad’s visit to China: Breaking diplomatic isolation and rebuilding Syria
The visit of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to China to participate in the opening of the Asian Games came as a serious step to try to break the diplomatic isolation from Syria. Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” was keen to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China, where the Asian Games are being held, as this was the Syrian president’s first visit to China since 2004. According to the Syrian regime’s Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Assad will attend the launch ceremony of the (nineteenth edition) of the Asian Games, which will open on September 23, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. This visit to Bashar al-Assad reflects the great coordination between Moscow and Beijing, as it is likely that the Russians pushed for this visit at this precise time. Perhaps, through his visit to China, Bashar al-Assad is trying to deliver a specific message about the start of “international legitimization” of his regime. Syria’s accession to the Belt and Road Initiative in January 2022 is an indication of the possibility of implementing vital Chinese projects, especially since it is located between Iraq and Turkey, making it a vital corridor for land routes towards Europe.
Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China also comes in an attempt to attract it to reconstruction projects in the affected areas in Syria, as China has the ability to complete reconstruction infrastructure in residential and civilian areas with exceptional speed. This is the same as what the Chinese ambassador to Syria “Shi Hongwei” announced in August 2023, that “Chinese companies are actively involved in reconstruction projects in Syria”. The war in Syria led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of many vital sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, while the Syrian government is subject to harsh international sanctions. We find that the Chinese side has shown great interest in the reconstruction projects in Surba, such as the presence of more than a thousand Chinese companies to participate in (the first trade exhibition on Syrian reconstruction projects in Beijing), while they pledged investments estimated at two billion dollars.
China played an active role through diplomatic movements in Syria, as it participated in the “Astana” process, and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its position in support of Damascus, using its veto power more than once in the Security Council, against resolutions considered to be a blow to Assad’s “legitimacy”. In September 2017, the Syrian regime classified China, along with Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would give priority to reconstruction projects. Therefore, Al-Assad affirmed during his meeting with Chinese President “Xi Jinping” that: “this visit is important in terms of its timing and circumstances, as a multipolar world is being formed today that will restore balance and stability to the world, and it is the duty of all of us to seize this moment for the sake of a bright and promising future”.
According to my analysis, China follows the policy of “breaking diplomatic isolation on presidents and countries against which America is angry”, so the visit of “Bashar al-Assad” comes within a series of visits that China witnessed during the current year in 2023, to presidents who are isolated internationally by the United States of America, such as: Venezuelan President “Nicolas Maduro”, the Iranian President ”Ibrahim Raisi”, and the Belarusian “Alexander Lukashenko”.
China is also keen to conduct interviews in its newspapers and official websites affiliated with the ruling Communist Party with many presidents and officials of countries isolated internationally and diplomatically by the United States of America and the West, such as the Chinese keenness to conduct and publish an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister “Faisal Mekdad” on September 21, 2023, and the Chinese reviewed his statements, saying that “the United States of America has plundered oil, natural gas, and other resources from Syria, causing losses worth $115 billion”. The Chinese newspaper “Global Times”, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, also focused on the United States’ greater role in the deterioration of “Syria from stability to chaos” . The Chinese newspaper compared this to China’s policy, which constantly calls for peaceful dialogue and opposes “foreign interference” .
Through his visit to China, Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” is trying to lay the foundations for joint cooperation between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, with full Chinese support for Syria’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. China has always affirmed its firm support for Syria’s efforts against foreign interference, with the Chinese rejection of the stationing of illegal forces on Syrian territory. China is also making great efforts with many countries to lift sanctions and the illegal economic blockade on the Syrian people, in addition to Chinese support for building Syrian capabilities in the field of combating terrorism. Knowing that despite its alliance with President “Bashar Al-Assad”, China did not participate in supporting him militarily, but it used the right of criticism to obstruct the passage of resolutions against him in the Security Council.
We can reach an important conclusion that Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China has a greater political track, and that Beijing is trying to play a greater role in the issue of resolving conflicts or to have a greater actual role in negotiations related to sensitive issues in the region. The implications of Assad’s visit to China are also politically significant, as China is trying to play a greater political role in the region, as China has been trying since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the emergence of a vacuum in the Middle East as a result of the decline of Russian influence due to its preoccupation with the war, so Beijing is trying to expand in the Middle East and Africa.
China’s Inclusive Diplomacy for Global Cooperation
President Xi Jinping’s address at the recently held 2023 CIFTIS resonates as a powerful call for inclusive development and cooperation in the services trade sector. China’s commitment to expanding market access, increasing connectivity, and aligning policies with global standards demonstrates its commitment to ensuring a level playing field for all nations.
This commitment extends across different sectors, including telecommunications, tourism, law, vocational examinations, and the larger services sector. President Xi’s address emphasized China’s intention to expand broader, broaden market access, and support inclusive development in the services trade sector. His sentiments resonate with the global world as China seeks to create new prospects for openness, cooperation, and economic equality.
Over the last few decades, the services trade landscape has changed drastically, becoming an essential component of international business. However, this expansion has not been uniform, with developing countries frequently encountering difficulties such as limited market access, complex rules, and capacity limits that prevent them from fully participating in international services trade.
Notably, China is committed to promoting inclusive growth in the services trade sector. It assured of taking continuing steps to accelerate Chinese modernization through high-quality development, to open up new avenues for openness and collaboration for all countries.
Through openness, cooperation, innovation, and shared services, China emphasized the need for inclusive growth and connectivity. Recognizing that a rising tide in services trade should raise all boats, particularly those from nations with limited resources, China has launched a series of ground-breaking initiatives. Additionally, China is actively expanding its network of high-standard free trade areas, participating in negotiations on the negative list for trade in services and investment.
China is setting an example by aligning its policies with international standards. President Xi highlighted in his speech that national integrated demonstration zones for increased openness in the services sector, suitable pilot free trade zones, and free trade ports will be at the forefront of aligning policies with high-standard international economic and trade regulations. These zones demonstrate China’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to international cooperation and growth.
Real-world examples vividly demonstrate the practical impact of China’s assistance to developing countries in the services trade. China’s investments in transport infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, have considerably facilitated the flow of goods and people in Kenya, boosting the services sector indirectly.
Pakistan’s experience with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is similar, with improved physical connectivity catalyzing the expansion of digital services and e-commerce. Various infrastructure developments in Indonesia have resulted in spectacular advances, opening up new potential for services trade.
Ethiopia, too, has reaped the benefits of China’s commitment, with active participation in industrial parks reviving the services sector, which includes logistics, banking, and education. These real-life success stories highlight China’s critical role in facilitating the expansion and development of services trade in developing countries.
China’s commitment to capacity building and technical aid is critical in its support for developing countries in the services trade. China provides these countries with the knowledge and skills they need to participate effectively in the services trade by offering specialized programs. Furthermore, China’s significant investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, logistical hubs, and telecommunications networks play an important role in facilitating the smooth flow of services.
Furthermore, China’s commitment to reducing entry barriers and optimizing regulations indicates the country’s persistent commitment to creating an equitable environment. This approach not only promotes equitable possibilities but also simplifies market access, making it easier for developing countries to export their services to China’s enormous and dynamic market.
Furthermore, China gives significant financial support in the form of loans and grants for service trade-related initiatives, recognizing the financial problems that many developing countries confront. This financial assistance enables nations to overcome economic challenges and invest in the expansion and improvement of their service sectors, thereby encouraging economic equality and cooperation.
As the world continues to evolve, services trade will play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, and China’s leadership in this realm is helping to shape a future where opportunities are shared, disparities are reduced, and cooperation knows no bounds. It is a vision worthy of appreciation and support since it is consistent with the ideals of justice and equality, moving the globe closer to a more linked and wealthy global community.
China’s Multilateral Engagement and Constructive Role in the G20
The recent G20 Summit in India has once again taken center stage, attracting global attention as it gathered together leaders and delegates from the world’s 20 most powerful economies. This high-profile event was significant in shaping international relations and addressing serious global concerns due to its broad presence and crucial talks. This high-stakes gathering occurs at a pivotal juncture, marked by escalating divisions among major powers on a multitude of pressing global issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic recovery, food security, and climate change.
The recent inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member within the G20 serves as a positive signal, signifying consensus among major economies. However, lurking concerns persist about the formidable challenges involved in achieving unity and issuing a joint declaration in the midst of these complex global dynamics.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s opening remarks at the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi resonate as he underscores the paramount importance of unity and collaboration among G20 member nations. He emphasizes the critical need for effective coordination of macroeconomic policies to restore hope and generate momentum for long-term economic growth.
Premier Li eloquently highlights the interconnectedness of humanity’s destiny and calls upon nations to demonstrate mutual respect, seek common ground while momentarily setting aside differences, and work tirelessly towards peaceful coexistence. In a world characterized by profound crises and shared hardships, he aptly observes that no nation can thrive in isolation. Therefore, the only plausible pathways for guiding humanity forward are those rooted in cooperation and harmony.
The G20, originally established to navigate global financial crises and forge collective strategies for addressing economic challenges while fostering global economic development, has, regrettably, experienced a decline in consensus and a rise in differences among major powers. This shift has been particularly evident since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the United States’ strategy of containment against China. Consequently, the G20 is increasingly devolving into a forum marked by discord, rather than the once-productive and constructive multilateral mechanism it was intended to be.
Nevertheless, the G20 retains its significance as a pivotal forum for international collaboration in confronting global challenges. With the increasing contributions of developing nations like China, India, and African countries, the voices within the G20 have diversified, no longer solely dominated by Western perspectives. As a response, the United States seeks to regain control of the multilateral process to further its agenda of great power competition. However, this approach is unlikely to be warmly received by the broader international community.
China remains steadfast in its commitment to deepen reforms and open up further to foster high-quality development and its unique brand of modernization. China views itself as a catalyst for additional momentum in global economic recovery and sustainable development. China stands ready to collaborate with all stakeholders to contribute to the well-being of our shared Earth, our common home, and the future of humanity. Despite Western media’s attempts to sensationalize China’s stance and magnify perceived differences, China continues to play a constructive role within the G20, dedicated to its multilateral mission.
To ensure that the G20 remains a platform focused on global governance rather than being overshadowed by geopolitical conflicts, China remains determined to fulfill its constructive role within the group, regardless of attempts by Western powers to politicize the mechanism. China’s efforts have expanded the G20 to include the African Union, effectively transforming it into the “G21.” China was the first nation to endorse African Union membership in the G20 and advocates for the African Union to assume an even more significant role in international governance.
The growing divisions and disputes within the G20 have eroded its effectiveness as a platform for addressing global challenges. These divisions, primarily driven by American actions and policies, have spawned tensions with far-reaching global implications, from the Ukraine crisis to escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. These developments underscore the critical role the G20 plays in promoting cooperation and unity.
Amid the current geopolitical landscape characterized by major powers’ divisions, tensions have surged, resonating globally and causing ripple effects. From the Ukraine crisis to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the significance of the G20’s role in fostering cooperation and unity cannot be overstated.
All G20 member nations must recognize the urgent imperative of cooperation in building a world that is safer, more prosperous, and increasingly peaceful. Given the global challenges that transcend narrow national interests, effective responses can only be crafted through international cooperation. The G20 stands as a pivotal arena for this cooperation, with China’s positive contribution being indispensable in promoting cohesion.
Despite Western media’s efforts to sensationalize China’s position and magnify perceived gaps, China remains a committed multilateral partner within the G20, dedicated to constructive engagement. The G20 continues to serve as a critical platform for addressing global concerns, fostering unity, and promoting international collaboration. As the world grapples with intricate issues, it remains imperative that nations adhere to the principles of multilateralism and collaborate relentlessly to secure a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.
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