No Mr. Xi, China is not a democracy

Everybody knows that China is not a democracy. It was no surprise when the 2022 Freedom in the World Index gave the communist country an overall score of 9 out of 100 and minus 2 out of forty on political rights. Naturally, such a country was excluded from Biden’s Summit for Democracy held on December 9-10, 2021 while Taiwan was invited. Surprisingly, this surprised China when the invitees list was made public and on December 4, China’s State Council Information Office published a “White Paper” titled “China: Democracy that Works”. It made loud claims that China is a democracy. The next day, China published another document, “The State of Democracy in the United States” that placed reliance on opinion poll data published by the US and other democracies to conclude that the US has no real democracy and its democracy is dysfunctional. This second document may have a ring of truth because no democracy is perfect, being always a work in progress. Yet, it is the claim of China being a democracy, which has been the subject of amused attention around the world. More than a decade ago, on October 26, 2011, Brook Larmer had written a piece “Where an Internet Joke is not Just a Joke” for the New York Times.

“No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software,” wrote Larmer. Today, that army is two million strong and the response time is a few seconds. The Great Wall of China, Mao’s Bamboo Curtain and Xi’s Great Internet Firewall are parts of a long exclusionary tradition in a country that has not been democratic even for a day in its millennia-long history. Amnesty International had called the last of these barriers “The Firewall of Shame”. In 2020, the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, had ranked China at 174 out of 179 countries on its Liberal Democracy Index. Let us see how the “White Paper” says that China is a democracy.

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) says it is a “people’s democratic dictatorship”, that being as strong an oxymoron as can be. The phrase was part of Mao’s Little Red Book, the possession of which or lack of it could mean the difference between life and lynching by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The White Paper says that “to uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship” is one of the Four Cardinal Principles of the rule by the Chinese Communist Party. The writers of the document are clearly not worried about the manifest contradiction in the phrase and explain it away by saying, “Democracy and dictatorship appear to be a contradiction in terms, but together they ensure the people’s status as masters of the country.”

The White Paper not only claims that China is a democracy; it makes the astounding claim that the rule by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is actually a multi-party democracy! “In China, there are no opposition parties. But China’s political party system is not a system of one-party rule. …In addition to the CPC, there are eight other political parties… They cooperate closely with the CPC and function as its advisors and assistants.” China seems to be the multi-party utopia where other political parties make no claim to power and are satisfied with assisting the ruling party! A closer scrutiny shows that the so-called political parties are actually associations sponsored by the CPC, like the China National Democratic Construction Association and the China Association for Promoting Democracy and include even the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League.

Semantics-led obfuscation has been the hallmark of Communist propaganda at all times and in all lands and the White Paper is no exception. It christens the Chinese “democracy” as a “whole-process democracy” and as this may leave many scratching their heads, offers an explanation: “Whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.” Doubt and dissent, the two fundamental aspects of democracy, are anathema to the Communist leadership and therefore the world’s democracies, to which the White Paper is addressed, are expected to accept this jumble of words unquestioningly. It gives us a clue though: “China strives to strike a balance between democracy and development. The priority always rests with development”.

If anyone was still left in some doubt whether this “democracy” in China is run by a rule-based order or by the whims of an individual, the Communist Party emphasises through this document that the democracy in China requires “strengthening the CPC’s overall leadership” through the “CPC’s Central committee with Xi Jinping at its core”. It says that the “whole-process democracy” requires robust and centralised leadership of the CPC. Apparently, without such central authority, the Chinese people will be able to scale the Great Firewall of Internet and will be “corrupted” by other democracies of the world. Since that catastrophe seems to have been prevented so far, the White Paper says that human rights are fully respected and protected in China and the country has become an open and free society. It does not elaborate but perhaps the “whole-process democracy” requires that corrupting influences like Google, Facebook and Twitter be kept out of the reach of the citizens and only sanitized and well-policed indigenous applications like Weibo and WeChat are offered to them.

The world has been watching the Chinese “democracy” at work for more than seven decades. It gave the Chinese people the Great Famine, the mayhem called the Cultural Revolution, the extinction of the Manchurian language and culture, the genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang and the persecution of the Falun Gong extending to harvesting of organs from living prisoners. No democracy is perfect and every democracy is a work in progress. True democracies recognise this and feel no need to issue White Papers to establish a claim to be counted among democracies. By no stretch of the imagination could China have been invited to the Summit for Democracy; Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, did fit the bill and got an invitation. Since only sovereign countries were invited to the Summit, this invitation has effectively erased China’s red line about Taiwan being called a country. The White Paper issued by China is not going to help in restoring that imaginary line or in facilitating China to join the democratic club anytime soon. /

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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