If you access any Chinese state media or pro-government social media in late 2021, you will be bombarded with attacks on US President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. And the relentless insistence that China is the world’s largest democracy.
Beyond the fear of geopolitical containment, it is puzzling why China cared about Biden’s democracy forum.
It is not initially clear why Beijing would insist on being a democracy when claiming democratic status risks falling into a rhetorical trap.
While most Western media dismisses China’s claim to democracy as simply a cynical propaganda ploy, some optimists have suggested that the reaction to Biden’s summit shows Beijing’s commitment to a vague notion of democratization.
These observations miss the point.
China’s reaction to the summit – clinging onto the concept of democracy – largely reflects a lack of a conceptual alternative, geopolitical fear, and some genuine domestic perception that the country is democratic.
Lack of alternatives
The most important problem facing China is a lack of alternative concepts to legitimize the state. Although contemporary China is the heir to a socialist revolution, beyond nostalgic leftist circles, orthodox Marxism cannot capture the public imagination as an alternative to liberal democracy.
Granted, there is growing intellectual interest in critiques of democracy such as meritocracy and the Schmittian notion of self-justifying authoritarian state power.
Eric Li is perhaps the most eloquent critic of democracy in China, offering universal critiques of liberal democracy, and the tendency to be gridlocked in unhealthy partisanship and identity politics.
Beyond critiques, there are also alternative visions being offered, such as by Daniel Bell who often characterizes China as an examination-based meritocracy rather than electoral democracy.
Yet, so far, none of the alternative concepts of legitimization have gained official endorsement.
You will not find meritocracy or citation of Carl Schmitt in the plethora of documents produced by China Communist Party plenums. These alternative concepts are rare sights even in the less rigid Chinese media propaganda targeting foreign audiences.
There are also geopolitical concerns. Embracing any concept other than democracy by China, even one that is not explicitly anti-democratic, may unite the Western world in a democratic alliance against China.
There are anti-democratic leaders and anti-democratic movements all over the world, usually referred to as populists, who do not have a systematic anti-democratic ideology.
Most of these populists also take up anti-China foreign policy positions. Some even treat China as a scapegoat for their domestic grievances. There is little chance for anti-democratic solidarity between the ruling Communist Party and the international populist right.
It is advantageous for Beijing to cling to the democratic label to avoid contributing to the formation of a united Western democratic coalition against China. Still, there are plenty of people that genuinely believe their country is democratic.
One historical reason behind this is the presence of so-called people-oriented (minben) thought in traditional Chinese political culture, which emphasizes governance “for the people,” rather than government “by the people.”
Mencius outlined the classic Confucian ideal of state-society relations, under which “the people come first, the state comes second, [and] the ruler comes last.”
Yet a state that works for the benefit of the people is not necessarily democratic.
People-oriented governance often means a paternalistic but responsive form of authoritarianism. Elites and the public in China often use performance metrics, rather than procedural and institutional criteria, to measure how legitimate or democratic the state is.
The primacy of performance metrics over procedural ones is also reflected in survey data. Pollsters repeatedly find that a majority of Chinese respondents consider the country a democracy.
It would be self-deceiving for Western observers to dismiss these survey results as a simple reflection of public quiescence under state pressure. A more nuanced interpretation is that democracy is simply what the public calls a state that functions well enough to live in.
Despite skepticism aboard, China’s endeavor to redefine democracy in its image has a receptive audience domestically. As long as enough of the Chinese public recognise their country as a democracy, there is no urgency for leaders to seek out alternatives.
While it remains advantageous for China in the short term, the claim to the label is risky.
It is difficult for Beijing to redefine democracy in its own image internationally. And claiming to be a democracy makes China’s political system more vulnerable to Western critiques.
Unless China offers official backing to an alternative theory of legitimacy for its political system and provides more space for debate to flourish, it is unlikely that the country can escape this rhetorical trap anytime soon.
Xunchao Zhang is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.