Media  Global Economy  2022.01.26

The Summit for Democracy Will Not Help Democratization in China

A Futile Confrontation over What Form Democracy Should Take Will Polarize the International Community

The article was originally posted on JBpress on December 20 , 2021

Chinese Economy China

1. Many Countries Shy Away from Joining the US-led Anti-China Bloc

The United States and China still remain in a serious conflict.

Washington has been stepping up its confrontation with China. It has decided on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and organized the Summit for Democracy.

A more recent hot issue may be a scandal in China that involves a renowned woman tennis player. But the bone of contention is human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong as well as the Taiwan issue, over which Washington denounces China.

As far as such human rights issues are concerned, European countries are also critical of China.

And yet, only three countries have joined the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics: the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

New Zealand said it will not send ministerial representatives, citing COVID-19. It explained that this decision does not constitute a diplomatic boycott.

When Western countries condemn China for human rights issues, the US and Europe usually keep in step. But this time is different.

The Summit for Democracy is questioned by many, who note that the conference was run inappropriately as a forum for advocating democracy to the world. They cite unclear criteria for selecting participating countries as well as the closed proceedings and the lack of a joint statement.

It is becoming conspicuous that many countries stay away from the US’s show of its hard-line stance toward China. A number of factors are involved.

First, China is an important partner, along with the US, for many countries, including the EU, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It is practically impossible for them to select one at the expense of the other.

Second, the US Biden administration’s main objective of the Summit for Democracy and the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics is interpreted to demonstrate its anti-China stance before the American public as the midterm elections in the autumn of 2022 draw near. It is not viewed as an attempt to prod China into improving the human rights situation in the country.

Third, European countries try to keep some distance from the US. This came after a rift emerged between the US and the EU over a series of incidents this summer, including the campaign to withdraw from Afghanistan and the agreement to transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia.

A Summit for Democracy should permit the participation of people from any countries on the planet that seek democracy.

The US handling of the Summit, however, seemed to be an attempt to blackball China in the name of democracy.

This is like bringing the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the US into the global community; it works to divide a global community that should further mutual cooperation.

In his presidential election pledge, President Joe Biden called for reconciliation of the partisan confrontation in the country. Now he seems to be moving in the opposite direction in the global community.

Given the need to address the COVID-19 pandemic and global environmental issues, it is clear that a partisan divide, whether within the nation or throughout the international community, will cause a huge loss to people.

2. Democratic Developments in Chinese Society

Chinese politics, economy, and society are built on the leadership structure of the Chinese Communist Party. This substantially sets China apart from Western democracies.

And yet, democratic ideas and the respect for freedom are definitely growing in China.

China all but isolated itself from the rest of the world for a period of some 30 years from 1949 to circa 1980. Interactions between the Chinese masses and people from other countries were strictly restricted.

Things changed after the national basic policy shifted in focus to the reform and opening-up policy – a decision adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in December 1978. Since then, such interactions grew gradually, providing more opportunities for the Chinese people to have direct contact with foreign political ideas and cultures.

Prompted by the rapid growth of the Chinse economy following the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the numbers of Chinese people who traveled and studied abroad jumped from circa 2010 onward, expanding direct interactions with people from other countries.

This process has been further expedited by growing globalization and the advancement of information technology (IT).

Through such international interactions, many Chinese people have come to understand the strengths of Western societies in which democracy as well as the respect for freedom and human rights is entrenched. They have introduced part of such ideals into Chinese society.

Above all, environmental awareness has been remarkably heightened among the Chinese public.

Many environmentally disruptive factories in urban areas have been forced to move to the suburbs in the face of strong opposition from local residents.

Strong public outcry against high PM2.5 levels has been prompting a transition in energy sources from coal to more eco-friendly LNG and natural energy.

Here, pressure from local residents was at play as well.

Stricter enforcement of the anti-monopoly law and educational reforms that restrict cram schools and homework are two of the more recent examples in which Beijing, the Chinese government, reacted under public pressure; i.e., growing discontent with widening gaps in income and educational opportunity among the Chinese masses.

All these examples show that as the living standards improve, the Chinese masses increasingly call for safety and equality. Increasing direct interactions with people from other countries bring more attention to the weaknesses of Chines society. These developments make it easier for public discontent to come to the surface.

In fact, such public discontent now drives actual policies. Policy management is more democratic in China than ever.

Earlier, it was quite rare for the Chinese government to change its policies in the face of pressure from local residents.

The current government listens attentively to the voices of the people except in a few sectors.

Given these circumstances, it is clear that Chines society is more or less moving toward democracy.

Looking ahead, opportunities for the Chinese to have direct experience with foreign countries will likely expand amid the expected continuation of the rapid advancement of IT technology and the increase in income levels.

The awareness of national borders is especially weak among the new generation of Chinese people who were born in and after the 1990s, who are in constant interaction with their foreign counterparts; i.e., Generation Z.

For them, comparing China with Western countries in terms of politics, economy, and society is nothing new. If more and more people in this generation desire to incorporate good aspects of foreign countries, then the trend to call for change in China will emerge as a matter of course.

Chinese society is built on Chinse history, social thought, and traditional spiritual culture; it seemingly defies a transition to a political system analogous to those in Western countries.

And yet, given closer interactions with other countries especially among younger generations, it is impossible to keep foreign influence at bay.

If the Chinese government resorts to state power to restrict such interactions, the development of China will also be restricted. China’s national power will be undermined. There is also a risk that public discontent will be heightened to a dangerous level.

Given the above, democracy will likely continue to take root in China.

Excluding China from a Summit for Democracy will block the nascent move to democracy.

3. Back to the Basics That Cherish Life and the Planet

Beijing challenged the US’s move to organize the Summit for Democracy by advocating for what it calls “Chinese democracy.”

This will also work to divide the global community.

In its newly-released resolution on history, Beijing sets out the stance that values China’s fine traditional culture. The resolution states:

“[…] China’s fine traditional culture is a prominent strength of our nation that enables us to gain a firm footing amidst global cultural interaction. We must adapt to new conditions so that we can carry on our traditional culture in the new era.”

The essence of China’s traditional culture is condensed into the Chinese classics. One of its strong points is tolerance toward different cultures.

Monotheistic nations rejected paganism and did not mind the killing of pagans. By contrast, China embraced Oriental philosophies such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen and tolerated coexistence with other religions, including Christianity.

Chang’an, the capital city of the Tong Dynasty, was a paragon of such tolerance. It flourished as an international city where people from different parts of the world lived together.

From the perspective of such Chinese traditional culture, stepping up confrontation with Western democracy as advocated by the US is not the way to go. Seeking coexistence in ways that accept its good aspects is in line with Chinese traditional culture.

The Biden administration is critical of China in a schema that pits democracy against authoritarianism, capitalism against socialism.

In light of socioeconomic realities, however, pure capitalism and pure socialism have little chance of existence.

The capitalistic United States adopts socialistic policies, most notably social security programs.

For its part, China, which once emphasized a socialistic controlled economy, has embraced the market mechanism and free trade since the 1990s.

It is widely recognized that Chinese private enterprises are more capitalistic than Japanese counterparts as far as corporate management is concerned.

Conflicting ideologies may mean antagonistic relationships. But policymakers often adopt some of the advantages of other ideologies in a mutually complementary manner.

This can be viewed as being consistent with the ideals that respect humanity, such as the five Confucian virtues (benevolence, righteousness, courteousness, wisdom, and trust) and Buddhist compassion, both of which are part of the Chinese traditional culture.

From such a standpoint, it is futile to stress the dualistic schema that pits American democracy against Chinese democracy.

As it stands, both the US and China adhere to their respective ideologies, lose themselves in the logic of power politics, and defy mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation, all of which the global community should seek to achieve.

They should return to the basics that cherish the lives of all living things and the planet as a shared goal beyond national borders. They should discourage partisan confrontation and move to adopt each other’s strengths.