Op-Ed

True democracy is for the people

The video call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden mid-November was welcomed around the world. Though some media report characterized the summit as lacking in deliverables, people familiar with the situation knew that a strategic dialogue setting the overall direction of the most consequential relationship in the 21st century was all important.

Both leaders underscored the importance they place on China-US relations, and both men expressed opposition to a “new Cold War” between the two countries, which was reassuring to the world.

An important statement that caught the attention of Chinese media but disappeared altogether in Western reporting is that President Biden stated that the US does not seek to change China’s system.

The issue of political and ideological differences has long plagued the relationship between the two largest economies and has been a perennial source of distrust, suspicion and friction. Most people in China are convinced that the US is trying all means to sabotage its political system and prevent China from rising again. And some people in the US insist on treating China as an enemy because it is led by the Communist Party.

Spreading democratic values around the world has for decades been an important pillar of US foreign policy. Its triumphant win of the Cold War and its success at encouraging waves of democratization in developing countries from Africa to Latin America has reinforced its self-righteous belief that it is bringing progress and prosperity to all corners of the globe.

Yet, the basic assumptions behind the West’s democratic zeal have been challenged on multiple fronts.

To begin with, since the financial crisis of 2008, the deficiencies and dysfunction of western styles of democracy have been exposed like never before. The relationship between politics and money, between the silent majority and the ruling minority, partisan gridlock, and rising populism have created political and social tensions rarely seen in Western countries.

Even professor Francis Fukuyama, who was the standard-bearer of western democracy, became disillusioned about the very democratic system that he had deemed to be the end of history.

A recent Pew survey indicated that among the 16,000 respondents across four continents, 83% do not view American democracy as a good example for other countries to follow.

Secondly, the report card of the spread of democracy worldwide is lackluster, at best. Wherever one looks, democracy has fallen short in fulfilling promises of peace, stability and development in developing countries.

Democratic conversions by force of arms have brought political chaos, economic collapse and great human sufferings to countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Even Western commentators have questioned the correlation between democracy and development.

Thirdly, one rarely hears the talk about democracy in international affairs. The world we live in has undergone profound changes unseen in a century. The collective rise of developing countries is profoundly reshaping the global landscape.

In the past 20 years, emerging economies contributed 80% of global growth and their share in global GDP has risen from 24% 40 years ago to over 40% now. Some people in the West relishing the good old days still habitually give orders, pass judgments and find faults. Little do they realize, their lecturing increasingly rings hollow in the ears of developing countries.

Now is the time to challenge conventional wisdom and deep-seated preconceptions. What is democracy? How do we know it’s good for us?

Democracy comes in diverse forms. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, there are as many forms of democracy as there are democratic countries. Yet, all democracies should be held to the same standard. As Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan-Yew famously said, the test of a political system is whether it improves the lives of the majority of the people.

Democracy should be judged by the effectiveness of governance it delivers, rather than the electoral procedure it follows. Good governance, in turn, is measured by the level of participation and satisfaction of the electorate in between the elections.

Just as President Xi Jinping said, only the wearer of the shoes know whether they fit or not. Ultimately, the quality of a country’s democracy should be judged by the people, particularly the bottom 10% of the population.

The current debate about democracy vs authoritarianism advocated by some Western countries is misplaced. Labeling countries this way is like extending identity politics beyond the water’s edge.

Just as differentiating people on the basis of identity aggravated social divisions, promoting a narrative of good vs bad in ideology will only deepen the rifts among countries, making unity and partnership even more elusive.

Democracy is a universal value that all countries aspire to. But Western-style democracy is not, as it is unique to Western circumstances.

As developing countries, we should not leave it to Western countries to monopolize the definition of democracy. We should no longer be at the receiving end of the Western assembly line of democracy. Countries need to explore their own way and build up their own political system.

China’s political system has been a product of its national conditions, its 5,000-year history, and its distinctive culture. It evolved out of the collective experience, the sufferings and triumphs of the Chinese people since modern times.

In China, Communist Party rule is the choice of history and choice made by the Chinese people. It led the Chinese people in winning national independence after a century of humiliation, in achieving national prosperity in just over a generation and in opening up a new journey toward socialist modernization in the new era.

According to a survey done by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the level of satisfaction with the Chinese government has gone up among the Chinese respondents from 86% in 2003 to over 93% in 2016.

Too much emphasis on whether Western-style elections are held, and whether parties rule by turns, diverts people’s attention away from the existence of more profound and longer-lasting sources of legitimacy.

Democracy in China aims to be a whole process that is both based on solid procedure and focuses on substance; it is both direct and indirect; it represents the will of both the people and the state. It is extensive, participatory, and effective socialist democracy.

Western countries readily recognize China’s economic progress but some refuse to recognize the political and institutional factors underpinning this progress. The fact of the matter is, China would never have achieved its successes without the strong and consistent leadership of the Communist Party.

Earlier in November, the Communist Party of China convened the Sixth Plenum of its 19th Central Committee. The Plenum reviewed and approved the Resolution on Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century. This resolution clearly laid out why China was able to succeed in the past, and how we will continue to succeed in the future.

Despite China’s strong confidence in its own path, China never seeks to export its model. Our traditional philosophy believes in “unity in diversity”. We are content that China’s success at modernization has broadened the possible paths to modernization by our fellow developing countries.

Provoking divisions and confrontations on the basis of ideology serves no one’s interests and is against the trend of history. Countries should treat each other with complete equality, mutual respect and seek win-win cooperation. We should rise above differences and celebrate our common humanity. This will make our world a better place.

• Dai Qingli is the Chinese ambassador to The Bahamas.

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