What was the Summit for Democracy really about?
The Biden administration’s goal in organising a Summit for Democracy isn’t simply about bolstering democracy. It is about bolstering democracy to sideline a rising non-democratic country — China
This week, United States (US) President Joe Biden held a two-day zoom conference (which ended on December 10) to save democracy around the world. The Summit for Democracy, as it was called, was met with a fair amount of derision before it had even begun. The fact that the administration held the Summit is not a surprise — even when a presidential candidate, Biden talked of an alliance of democracies.
What is surprising, however, is, many have pointed out, which countries Biden officials think constitute a democracy. Pakistan was in, Bangladesh was out — Pakistan ranks a dismal 130 of 139 on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, while Bangladesh is higher at 124. Iraq was in, Turkey was out.
Eyebrow-raising at the choice of invitees aside, experts also pointed out that many countries, including India, and indeed even the US, have seen significant democratic backsliding. Given such criticism, it was fair to ask whether a “Summit for Democracy” rang hollow, and whether the Presidential Initiative for Democracy Renewal launched at the Summit is a doomed proposition.
However, naysayers missed one crucial point. The Biden administration’s goal in organising a Summit for Democracy or launching the Initiative isn’t simply about bolstering democracy around the world. It is about bolstering democracy to sideline a rising non-democratic country, and highlight its contrasting authoritarian ideology — China. And one could say that, in that it succeeded. A quick glance at the Chinese news media over the past month suggests that China is very conscious of this goal, and is definitely on the defensive.
China’s objections to the Summit can be boiled down to three complaints: America has problems; China too is democratic; what is democracy anyway, and why does the US get to decide?
The first focuses on a myriad of issues with respect to the US. One of the repeated points is that the model of American democracy is, as the ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, put it, “broken.” The reasoning behind this is not just the Capitol riots of January 6, but also America’s race problem (People’s Daily), American’s own distrust of their democracy (Global Times), the vast and corrupt amounts of money poured by US corporations into favoured electoral candidates (Pengpai Xinwen), and poverty rates and Covid-19 deaths (Global Times).
The second is a claim that China exemplifies democratic norms. Sometimes this is implied in statements that ridicule “facts” about the US: In China, it does not take $14 billion to choose a president (Zhao Lijian); no Chinese official like “anti-China Congressman [Ted] Cruz” could or would filibuster health care reform by reading from a Dr Seuss children’s book (Pengpai Xinwen). But other times it is explicit: That China has 5,000 years of civilisation with “people-oriented” thinking, that its development is booming, and living conditions are vastly improved (Xinhua). Or as vice-minister, Le Yucheng put it, there is no doubt “China is a true democracy, [its] model fits in well with its national conditions…it enjoys the support of the mass people.”
The final is the questioning of just what democracy is, and who has the right to define it. The definition of a democracy is never made clear, except for the claim that democracies “seek happiness for the people”, but the Chinese press does outline many issues which they say exemplify what it is not: The bombing and devastation of Afghanistan are not democratic and, therefore, logically, not the action of a country that is a true democracy; social disorder and the refusal to wear masks or get vaccinated are not democratic; racial discrimination is also not democratic (Xinhua).
Finally, the press is firm and unanimous on the point that America, at any rate, certainly does not have the right to define democracy. Particularly, since the US routinely talks about democracy in the same breath as human rights, and given that human rights in the US are routinely violated as per previously stated problems, the sheer hypocrisy of America organising a democracy club is astounding.
And, in fact, what the US is doing with this Summit is not protecting democracy so much as reasserting a Cold War-era mentality of ideological division (Xinhua).
The most belligerent voices on the Summit come from the usual places such as the Global Times; the most nuanced from outlets such as Pengpai Xinwen or Caixin. But across the board, two things are clear: China has no doubt that the intent of the Summit was to sideline it into a category of undesirable global actors, and that the very idea of a democratic club as a tool of containment has forced it onto the back foot to try and avoid that sidelining. In that alone, if nothing else, the Biden administration can count the Summit as a success.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and research associate at the University of Oxford. She is on leave from the Pardee School, Boston University where she is associate professor
The views expressed are personal