The 2023 Summit for Democracy, initiated by the United States and co-hosted by Zambia, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica, concluded on March 30, after affirming that “free, fair, and transparent elections” are “the foundation of democratic governance.” A week before, the People’s Republic of China held its own Second International Forum on Democracy. It took up such anodyne topics as “Democracy and Sustainable Development,” “Democracy and Innovation,” “Democracy and Global Governance,” “Democracy and the Diversity of Human Civilization” and “Democracy and the Path to Modernization.”
China’s Forum on Democracy was not about ensuring political freedom and self-government, but rather detaching the idea of democracy from its essence before an audience in the grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At its philosophical core, the project is being mirrored by developments in Western democracies.
Manipulation of the concept of democracy by the CCP began before its takeover in 1949; the revolution would succeed with a promise of democracy, then abandon it when power had been achieved. During his long struggle to assume control of China, Mao Zedong proposed the “New Democracy” concept to establish “a democratic republic under the joint dictatorship of all anti-imperialist and anti-feudal forces led by the proletariat.” Mao believed the Chinese Revolution should be done in “two steps“: the first step was to defeat imperialism and feudalism, and establish a new, democratic society through a democratic revolution; the second step was to continue the socialist revolution based on this foundation, and gradually transition China into a socialist society.
Mao scrapped “New Democracy” in the early 1950s, but subsequent Chinese leaders unveiled other democratic concepts to promote their programs. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zeming advocated for “socialist democracy,” claiming that “without democracy, there can be no socialism, and without socialism, there can be no modernization. The purpose of political system reform is to eliminate disadvantages and develop a socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
In 2019, Xi Jinping proposed “whole-process people’s democracy,” which is “socialism with Chinese characteristics” guided by the CCP, emphasizing “people’s participation,” “elections,” “democratic consultation,” and other terms lifted from liberal democracies. The CCP published a White Paper about China’s “democracy” in December 2021.
Objectively, free, fair, and transparent elections do not exist in China. China is a one-party state. Voters can only elect deputies at the township, district, and county levels, and under the strict control of the CCP.
According to Article 2 of the Chinese Election Law, “The election of deputies to the National People’s Congress and local people’s congresses at all levels adheres to the leadership of the Communist Party of China…”
Appropriating the idea of democracy is consistent with the CCP’s habit of intellectual property theft, which has, along with forced labor, helped drive its rapid economic growth. Theft of basic science and technology breakthroughs has allowed China to profit from the export of complex products without investing in basic or applied research. The U.S. FBI said Chinese economic espionage has resulted in one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.
Many people around the world, repulsed by China’s genocidal policies toward Muslim citizens, repression of dissent and freedom of religion, and chilling promises of a “New World Order” that is run by powerful states that are unconstrained by common human rights standards, boycott Chinese products.
While democracy had been appropriated by his predecessors and used as bate, Xi’s approach has been even more sinister; Xi’s democracy knock-off is more than the cynical appropriation of an attractive ideal to obscure the way it is subverted. In fact, history’s most brutal totalitarian regimes, including those in East Germany and North Korea, in addition to China, have called themselves democracies. But in doing so, as Theodore Dalrymple observed, they have sought “not to persuade or convince, not to inform but to humiliate,” forcing “assent to obvious lies.” Propaganda serves the process of moral domination. CCP leaders are showing the world that they have more power than the truth; that they can do what they want with the vocabulary of freedom. They are showing that they can call totalitarianism democracy, and by wearing it as a badge, demonstrate their power over reality, and over the minds and souls of their subjects and clients.
In this regard, their methods are consistent with the intellectual aggression of ideological, post-modern wordsmiths in the West, whose manipulation of language and suppression of opposing views reveal what is also basically an ideology of power. What is happening in schools, businesses, and even in the military begins to resemble Maoist “Thought Reform,” a cultural revolution brainwashing technique aimed at detaching people from their social bonds, traditions and beliefs. Accompanying inverted, Orwellian slogans like “diversity” is institutionalized, soft-totalitarian coercion. Political correctness and the cancel culture are strategies in a movement from within against the central value system of Western civilization, one based on the universality of reason and nature. While China’s Democracy Forum appears as a crude, resentful and childish imitation of an American initiative, we would be wise not to sneer, but rather to apply its inner lessons to ourselves.
Aaron Rhodes is Senior Fellow in the Common Sense Society and President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He is the author of The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books, 2018).
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