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Not invited to Biden's democracy summit, China launches a propaganda blitz

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Premier Li Keqiang (left) and members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on the eve of China's National Day on Sept. 30.
Greg Baker
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AFP via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) with Premier Li Keqiang (left) and members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on the eve of China's National Day on Sept. 30.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is not among the more than 100 world leaders invited to this week's virtual Summit for Democracy hosted by President Biden. So Beijing held its own democracy dialogue.

Officials and pundits gathered in Beijing and online last week to push the idea that China's political system is, in fact, a high-functioning form of democracy of a different sort, and that it is delivering better results for its people than the broken U.S. system.

The discussions were part of a propaganda blitz that analysts say is designed to show that China can stand up to the United States, and to counter the suggestion that the Chinese system is inferior to the democracies that Biden is bringing together.

Journalists reach for copies of a Chinese government-produced report titled "Democracy that Works" before a news conference at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, Saturday. China's Communist Party sharply criticized a global democracy summit being hosted by President Biden and extolled the virtues of the Chinese governing system.
Mark Schiefelbein / AP
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AP
Journalists reach for copies of a Chinese government-produced report titled "Democracy that Works" before a news conference at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, Saturday. China's Communist Party sharply criticized a global democracy summit being hosted by President Biden and extolled the virtues of the Chinese governing system.

"China's whole-process people's democracy is not the kind that wakes up at the time of voting and goes back to dormant afterwards," Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said last week.

In addition to the dialogue, China's State Council, or cabinet, released a 30-page white paper over the weekend entitled, "China: Democracy That Works." The Foreign Ministry followed with its own report blasting the state of U.S. democracy. And state newspapers have run countless editorials extolling China's system and questioning America's.

Biden's summit, and Beijing's rejoinder, highlight the depth of the rift between the United States and China, and come less than a month after a video conversation between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping that was meant to ease tensions.

Communists boast of a "people's democratic dictatorship"

Fang Ning, a former political science director at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which wrote the white paper, says communist countries such as North Korea or the former East Germany during the Cold War all had the word "democratic" in their official titles. The Chinese Communist Party, he says, has also always championed democracy. In 1949, when the party seized power, it tweaked the name of the country — adding the word "People's" — to sound more democratic: the People's Republic of China.

"It was only until World War II that democracy became a positive term, as a political system to counter the fascism of Hitler's Germany," said Fang. "In the East, it was China's Communist Party who raised the flag of democracy and was recognized as democratic."

Fang's argument: The U.S. does not get to decide what counts as democracy.

Part of the party's case is that it delivers for its people, by dramatically raising living standards since taking power in 1949. In its white paper, China argues that although it does not have direct elections or multiparty rule, it is able to accurately gauge what the people want through what the party has long called the "people's democratic dictatorship." It means a select few among the party's leadership are delegated — though not directly elected — to represent the people.

Fang says elections would plunge China into turmoil. So, the government holds consultations with the people — for example, by sending research teams out to talk to communities and make recommendations that inform the government, Fang says.

In reality, though, the system is not free. Many studies, including the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index, put China near the bottom of the list.

President Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 15, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (right) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken listen.
Susan Walsh / AP
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AP
President Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 15, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (right) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken listen.

America's system is also in the crosshairs

Besides defending their own system, China is also taking shots at the U.S. The Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a state-linked think tank, followed up by issuing a report that lists 10 questions of American democracy.

Wang Wen, the institute's director, asked a crowd of diplomats and journalists gathered in a luxury Beijing hotel whether American democracy actually defends freedom.

"Many American politicians do not really put their voters' interest first. Compared to other democratic countries, the U.S. is more like an oligarchic regime," Wang said.

He also argued that hundreds of thousands of people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. and excessive freedom has led to disinformation and culture wars.

Xi Jinping has pushed for a tougher tone

While the barrage of claims about China being a democracy may not convince a Western audience, or those attending Biden's summit, there is a point to it, says Peter Martin, author of the book China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.

"On some level, it's as simple as Xi Jinping likes the tough tone, and he's signaled to the bureaucracy that he wants China to stand up for itself and never to tolerate bullying," he said.

Xi has promoted unapologetic confidence on the global stage, and Chinese officials have become increasingly zealous in their defense of China's interests and the state's official line.

The approach plays well at home, Martin says.

"To domestic audiences in China's political system, they get to look like they're striking back and acting tough," he said.

Beijing has been trying to stop the West from hogging the mic when it comes to global discourse about China. Global polls show that China's image abroad is slipping, suggesting its efforts are falling short.

Dueling over democracy makes some other countries uncomfortable

Still, Martin says China's attempts to depict itself as a paragon of democracy are a "classic tactic, which denialists of all stripes and on all issues come back to, which is just muddying the waters and painting false equivalence."

China is a one-party authoritarian state where the ruling Communist Party is above the law and its critics are regularly jailed. Local elections are heavily slanted in favor of party candidates and independent candidates are detained. Its legislature is dominated and controlled by the party.

China's messaging may appeal to other authoritarian states, and convey a sense of cover and legitimacy. The Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the U.S. co-wrote an editorial last month criticizing the summit and accusing Biden of causing a global divide with a "Cold War mentality."

For many countries, the argument over democracy between the world's top two economies is uncomfortable.

The Biden administration invited around 110 governments to the summit. One that is conspicuously missing from the list is Singapore — a long-standing U.S. partner and a parliamentary democracy.

The Southeast Asian city-state has always walked a fine line between Washington and Beijing. And Bilahari Kausikan, a former diplomat who represented Singapore at the United Nations, says attending Biden's summit would have been bad for Singapore.

"In the context in which Mr. Biden is holding this, the context of geopolitical rivalry with China, it will constrain us. It puts us into a pigeon hole, whereas we want to have the maximum strategic autonomy," he said.

That doesn't mean he buys Beijing's assertion that it is a beacon of democracy, though.

"I mean, look, we are not stupid, right?" he said. "We understand why [the U.S. is] doing this. We understand why China is doing this."

John Ruwitch reported from California, Emily Feng from Beijing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.