Analysis

Why China Is Freaking Out Over Biden’s Democracy Summit

Beijing’s overreaction to the virtual summit is telling.

By , a senior fellow in the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based at the fund’s Berlin office, and , director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
A composite image of U.S. President Joe Biden at the Democracy Summit in Washington on Dec. 9 and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Dec. 10, 2018.
A composite image of U.S. President Joe Biden at the Democracy Summit in Washington on Dec. 9 and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Dec. 10, 2018. Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

The Chinese government is furious about U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, and it wants the world to know.

A week before the summit was to take place, the Chinese government hastily convened its own democracy forum and published a white paper called “China: Democracy That Works,” as well as a report titled “The State of Democracy in the United States,” in which it claims to “expose the deficiencies and abuse of democracy” in the United States. These actions have been accompanied by countless articles, press conferences, and, of course, tweets about China’sdemocracy” and its alleged superiority to U.S. democracy.

So why is the Chinese government reacting so strongly to Biden’s virtual summit?

The Chinese government is furious about U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, and it wants the world to know.

A week before the summit was to take place, the Chinese government hastily convened its own democracy forum and published a white paper called “China: Democracy That Works,” as well as a report titled “The State of Democracy in the United States,” in which it claims to “expose the deficiencies and abuse of democracy” in the United States. These actions have been accompanied by countless articles, press conferences, and, of course, tweets about China’sdemocracy” and its alleged superiority to U.S. democracy.

So why is the Chinese government reacting so strongly to Biden’s virtual summit?

Some China watchers have pointed to Taiwan’s participation as the main reason China is agitated. Having Taiwan join a forum from which China is excluded is an unacceptable offense to the Chinese party-state. Beijing claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has gone to great lengths to try to isolate Taiwan internationally, including blocking it from attending World Health Organization meetings. The Biden administration has made headway mobilizing allies around the world to support Taiwan, which is undermining China’s goal of sowing doubts in Taiwan that the United States and its allies will remain committed to the island’s prosperity and security.

But Taiwan only partly explains China’s fierce response. There are larger dynamics at play. Although the Chinese government often cynically accuses others of having a “Cold War mentality” and of being guided by a “zero-sum mindset,” it views itself in a global contest for power against the United States that it indisputably approaches in a zero-sum fashion.

In the official assessment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China is winning that competition. As Rush Doshi notes in his book The Long Game, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s declaration at a 2018 party meeting that the world was undergoing “great changes unseen in a century” refers to the relative decline of U.S. power and the strategic opportunities this presents to China. Beijing first made the assessment that the United States was in decline at the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis. The Trump administration’s policies and U.S. failure to control the spread of COVID-19 have increased Chinese confidence that their analysis is correct.

Such statements are not made lightly in China; they are considered official historical assessments and are accompanied by major policy changes. In this case, China’s confidence that international trends are in its favor have already led to more assertive behavior, including aggressive moves to change the status quo on the border with India, extensive economic sanctions against Australia, and steps to force global corporations to shun Lithuania over its relationship with Taiwan or lose access to China’s market.

But for Beijing, being convinced the “East is rising and West is declining” isn’t enough; other major powers must be persuaded as well. The Summit for Democracy threatens to undermine China’s narrative by portraying the West, and the United States in particular, as resilient. Moreover, the official assessment of China’s rise and the United States’ decline does not mean the CCP can relax; it must struggle to achieve its victory. Like any authoritarian government that cannot be voted out of office yet is always fearful of being ousted violently by the people, the stakes are high. In the eyes of the CCP, genuine democracy poses a threat to the regime’s legitimacy and security.

Biden’s democracy-promotion agenda also poses a threat to Beijing because it is a vehicle to strengthen the United States’ relations with its allies and like-minded partners based on shared values, and specifically is aimed at bolstering the country’s global leadership. China has worked assiduously to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies and wants to demonstrate that Washington is no longer fit to lead on any issue.

More than that, though, Beijing is genuinely worried by what it sees as Washington’s attempt to build “anti-China coalitions.” This is the lens through which it has viewed other initiatives such as AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. From Beijing’s perspective, the Summit for Democracy is yet another attempt to mobilize countries to curb Chinese influence and contain the growth of Chinese power—only this time, the number of countries involved is much larger.

The Chinese government may be particularly irked by the fact that a large number of developing countries are attending the Summit for Democracy. The list of invitees includes many countries, such as Angola, Argentina, and Armenia, that cannot easily be labeled as members of the “Western anti-China club” that the Chinese government claims is determined to conspire against China.

The Chinese government is especially determined to avert any alignment between the Western allies and developing countries. For instance, a joint statement of concern about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang region would be much more irksome to the Chinese government if it were co-signed by developing countries in Asia, Africa, or Latin America that Beijing wants to keep in its orbit of influence. The last such statement was signed in June by 44 countries, mostly Western nations along with a few of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners from the Pacific and Caribbean.

Beijing—rightly—views the Summit for Democracy as an integral part of Biden’s attempt to frame U.S.-China competition as a showdown between democracy and autocracy, which China rejects. Instead, the Chinese insist that they have a “people’s democracy” that delivers better outcomes for their people than Western democracies. In many ways, this plays into China’s larger ambitions for global leadership. In June 2018, Xi stated that China should “lead the reform of the global governance system.” To prove it is qualified to play this role, China must promote the success of its own system vis-à-vis that of its principal competitor for global leadership.

Although Beijing denies it is engaged in an ideological battle with the United States, China’s reaction to the Summit for Democracy is evidence that ideology is central to U.S.-China competition. China’s attacks on U.S. democracy are more than just Beijing’s usual tit-for-tat diplomacy. China is serious about wanting to redefine what democracy means and push its own political model as a superior form of democracy. In contrast to widely accepted definitions of democracy that include free elections without a predetermined outcome, China claims its political system is a democracy because the CCP—the sole governing party—incorporates the voices of all groups in society through “consultative democracy.”

The current campaign promoting Chinese “whole process democracy,” as the Chinese government calls it, is an extension of an experiment that started years ago. In 2017, the CCP-controlled China Global Television Network produced a video titled “What is democracy in China?” that tried to portray the National People’s Congress as a genuinely democratic institution. In 2018, China’s official news agency Xinhua depicted one of its American employees declaring that “it is widely acknowledged that a key to China’s success is its system of democracy.”

These attempts to define the Chinese political system as a democracy on par with or even superior to genuine democratic systems may seem ludicrous to many outside observers. But the party-state considers them crucial to its push to elevate China’s “global discourse power,” a buzzword that refers to the party’s ability to shape global conversations and set the definitions for key terms such as democracy, rule of law, and human rights. This is an area where China sees itself in direct competition with the United States and seeks to capitalize on its opponent’s relative decline. In fact, discourse power is seen as vital to the party’s ideological security, because as long as China lacks discourse power it is evaluated on Western criteria, which ultimately poses a threat to CCP legitimacy and therefore to regime security.

The Central Party School, which trains CCP cadres, devotes significant attention to building China’s discourse power, including at conferences specifically dedicated to this topic. For years, articles in authoritative party publications such as the People’s Daily have mused about how to break the Western monopoly on defining terms such as democracy. Entire articles published in Chinese academic journals are devoted to the concept of Chinese “consultative democracy” and how to communicate it internationally to raise China’s discourse power.

The Chinese government should not have any trouble convincing people that U.S. democracy is flawed. After all, few in the United States would disagree with that statement, and the Biden administration has made it clear that the Summit for Democracy is not only meant to celebrate the achievements of democracy but also to actively improve what democracies can deliver.

But Beijing’s push to portray its autocratic system as a superior version of democracy is unlikely to succeed. So why try? The Chinese government is likely overestimating its ability to sway international public opinion. Its confidence may lie in the lopsided feedback mechanisms that present a verbally aggressive China as an internationally successful and respected China—presumably the same feedback mechanisms that continue to churn out new wolf warrior diplomats. While the details of how the top leadership receives feedback is murky, there is a tendency in Leninist systems to highlight alleged successes and omit failures. This inherent proclivity has been exacerbated as those with a deeper understanding of how China’s policies are harming its image abroad who have advocated a more moderate course have been sidelined in the party.

It may also be that the Chinese government has fallen victim to its own propaganda that the erosion of U.S. power has left the United States a weakened state, so much so that China sees little risk in boldly seizing the opportunity presented by the “changes unseen in a century” to promote Chinese “democracy” as an alternative political model superior to U.S. democracy.

If the Chinese government weren’t so overly focused on competition with the United States, it could have found angles from which to attack the Summit for Democracy that would have resonated internationally. After all, the summit has had its fair share of critics, including those who have questioned whether some of the countries invited truly qualify as democracies. Or Beijing might have realized that the summit’s attempt to redefine democracy would likely be met with ridicule and decided instead to ignore it. But in Xi’s China, those options were either rejected or not considered at all.

Mareike Ohlberg is a senior fellow in the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based at the fund’s Berlin office.

Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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