Written by Yu-Hua Chen.
China’s relationship with the liberal international order (LIO) has evolved over the decades. China gradually transformed itself from an order opponent in the Mao era to an order beneficiary in the Deng era to an order reformer in the Hu era. China has mixed feelings toward the LIO built and led by the United States at the end of World War II. On the one hand, leaders in Beijing know that the LIO is the foundation of China’s power and wealth today. Without the United States engaging China by bringing it into this order, the rise of China would have been impossible.
On the other hand, because China has a relatively limited say within the LIO, many Chinese leaders since 2000 have seen it as an inaccurate reflection of the overall global balance of power, especially international discourse power. To a large degree, within the LIO, China’s international image is measured and judged by universal values solely defined by the West. Therefore, since the Hu era, China has launched several policy initiatives contesting the West for international discourse power. The establishment of Confucius Institutes overseas, the grand propaganda scheme, and redefining the concept of human rights by adding economic development components into it are all policies that originated from this line of thought. We should see China’s reactions to the Summit for Democracy held by the United States in December 2021 through this lens as well.
The Summit for Democracy on December 9-10 is one of the Biden Administration’s flagship foreign policy initiatives. Over 275 foreign governments, civil society organizations, members of private sectors, and influential individuals participated in this grand online event to share their experiences with defending universal values in the past and to commit to their visions of ways of safeguarding their democracy in the coming years. Issues discussed at the Summit included media freedom, human rights, women’s rights, COVID-19, corruption, countering digital authoritarianism, etc. According to the official statement of the United States, the purpose of the Summit was to “make meaningful public commitments in support of democracy, human rights, and the fight against corruption at home and abroad.”
Despite the seemingly non-geopolitical agenda, the real intention of the United States for holding this event appears to be reinvigorating the support from like-minded actors around the globe to counter the expanding influence of authoritarianism stemming from China. During the Trump administration, one major criticism of the United States was that it did not collaborate with its allies and hence gave away the leadership of the LIO in the era of aggressive China. The lost leadership of the United States in the LIO is what Biden wants to regain, which is why the United States still invites many countries with questionable democratic and human rights records to this Summit. For instance, Angola and Iraq are authoritarian regimes, ranking 117th and 118th on the democracy list measured by the Economists Intelligence Unit, respectively. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world next to North Korea, also joined a panel discussion. In addition, according to Reporters without Borders’ global media freedom ranking of 2020, the Philippines ranks 138 among 180 countries globally while India is 142. Yet, both countries participated in the Summit. From this perspective, what the United States is doing today is very similar to what it did during the Cold War: realism under the flag of liberalism.
China interpreted this Summit as a grab for geopolitical control and hence launched another wave of international discourse power struggle, questioning the definition of democracy. China responded to the Summit by firing back with international propaganda defending the CCP’s legitimacy in ruling China. First, Russian and Chinese Ambassadors to the United States co-authored an article on National Interests in November, which heavily criticized the United States for ideological confrontation with China. Then, on December 4th, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper titled China: Democracy That Works, in which China disparaged the United States’ problems at home while praising China’s way of governing the Chinese people as genuinely democratic. A week later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued that democracy could take more than one form in People’s Daily.
Interestingly, parallel to how China redefined human rights in the past, the propaganda above all pointed to the necessity of adding the “development of people’s livelihood” as part of the definition of democracy. For China, democracy is not about elections or governmental accountability but about improving people’s living standards under Communist rules. Therefore, policy performance should also be the criterion to define democracy. This suggests the US-China rivalry now has incorporated one more dimension—which can be called a democracy? The Sino-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War had a similar dynamic, in which both the Soviet Union and China claimed they were the true heir of Marxism and belittled the other side.
While US-China rivalry is intensifying, countries stuck in the middle of the rivalry face an awkward choice of which side to take. Theoretically speaking, hedging should be the most prevalent choice made by those countries as it is in their best interests to avoid being punished by China. This is probably the reason why Singapore and South Korea did not attend the Summit. The case of Taiwan, however, is different. The Biden administration invites Taiwan to join this Summit because 1) Taiwan is a decent model of how democracy successfully countered COVID-19 by utilizing digital technology, and 2) this island is on the front line of authoritarian expansion. To punish Taiwan, China took away one of its few remaining diplomatic allies, Nicaragua. However, this move of China harms China’s long-term interests instead. The paradoxical result of China continuously poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies since 2016 is that the Taiwanese are already indifferent to those diplomatic setbacks. News reporting on the episode of Nicaragua in Taiwan is somewhat limited. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen herself did not even issue any official statement either, though she responded to previous cases like Panama, Dominican Republic, or Burkina Faso. Now it seems few people in Taiwan question which side to take because China has killed the room of hedging for Taiwan. Therefore, the unfortunate result for China in this US-China debate over democracy is that it has reinforced Taiwan’s view that moving into the US’s orbit is the right thing to do. Hedging is not an option for Taiwan in this new stage of US-China rivalry.
Yu-Hua Chen is Assistant Professor at the Akita International University, Japan. His core areas of expertise are Chinese foreign and security policy, international relations theory, and the history-security nexus in the Asia-Pacific region. He tweets at @YuHuaNealChen