I have visited China twice. The first time was in the aftermath of the “Asian economic crisis”, after India and Pakistan conducted their first nuclear tests. These two earth-shattering events led the Al Ahram editor-in-chief to organise an investigatory tour to east and southeast Asia, taking in Pakistan, India, Singapore, Indonesia and, lastly, China. The second time was in 2002. Some months earlier, the US had invaded Afghanistan, bringing US troops next door to China. I had imagined that this would trouble Beijing, but to my surprise China appeared to almost welcome that development. Their thinking seemed to go: if the US wants to lighten the terrorist burden on us, so be it. The Chinese seemed to be allured by the proximity of US troops, given that the US mainland was out of reach.
My impression on my first visit was that China had not yet emerged from the Third World. To me Beijing in 1974 felt like Cairo. My second visit, which included Beijing, Shanghai and other cities in the south east, was another matter entirely. I had the impression then that China was on the threshold of superpower status. It was a huge industrial workshop during which I counted no less than 26 cranes in the space of less than one kilometre. Since then, I’ve kept my eye on China.
While writing last week’s column, which was basically a critical analysis of Washington’s discourse on China as it prepares for its Democracy Summit, I did not imagine that Beijing would have the slightest interest in locking horns with the US over ideology. At most, I thought, China would respond with curt references to the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. As it turned out, it had much more to say. Rather than turning to the Red Book for which Mao Zedong supporters reached during the Cultural Revolution, it took an original initiative that might set in motion a global debate over the type of government system most effective in managing the affairs of humankind. For the first time, to my knowledge, China has unveiled a document on the ideological framework of the Chinese state, presenting it as a framework for success.
On 4 December, the Global Times, a publication of China’s People’s Daily newspaper group, announced that the State Council Information Office had released a “white paper” with the title “China: Democracy that Works.” Its philosophy is laid out in five chapters: Whole-Process People’s Democracy Under CPC Leadership; A Sound Institutional Framework; Concrete and Pragmatic Practices; Democracy that Works; A New Model of Democracy
The general thrust of these chapters can be divided into two basic themes: a critique of the Western political and economic system as epitomised by the US, and a noble defence of the Chinese political and economic alternative resting its case on a comparison between the results and outputs of both systems.
The white paper does not reference conventional Marxist tenets about the distribution of surplus value and class conflict. It proceeds from a common ground and frame of reference: the shared value of democracy. However, in the Chinese view, there is not one type of democracy. Rather, it can be shaped by the particular circumstances of a country and must meet the test of efficacy in responding to the actual needs and aspirations of the people, a principle that is fundamental to the very concept.
The origins of the Chinese system are painful, but the point of the white paper is not so much to dwell on an unpleasant past but rather to stress that different environments and historical circumstances give rise to systems of government suited to these conditions. It reminds us of the evolution of the American model, which began as a democracy of slaveowners and an elite minority that only gradually expanded to realise the principle of “One Person, One Vote.”
Even then, due to social divisions and polarisations, ordinary people do not have the power to turn their votes into a mechanism to safeguard and promote their actual interests. Government is an abstract, disassociated from their day-to-day lives. Members of the US House of Representatives and Senate are constantly bickering and grandstanding while the federal government might totally ignore criticism and even rebuke the press (this is a reference to Trump and his harangues against the media). As result, even the press loses its ability to influence policy.
The white paper does mention some positive aspects of Western democracy, above all, the rule of law and the role of the justice system. However, it also sharply criticises the American experience for its inefficacy, after more than two centuries of excessive consumerism, at solving the most salient problems in the country. Democracy there has been hollowed out and reduced to the electoral rounds, and winning has become the highest aim of political parties and politicians. Moreover, to them, solving problems is increasingly viewed as uneconomical. It has now become “smarter” to pretend to solve problems and then berate political opponents for failing to address the issues and abusing the trust of voters.
“Those politicians can make random promises for the sake of elections, but they seldom fulfil their promises after being elected. Superficially they accept voters’ supervision, but in fact as long as they are elected, the voters have no option but to wait for the next election. They are only awakened during voting but become dormant after voting,” said Tian Peiyan, deputy director of the Policy Research Office of the CPC Central Committee, in a press conference on 4 December.
Efficacy and achievement are the main criteria informing the Chinese criticism of the American experience and the positive assessment of China’s own. The facts speak for themselves, as they point out. A major test was the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic which has caused more than 700,000 deaths in the US. Yet, the federal government in Washington does not need to assume responsibility and, indeed, the president can shirk his duty to counter the anti-mask and anti-vax trends.
In sharp contrast to the American experience, the “whole-process people’s democracy” does, indeed, pose a challenge, especially on the basis of its ability to realise the highest possible prosperity for the people. As one official put it, it was designed democratically to address the problems of the real world, from poverty and air pollution to epidemics and energy shortages. China was the first country to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and it was the first country to emerge from the crisis by effectively organising the treatment of infections and, simultaneously, the research and development needed to produce vaccines.
In all events, the US-Chinese debate is on.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.