Why isn’t China a Democracy?

Dec 9, 2023
China 3D map dark background Image: iStock / Khadi Ganiev

U.S. President Joe Biden, the Western media, and American academics seek to rally Western democracies against China, allegedly the leader of the world’s authoritarian countries. They charged that China is not democratic. Is this charge true? How so?

China is known to have a long history during which scholars played a central role in society while their ideas about politics prevailed. One of these was the Mandate of Heaven, the gist of which was the ruler was to be considered legitimate if the people were happy and well off. If they were not the ruler would lose the Mandate and it was proper for his subjects to revolt and he would be replaced.

Confucius and other of China’s ancient sages spoke and wrote of politics in China. They advanced the themes of upright officials and honesty in government and their working for the people. Historically, China was more democratic than most other places in the world.

China’s recent history indicates Western democracy appealed to China. Various reform movement in China emulated the political systems of Western Europe and the United States. Sun Yat-sen, the father of republican China, was a champion of U.S. democracy and oversaw adopting a constitution modelled after the U.S. constitution that gave the U.S. its system of government.

But there were also contradictory lessons China learned from America and Europe. The West declined to support Sun’s democratic movement and instead threw in with Yuan Shih-kai, who was a dictator and sought to make himself emperor. Chinese were seriously disappointed.

In 1914, China supported the Western democracies, or the Allied Powers, against Germany and the Central Powers comprised of authoritarian nations. China was clearly on the side of the victors and deserved the spoils of war—most important getting back Germany’s leasehold in China. Most expected this.

But President Woodrow Wilson, known as America’s, most racist president, when Japan asked that opposition to racial discrimination be added to his famous 14 points, refused and instead allowed Japan to seize the German leasehold in China that should have been vacated and returned to China. China’s diplomats at the Versailles Conference walked out in dismay and disgust, to think badly of Wilson, America’s acclaimed proponent of liberal democracy.

Next, and arguably the eminent model of American democracy in his time, was Franklin Roosevelt, or FDR. The D in FDR was for Delano. Roosevelt. got his middle name from Warren Delano, who took over the opium trade in China when the British were expelled for spreading this poison that disabled and killed tens of thousands of Chinese citizens. He was FDR’s favourite grandfather who provided him with a large inheritance.

The Opium War which followed, led to China becoming a “pseudo-Western colony.”—worse than a colony since it involved exploitation unaccompanied by contributions. Foreign imperialist encroachment on China lasted for a hundred years. This Chinese came to know it as the “century of humiliation”–a dark period in Chinese history.

FDR was also a loyal supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, who claimed to advance democracy in China, but lost the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. President Roosevelt supporting Chiang against Mao and his communist forces resulted in a huge number of Chinese deaths and further undermined Chinese support for American democracy.

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman assumed Mao Tse-tung was a Soviet surrogate and a main driver behind launching the Korean War (which historians are not so sure about). Anyway, President Truman employed the U.S. military to fight North Korean and Chinese armies. The result was killing (according to U.S., estimates) 400,000 Chinese. Many died from napalm, a very painful and frightening death. (The U.S. now foreswears its use.)

The U.S. fought another war with China in mind in Vietnam, losing 57,000-plus soldiers and killing a million-plus Vietnamese, in what turned out to be a pointless conflict pursued in the name of advancing democracy.

More wars followed, in the Middle East and elsewhere. So many that former president Jimmy Carter portrayed America as a warmonger nation, not a protector of democracy. The Chinese did not disagree.

In 1979, during a brief hiatus in China’s leadership after Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping assumed the helm of leadership. He changed China from being governed by a radical, egalitarian communist regime to one that adopted a free market, free trade, and less party and central government control. He called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”; some said it was capitalism and partly democracy. China’s economy grew as never seen before in a big country. China literally boomed from 1980 on. Deng thus turned China into a world power of consequence.

In 2008, the United States experienced a recession that spread to much of the rest of the world. President Obama oversaw a recovery, but it was the weakest among almost any in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, China continued to burgeon economically. Thus, it began to challenge the United States for global power and influence.

The facts said so. China passed the United States in the production of automobiles—long a symbol of America’s industrial strength and its exalted position as a modern, dynamic country and the leader of the world in most respects. China’s production of steel, also the mark of an industrial power, surpassed the United States by a whopping tenfold. (China had already caught and passed the U.S. in steel production in the 1990s.)

In 2010, China became the number one country in the world in manufacturing, again outrunning the United States. Hence China passed America in another important measure of economic strength and influence.

In 2013, China gained the status of the foremost nation in the world in trade. This reflected China’s economic influence around the world and clout it had gained in national power.

In 2014, China grabbed the honour of having the planet’s biggest economy measured by its gross national product, if using purchasing power parity in that calculation (which was the measure used by many economists and international agencies).

Many national leaders, especially among developing countries, concluded that, contrary to what they had long assumed, namely that a democracy was the best system to produce economic growth and prosperity, the Beijing Consensus was superior to the Washington Consensus. China also convinced itself.

In early 2021, President Biden made his first pronouncement about America’s view of the world and its role in it. China, he proclaimed, was a threat to the U.S.-built world order. The United States would unite the world’s democracies against the China-led authoritarian bloc of nations. China was labelled America’s existential enemy.

But Europe was not all in. They did not fancy Biden’s bullying and America’s arrogant leadership. They were not persuaded they should break economic ties with China.

Ditto for Third World leaders. They saw America’s polity as having devolved away from democracy, with the rule of law having been scrapped in favour of a two-tiered system, the government adopting tyranny to rule, basic freedoms having devolved, and more. Some of them proclaimed they no longer wanted to hear sermons from Washington about democracy, which it was no longer practicing.

They were attracted to China’s pitch for a global system based on its financial and technology leadership instead of America’s world order built around military power. They noted democracy was in retreat worldwide. Liberty House wrote of democracy’s growing lack of global appeal, especially American democracy.

The question then was: What was China’s political system?

Aware of China’s history with the Western democracies and President Biden’s current challenge that had little resonance elsewhere President Xi plainly did not fancy the American system.

President Xi instead cited traits he wanted to see in China: prosperity, integrity, efficiency, patriotism, populism, the rule of law, openness. He even cited democracy. He railed against corruption and crime. He spoke about the “China Dream”—China becoming a great country and a model for others. He sought to help Third World countries develop. The Belt and Road initiative proved that.

President Xi wanted China to have good, honest and efficient government. However, it appeared he wanted to avoid any ism, Western democracy being one of them. Rather he simply wanted good government. Likely a good decision.

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