Editorial

US President Joe Biden’s virtual “summit for democracy” is set to further divide the world at a time when our planet is in urgent need of a global effort to tackle a host of pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

Indeed, ideologically and geopolitically motivated divisiveness is the last thing that our planet needs right now.

The summit taking place this Thursday and Friday comprises only about half of the world’s UN member states as well as an entity that is neither recognised by the UN nor the US: Taiwan. A mere 15 states (including the Vatican) still maintain diplomatic relations with the island that Beijing regards as an inalienable part of China. The US recognised in three communiqués between 1972 and 1982 that Taiwan, which was a Japanese colony for 50 years until its return to Chinese rule in 1945, that there is only one China and that it includes Taiwan.

Inevitably, Biden’s decision to invite Taiwan to the summit is a provocation and an undisguised challenge to the “One China” principle which is formally recognised by over 90 percent of the world’s states – including the US. Even the US State Department does implicitly recognise this fact by describing all those taking part in the summit as “participants”, not “states” or “countries” – a perhaps grudging concession to realpolitik.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), where about 18 percent of the world’s population lives, and Russia, which accounts for 11 percent of the world’s land mass, are among many other countries that haven’t been invited by Biden. Others not included in Biden’s list are traditional US allies such as Turkey and Singapore. Among the Portuguese-speaking countries Angola has been invited, but Mozambique hasn’t.

It’s obvious that the Biden administration uses its own yardstick for what it regards as “democracy” as far as its list of about 110 invitees is concerned – and that’s the crux of the matter.

In my first semester of political science back in the 1970s in Munich our professors told us the obvious – there isn’t a single model of democracy. Patently, it depends on a wide range of politico-historical factors. Western political culture generally regards ancient Greece as the cradle of its kind of democracy – the Greek etymology of the word means “rule by the people”. Generally speaking, in the West the term “democracy” nowadays is simply shorthand for “liberal democracy” – although even in the West democracy in practice is quite different from country to country.

The Chinese term of democracy is “min zhu” (民主), a term that combines the characters for “people” (民) and “host” (主). The etymology of the term is quite complex, and I recommend an article by Lin Wei, a professor at the School of Translation of Jinan University in Guangzhou on the matter. *

Prof. Lin’s article is a good example of how differently the concept of “democracy” has developed all over the world.

President Xi Jinping said at a central conference on work related to the country’s people’s congresses in October that “it is in itself undemocratic to use a single yardstick to measure [the world’s] rich and varied political systems and examine the diverse political civilisations of humanity from a monotonous perspective.”

Indeed, democratic development is a multifaceted phenomenon. There are states like China that have a history of independent statehood of thousands or hundreds of years and many other countries whose history – unfortunately – includes hundreds of years of colonial exploitation and cultural repression. A country’s history, among other things, determines what kind of democracy is chooses to develop.

Under Xi China has chosen “whole-process people’s democracy” as the way forward, based on a multi-layered system of people’s congresses (local, provincial, national).

The State Council Information Office released on Saturday a white paper** on how “democracy works” in China. According to the paper, “Democracy is a concrete phenomenon that is constantly evolving. Rooted in history, culture and tradition, it takes diverse forms and develops along the paths by different peoples based on their experiments and innovation.”

According to the paper, whole-process people’s democracy integrates two major democratic models – electoral democracy and consultative democracy.”

It underlines that “whole-process people’s democracy has distinctive Chinese characteristics; it also exemplifies common values and contributes China’s ideas and solutions to the political progress of humanity.”

The paper shows that China has developed its own concept of democracy that is rather different from the West’s – and the paper has an interesting conclusion: There is always scope for improving the system of democracy. Humanity’s quest for and experiments with greater democracy will never end.” Absolutely!
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I hope that the West – the US as its undisputed leader in particular – will finally accept the fact that China has chosen its own development model that, by the way, it is not trying to impose on anyone else – unlike the West. China is not a banana republic ripe for regime change engineered by the West. It is the world champion in poverty alleviation and is now working on its common prosperity (共同富裕) goal which is no mean feat either. The West’s outdated concepts of rollback and containment and evil stereotypes of Yellow Peril and China Threat should be thrown into the dustbin of history.

Incidentally, as an inveterate social democrat, I watched in horror a talk show on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) a few weeks ago in which one of the guests pointed out that rising poverty isn’t an issue for politicians down under because it’s not a vote-getter. And I always thought that poverty alleviation is one the most democratic measures imaginable.

As Sino-US ties are the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship they need to be carefully nurtured like a delicate flower. What the world needs is that its two most important countries are able to work out a mutually beneficial relationship in a pragmatic and realistic manner. They don’t need to become bosom friends but should strive to set up a workable partnership.

That’s why I would like to hope that the summit’s unfortunate “us-vs-them” approach is just an ephemeral aberration, possibly caused by domestic politics.

Just one last remark: I find the ill-considered allegations of genocide in Xinjiang by some Western politicians extremely repulsive. I separately discussed the issue recently with a local Portuguese media friend and a former university mate from Munich, who is Jewish, and both said that the claims are an insult to the victims of the Holocaust. I could not agree with them more.

– Harald Brüning

* The Translated and Transformed Concept of Min Zhu

(Democracy and Republic): A Political Cultural Influence

on Translation by Wei Lin, International Journal of Languages, Literature and Linguistics, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2018

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