November 2021, Xinhua News contacted me and asked if they could interview me for my opinions on the upcoming Joe Biden “Democracy Summit”. To be honest, I don’t know much about American democracy, but I do follow US politics, especially as it prtains to China. My comments on places like Twitter and here in medium, have been picked up by many Chinese journalists and amplified, I assume because they like the idea of an informed foreigner offering opinions, especially when those opinions support the situations they are trying to encourage the world to understand about China.
I agreed to the interview, they sent 7 questions and I spent three days researching my own answers based on online searches, news reports, some academic works and many of my own opinions — this is not meant to be an academic report in any way, where I’ve made a statement that is a fact, I can support it, ask me in the comments if you want a link. Some parts of each answer are just opinions and nothing more, feel free to disagree but don’t feel free to argue with me about them. We have different experiences and these experiences will lead to different opinions, let’s agree that much and disagree about the content.
If you agree and can either add or support some of the things I say, please feel free to make a comment, I try to get back to all comments in a timely manner and will endeavour to do so to you. So, here are the questions and the answers I wrote in preparation, when I was interviewed on TV some of the questions differed slightly, some of the answers differed slightly but the gist remains the same…
1. Biden will hold an online “summit for democracy” this December, some believe that this would hinder the process of world multi-polarization. Can you share your views on this?
I’d firstly question whether this is, in reality, a Democracy summit, or simply a threat assessment. Is this summit about encouraging non — US style — democratic countries to become more like the US or is this being badged as such to hide the fact that it’s a containment planning session for countries like China, Iran North Korea, Venezuela, Nicaragua and all the other countries especially in Africa that are aligning with China nowadays?
Important to remember the reason Biden needs to do this: At home and abroad, there are some very serious issues for him to deal with. Much of Africa and South America is shifting allegiance away from the USA, much of Asia is doing the same. There’s a constitutional crisis looming any day now over the right to carry arms and defend oneself in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. Biden needs to prove that American democracy is strong enough to lead globally — this is seriously in doubt after the debacle of the 2020 election and the storming of the Capitol on January 6th — as with any major events in the USA (9/11) an introverted look into what went wrong is stymied by politics and partisan interests so the only way to achieve bi-partisan results is to find another problem outside of America and do two things, deflect the blame for internal failures, and deflect attention from the fact that they can’t be fixed.
A further comment I’d like to make, based on this question, if Biden really wanted to encourage other countries to become democracies, the best way is not by bombing and sanctioning those countries, wouldn’t it be better to hold a summit for the non-aligned countries and show them the benefits rather than request other countries who have the system join you in killing, starving and forcing countries to be like yours?
Democracy in many countries is not about the freedom to select representation. It’s is a “money-making machine”: the 2020 Presidential election for example cost 14.4 billion, the Georgia Senate race a few months later cost a further half a billion: Where did all that money go?
2. As the organizer, the U.S. is about to invite so-called “democracies” that it has identified on its own. And Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the participants of the US-initiated “Leaders’ Summit for Democracy” will be determined by Washington. This is essence Cold War-style bloc mentality that would split the international community into “us and them”. Do you have any comment?
I saw those comments from Sergey Lavrov and absolutely agree, there is a danger the world will be split into an “us and them”. There is very little incentive for a non-democratic country to become democratic. It was tried in Korea, Vietnam, many African and South American countries and then the Middle East and Iraq and Afghanistan — it was even tried in China during the 60s when millions of people starved. Few countries can show any benefit of the USA’s sanctions, invasions or occupations.
If USA wants more democracies in the world, how about incentivizing them, as they’ve done with South Korea, Japan and even, to an extent Taiwan. The simple reason is they can’t afford that
What this split in the international community has done is create a division, we already see Venezuela, Russia, Iran and China working together
3. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson of China once said “Democracy is not a dogma and one should not try to turn democracy into Coca-Cola，and deprive countries of the right and freedom to explore their own democratic path, in total disregard of the diversity of history, culture, social system and development stage of countries.
What’s your thoughts on this?
We need to interpret what the FM spokesperson meant by this and I think the answer is simple, in the USA you usually have a choice of a Democrat or a Republican, in the UK it’s Labour or Tory, in Australia its Liberal or Labour and basically this means that the “flavour” with the most marketing dollars is going to be able to get the vote of the people who are fed information through mainstream media advertising. Do you prefer Pepsi or Coca-Cola, because if you prefer a local brand, there isn’t a hope of getting that brand elected as they don’t have the advertising dollars to market their way into your timeline — these are helped by the social media outlets which are predominantly conservative and we saw a great example of this recently when the President of the US was banned from Twitter. 75 million people agreed with what he said, but the owners of the platform didn’t so his opinion was removed.
4. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released earlier this month，81% of national adults replied “there is a serious threat to the future of our democracy,” What’s your thought on this and the how do you see the model of Western democracy?
I personally don’t think there’s any doubt that democracy is dying in the West, if not already dead: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt both Harvard professors have written a book about this. There are some very serious issues in US democracy right now. Democracy is predicated upon the smooth transfer of power.
So obviously, one problem with US Democracy is that, for the first time in history, a US government refused to accept the result of the vote. We saw that go right down to the wire on 6th January. There are still approximately 70 million people in the USA who believe that Trump is still the legitimate president. That’s nearly 20% of the people and a much higher percentage of the registered voters.
Another big problem is the voter suppression issue. Many of the reasons are legal but are they actually valid? If you have committed a crime, you can’t vote, if you don’t have a registered address you can’t vote, in some places if you don’t carry ID you can’t vote but some forms of ID are not accepted and others are, for example in some states a firearm licence is accepted but a State ID card isn’t, so you may work in the government but if you don’t have a driving licence or a firearm licence you can’t use it to vote. Ir you’re homeless, and there are many millions of them, you can’t vote.
Probably the largest problem in democracy now, and I hate to quote Donald Trump, but he’s absolutely right in one aspect, fake news dominates the process. In some cases, there are misrepresentations, some misunderstandings but in many cases clear lies. How can an individual reading anything believe what they’re reading? This isn’t a US problem, it’s a problem anywhere where there’s a perception of free speech
These are three major problems, probably a lot more, but three serious problems which for me, proves that democracy isn’t dying, it’s dead already: Peaceful transfer of power; voter suppression and media manipulation
5. What do you know about Chinese-style democracy? (like put the people in the first place, People’s democratic dictatorship, whole-process people’s democracy) and How do you see the “whole-process people’s democracy”?
Western democracy is what’s known as representative democracy, the people vote for a representative who should take the people’s hopes, aspirations and concerns then help the country to legislate and improve. China’s democracy is more of a direct democracy, the larger group, in this case the party make rules and regulations but based on feedback from the grassroots — people in the west are often critical of the Chinese “restrictions on social media” but in fact, those restrictions aren’t very restrictive, we’re told, in the west that in China you can’t criticise the government. This is entirely incorrect, an example I can cite is the Li Wen Liang case. He was criticised by his local authorities and then went back to work, nothing insidious or even very serious there. But the fact he then went on to catch covid and die made this tiny story hit the international media. There was an outpouring of grief in China, of course there was anger too at the time. What then happened hasn’t reached western media: in December last year, the laws were changed, whistleblowers receive protection within the law and processes are in place to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again. Dr Li has been turned into a national hero, his family have been compensated and will want for nothing now.
The difference here is that the legislators in China have listened to the people, heard what they had to say and acted appropriately. How this works in China never gets reported
When Bush, Blair and Howard in Australia, decided, without the approval of the UN to go to war in Iraq, there were protests in all the capital cities — protests lasted several months, culminating in February 2004 with protests in 600 cities and more than 1.5 million people in the streets. Yet they went to war. Compare this response to how China responded to China’s grief and anger and ask yourself: which model of democracy is better?
6. China has made great achievements in tackling problems such as poverty and COVID-19 epidemic. What do you think of the role of Chinese-style democracy in this process?
China’s system of governance is definitely a huge factor in the success of Poverty Alleviation. Democracy is the right word to use here. For sure, in its purest form, democracy is the right word, but in the political sense that most westerners would use it, probably not. No one voted on it and no one campaigned for it and I think it’s systems like China’s that cause so much confusion for people who understand democracy as a two-party political system.
When talking about Poverty Alleviation, I prefer to call this grass-roots. I’d argue all day that China has a better system of democracy than America and be able to point to hundreds of examples: infrastructure, literacy rates; education; health costs; social security and working conditions (industrial relations laws) there are also privacy and data management laws to protect individuals. When it came to poverty alleviation, China had not just a desire but an obligation, moving from one of the poorest countries in the world to the richest in my lifetime is a staggering achievement. That they did so, and in such a short period of time is an even greater achievement.
Poverty Alleviation initiatives start and finish at central government level but to me what’s much more important is the rural areas and even in the towns and cities where there are people struggling. Every case of poverty alleviation I’ve seen or been involved in has been managed by local people working with local departments and designing bespoke systems that benefit individuals as much as they do communities — there isn’t a better definition of democracy than seeing the government at every level working the roots of problems
7. Some say the path to achieve democracy should be varied and should not be confined to a stereotype. What’s your thoughts on that?
The best way to answer this question is to start with another question: What actually is democracy?
Popular rule: is probably the best answer, how that’s achieved is a very different process depending on very different cultures. The US has an individualistic culture, China has a collective culture, US individuals thrive on challenging authority (a low power distance index (Hofstede)) in order to maintain equality while China is much more hierarchical and respectful of authority. Both systems are ok if you live in, and understand them, but they are quite strange to each other and approaches need to be different.
Social stability is what counts, everything comes from that. No country can survive if they don’t have social stability. How that’s achieved can be different in different places, there is no “one stop shop”. Between 1910 and 1949 China had social instability, The US is going through a process of instability now, they may not recognise it, but history will.
A rural and agricultural country such as China was until the 1970s needs a different form of governance to a rich industrial and technological country like the USA, but as countries develop through industry, resources, technology then so will the system of governance — one of the great things about China is that it has one party with changeable policies, the west different forms of governance but not so good at changing policies, their form of democracy prevents progress — I’m sure there are many Americans who are wondering what changed in January when Biden was sworn in — foreign policy hasn’t changed, industrial relations aren’t improving, social services aren’t changing, crime isn’t improving, the crisis related to crime, health, guns, drugs, racial tensions, civil disobedience all of these contribute social stability and all need management.
It’s more than a year since the election in the USA and Biden has only just managed to get an infrastructure bill passed, the enquiries on the January 6th incident haven’t yet found a single responsible person who contributed to organizing that, the enquiries into how Covid has killed three quarters of a million people have held no one responsible, Trump is Still making claims that the election was stolen from him. How can an environment like this have any social stability and grow?
The simple answer to the question is no, there isn’t a stereotype of democracy, what works for some will not work for others