Is democracy declining or just being redefined?

Line of Defence Magazine - Summer 2021

Democracy decline
Democracy Summit stoush highlights a new 'war of words'.

As the West laments a global decline in its version of democracy, China suggests its own brand of democracy as a replacement. It’s part of an increasingly contested space, writes Nicholas Dynon, at the discursive end of great power competition.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern participated recently in the virtual Summit for Democracy, a conclave hosted by US President Joe Biden of 100 invited representatives of countries boasting varying democratic credentials.

In thanking the president for the invitation, the prime minister noted the challenges posed by Covid-19 and other events that “threaten to disconnect and divide us.” Indeed Biden himself warned that democratic erosion represents “the defining challenge of our time,” and a chorus of commentators and think-tanks agree with him. 

According to Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), 2020 was the fifth consecutive year in which the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism outpaced those moving toward democracy. Washington-based Freedom House, asserts that authoritarianism has been on the rise while democracy has declined for the past 15 consecutive years. 

During this period, says Freedom House, more than twice as many countries (119) have experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties than have experienced improvements (55). The organisation calculates that less than 20 percent of the global population lives in what it regards a ‘free country’, the lowest percentage since 1995.

Contributing to these figures, states International IDEA, is the fact that the number of ‘backsliding’ democracies has doubled in the past decade. Among these backsliders are EU member states Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, and ‘established democracies’ such as the US.

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The view from Aotearoa

“As one of the oldest democracies in the world New Zealand will always protect and defend the principles of democracy, pluralism, and partnership, underpinned by human rights and the rule of law, because they form our identity as a nation,” said Prime Minister Ardern in her delivery of New Zealand’s national statement to the democracy summit, which was held over 7-8 December.

Her comments made it perfect timing for the 8 December release of the Defence Assessment 2021, a document detailing the New Zealand Ministry of Defence’s independent advice to the Government on the defence and security challenges facing New Zealand.

Subtitled he moana pukepuke e ekengia e te waka / a rough sea can still be navigated, this assessment paints a turbulent picture of geostrategic competition, with democracy under threat.

Identifying a “strong international rules-based system, centred on multilateralism and liberal democratic values” as one of Aotearoa’s four ‘Defence Interests’, the Assessment charts a recent history in which decaying democracy is leading to a potential shift in the foundations of the international rules-based system.

“After reaching a high-water mark in the early 2000s, overall global adherence to democratic norms has been declining,” it observes. “This ranges from increases in nationalist sentiment, through reversals in previous trends toward greater liberalism, to a narrowing of the civil society space. Globally, moves away from democracy within individual states contribute to weakening the basis and support for the values and norms that underpin the international rules-based system.”

The trend of “liberal democracies sliding into illiberalism” had also been remarked upon as a major threat in other recent Ministry of Defence documents. the Statement of Intent Tauākī Whakamaunga Atu 2020-2024 and the Strategic Defence Policy Statement (SDPS) 2018.

“Challenges to open societies and Western liberalism, driven by increasing disillusionment with existing arrangements within these societies, threaten to reduce the willingness of open liberal states to champion the rules-based order,” stated the SDPS.

Democracy Redefined

Biden’s democracy summit did not, of course, go unnoticed by less democratic members of the global community who hadn’t received an invitation. Prominent among these was the People’s Republic of China, which – not to be outdone – took the opportunity three days beforehand to release a white paper titled China: Democracy That Works.

The 55-page State Council Information Office white paper extolling the virtues of China’s democracy was followed by a report the next day targeting the malaise of US democracy.

“Democracy is a common value of humanity and an ideal that has always been cherished by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people,” it stated. 

“Democracy is the right of the people in every country, rather than the prerogative of a few nations,” it noted. “Whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders. Whether a country is democratic should be acknowledged by the international community, not arbitrarily decided by a few self-appointed judges.”

On the same day as the white paper’s release, China’s State Council reported on a telephone call between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Medmood Qureshi in which “Wang expounded on China’s position on the so-called ‘Summit for Democracy’.”

“Many countries believe neither is the United States in a position to set tests and standards for others nor does it have the rights to ask others to only follow its way of democracy,” China’s top diplomat reportedly said, stressing that if democracy is to be discussed “it should be discussed on the platform of the United Nations in the spirit of mutual respect and on an equal footing.”

Wang’s comments highlight the fact that what democracy means in the US, or New Zealand, for instance, is not the same as what it means in China. 

Published earlier this year by the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the Decoding China Dictionary is a resource that illustrates how key political words mean different things to Chinese and Western policy makers. It explains that in China, “democracy refers to the Marxist-Leninist system of democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism, in which the CCP is the ultimate representative of the peoples.”

“This political system of ‘socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics’ is explicitly distinguished from Western liberal democracy, which is seen as incompatible with China’s unique conditions. While citizens in China can vote for their local representatives, the CCP is constitutionally defined as the sole ruling party, preventing any transfer of power.”

As the dictionary’s editors Malin Oud and Katja Drinhausen point out, Chinese officials are told to guard against constitutional democracy, universal values and civil society in their liberal sense, and that liberal or “Western” values are a threat to China’s unity and political stability.

According to Oud and Drinhausen, China’s rise in a multipolar world means increasing competition over international values and standards. 

“The rules-based world order and multilateralism rely on a global consensus on what the norms underpinning the international system entail. When the meaning of terms like the rule of law, human rights, democracy and sovereignty become blurred, international norms are undermined.”

Discourse Power

While it might be easy – and indeed feel more comfortable – to put Beijing’s redefinition of democracy down to the self-serving actions of an undemocratic political regime, it would be analytically lazy – and detrimental – to do so.

We need only to consider the example of the term ‘communism’ to understand why this is the case. Today, communism is synonymous with China. Ask the person next to you to think of a (current) communist country, and in all likelihood their answer will be China. 

This is despite communism’s beginnings as a Western political concept that was imported into China in the early 20th century. By the time the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, its brand of communism had become something quite different to what its European originators had envisaged. Fast-forward to today and the communist label China gives to its form of nationalistic authoritarian capitalism would no doubt cause Karl Marx to turn in his London grave.

It’s an example that demonstrates the dynamism and contestability of political and ideological concepts such as democracy, communism, human rights, rule of law, governance, etc. These are concepts that defy singular definition – and over which scholars, law makers and diplomats perpetually wrangle.

In the case of democracy, it could be said after all that the democracy of classical Athens under Cleisthenes bears little in common with 18th century British democracy, which, in turn, shares little with contemporary American democracy. Between and beyond these examples exist many other disparate flavours of democracy that would appear hardly recognisable to each other.

Thus, on theoretical grounds alone it is reasonable for Beijing to question the notion that a US brand of democracy is more legitimate than any other. On practical grounds, the US and others have provided Beijing with much practical ammunition with which to discount the primacy of Western notions of democracy. The storming of the US Capitol earlier this year by Trump supporters contesting the outcome of the 2020 election is an obvious example.

The Beijing elite at the helm of a rising China are better placed than ever to influence international narratives around democracy and related concepts. They see this as achievable via the exercise of instruments of discourse (or discursive) power.

According to Atlantic Council report Chinese Discourse Power: China’s Use of Information Manipulation in Regional and Global Competition, “discourse power is a country’s power to set agendas in the international arena by influencing the political order and realigning other countries’ ethics and values.” For China, discourse power is an effective strategy to achieve a more positive image internationally and to create an international environment more conducive to its national interests.

The exercising of discourse power by a state falls within what is commonly described as the ‘grey zone’ – that area of the conflict spectrum in which actions by a state to coerce or undermine another state are carried out in ways that fall short of war. Neither kinetic nor decisive, information-based grey zone strategies are generally designed to work away slowly in the background according to a tempo not found on any military metronome.

The report, published in December 2020, makes the point that Beijing’s discourse power efforts are closely linked to its geopolitical interests, including those relating to the South China Sea; Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet; and its projection of power further afield. 

“China’s “peaceful rise”, states the report, “will be proven successful when the superpower itself rewrites the rules and structure of international society, while at the same time the great powers adapt and adjust those rules to the new disposition.”

While that possible eventuality may well be some distance over the horizon, grey zone activities such as the exercise of discourse power are – by principle – incrementalistic. China has not yet sold its definition of democracy to the world, but I would argue that 2021 marks the year that it started in earnest to achieve just that.