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Chinese views on US definition of “democracy” and “legitimacy”

Everyone knows that America is a republic with freedom and rights for all, while China is a communist dictatorship. Or do they?
Chinese workers on the production line of the General Motors car factory in Shanghai, China. July 31, 2007. (Serge Attal/FLASH90)
Chinese workers on the production line of the General Motors car factory in Shanghai, China. July 31, 2007. (Serge Attal/FLASH90)

On Dec. 18 Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard, chairman emeritus of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, and retired Brigadier General John H. Johns, professor emeritus from US National Defense University penned an article in Foreign Policy calling for US-Russia cooperation in Syria and a halt to US obsession with regime change of autocracies they dislike.

The authors criticized that “In the past, Washington has tried to sideline dictators like Assad, Muammar al Qaddafi in Libya, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  We have advocated democratic norms and human rights in those countries.  The results:  increased chaos and destruction, rather than a shift to the norms and aspirations for a democratic revolution.”

interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Iraq
Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria

Interestingly this sentiment echoes earlier Chinese views. Alarmed by misguided western-backed democracy promotion that resulted in these jihadi-infested Mideast failing states, the Chinese have been questioning US monopoly on defining what the words “democracy” or “legitimacy” mean in the international order.

US as a partial democracy

 In his 2010 book The China Dream, retired PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu from National Defense University challenged US foreign policy towards non-western countries.

Translated into English in 2015, Colonel Liu argued US is not the gold standard for the definition of “democracy” or “legitimacy” in the international system, and rebuked US penchant for overthrowing foreign governments that do not fit Washington’s standard or preference.

According to Liu, he made the stunning claim that the US is only a half democracy—a democratic system at home, but a hegemonic and autocratic power abroad. He said: “the substantive characteristic of a democratic country has two aspects: The first, democratic domestic policies without totalitarianism in domestic society and the second, democratic international policies without hegemony in the international community.”

Noting US often bypasses international consensus, and uses military power to overthrow “non-democratic” and “illegitimate” dictators it dislikes (e.g., in Iraq, Libya, Syria) while supporting US-friendly “legitimate” dictators (e.g., in Qatar, Saudi Arabia), Liu states that US failed the test of a true “democratic” power.

“To judge whether a country is democratic one needs to see whether it adopts democratic systems at home and in international diplomacy.” Because US failed the “democratic” litmus test in the international system, Liu views US is only a “half democratic” country and therefore should not wag its finger at others for not being democracies.

At such Liu discussed how a rising China with a different political system should not be seen through a zero-sum lens as a US “enemy” or “antagonist”, but rather as a “competitor” for market shares in a multipolar world.

Stating how China’s dream is not automatically America’s nightmare, Liu exhorts that both powers can mutually co-exist in a new international order that is not molded to a US model of governance, but rather consists of a mosaic of different political systems unique to each region’s history, culture, and civilization.

Who defines “legitimacy?”

Liu also questions US standards for choosing enemies based on western values and ideology. On the question of legitimacy, how does one define it today?

In the past, US viewed communism as an illegitimate form of governance while democracy is a legitimate form, but does this apply even if it is an illiberal democracy as in the case of Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi?

Although Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt was a democracy, it did not retain legitimacy with its own population. Singapore on the other hand is not a democracy, yet it retains legitimacy with its own population. Should US now sponsor regime-change in Singapore if it is autocratic and therefore deemed illegitimate by western definition?

In other words, does western definition of legitimacy trump non-western definition of legitimacy? And if so should the question then be about legitimacy (of governance), and not necessarily democracy, given one can have an illiberal and therefore illegitimate democracy?

But even within the west, there is also a transatlantic division on the definition of “legitimacy.” For example, Europeans have a different perspective from the US regarding China and its legitimate role in the world.

On whether Europe would support US against China over tensions in the Western Pacific, as German scholar May-Britt Stumbaum from Free University described, “China is the new sexy in town, provocative, different, and attractive” and that “Europe does not and will probably never share the United States’ hard power perspective on Asia-Pacific.”

Last September when the Obama administration was considering sanctioning China over cyber issues in addition to sanctioning Russia over Crimea and Iran over its nuclear program, Hans Kundnani from the German Marshall Fund again summed up the transatlantic perception gap towards China.

He noted European governments are tempted to stay out of perceived bilateral China-US disputes, and just as Hilary Clinton in 2009 lamented to then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd “How do you deal toughly with your [Chinese] banker?”, the US proposed sanctions on China presented a dilemma for EU member states and particularly exporters like Germany.

For them the question would be “how do you deal toughly with your customer? For other member states, particularly countries of the eurozone ‘periphery,’ it will be: How do you deal toughly with your investor?”

Likewise despite Washington rebuking London’s “constant accommodation toward China” when it became a clearing house for the Chinese RMB, Britain led the way for an eventual flood of US allies in Europe, Mideast, and Asia rushing to join the “illegitimate” China-led AIIB that competes with the US-led World Bank.

BDS and “legitimacy” of Israel

Now as Israel is following the US pivot to China/Asia and Washington is not pleased,  it is Jerusalem’s turn to answer the question “how do you deal toughly with your customer/investor/new business partner?”

This is especially challenging when old friends from the West are increasingly delegitimizing Israel through the BDS movement while China is pouring in investments, especially highlighted by the Beijing investors’ conference this week with over 90 Israeli companies represented.

Perhaps, as the German scholar observed, beauty and legitimacy in some cases is in the eye of the beholder. Just as US views China as an antagonist while EU views “China is the new sexy in town, provocative, different, and attractive,” from the Chinese perspective Israel is not a “goliath” or an “apartheid”, but is now “the new sexy in town” that is stable, thriving, and very attractive in an otherwise tumultuous and burning Middle East.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a California-based academic and consultant specializing in China-Mediterranean/Middle East relations. Specific areas of interest include China's Belt and Road Initiatives, Defense and Peace Economics, Conflict Management, and U.S.-China-Israel relations.
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