Why Is China Insisting It Is a Democracy?

THE DIPLOMAT – DECEMBER 2021 – By Brian Wong

The attempt to frame an alternative model of democracy highlights a shift in the CCP’s quest for legitimacy.

Just ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, the Chinese State Council Information Office published a whitepaper outlining its distinctive conception of democracy. Much of China’s recent emphasis upon democracy – through an alternative discourse that deviates considerably from the West’s – should be read in light of the wider context of the country’s search for a plausible and emphatic legitimation narrative.

Legitimation narratives are the set of discourses and argumentation advanced by states as justification for the normative legitimacy of their rule over their territories and citizens. Such narratives have both domestic and foreign audiences – domestic, in the sense of persuading citizens at large to accept their rule; foreign, in deflecting and pushing back against challenges to the state’s territorial sovereignty and claim to political authority.

Such narratives manifest in many forms: The United States has historically centered its regime around the dual notions of freedom and democracy. The British bicameral system, coupled with a constitutional monarchical framework, emphasizes representation and checks and balances. Singapore, on the other hand, prizes meritocracy and quality governance as the fundamental lynchpin to its rule. Legitimation narratives bolster regime strength and continuity, heighten popular buy-in and support, and provide compelling reasons for individuals to refrain from secessionist activities.

The Chinese state is no exception in its search for legitimacy, but the legitimation narratives employed by Beijing have shifted and evolved during the post-reform and opening-up period (1978 onwards).

By the time of Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to the zenith of political power in China, he was presented with a country of over 980 million people, an economy ravished by decades of internal turmoil and upheaval, and a generation of youth starved of education due to the Cultural Revolution. Given political constraints, Deng was compelled to reinterpret Marxist-Leninist doctrines in a manner that would justify both rapid economic development and the continued political survival of the Chinese Communist Party (see Zhang Weiwei’s commentary on Deng thought in 1996).



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