By John Dotson
On December 9-10, the Joe Biden administration hosted a two-day “Summit for Democracy,” which was intended to “bring together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today.” Hosting the summit fulfilled a vow made by president Biden in a speech in February, in which he declared his intent to “host [a] Summit of Democracy early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally [and] to push back [against] authoritarianism’s advance.”
The virtual event included government and civil society representatives from 110 invited states and one supra-national body (the European Union). Although questions were raised by some regarding the list of invited states (e.g., Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo were invited, while Bosnia and Bangladesh were not), the list of invitees was largely representative of most of the world’s democratic states. Taiwan stood out on the list as the only democratic polity lacking in widespread international official diplomatic recognition to be invited.
Taiwan’s senior representatives for the summit were Digital minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳) and Hsiao Bi-Khim (蕭美琴), Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States. Speaking at the summit on December 10, minister Tang expressed Taiwan’s support for liberal democratic measures such as upholding a free press, promoting anti-corruption initiatives, and combatting online disinformation. In her speech, she stated that:
Although Taiwan is a young democracy, it’s standing firm on the front lines of the global struggle with authoritarianism. It also plays a leading role in advancing freedom, democracy and human rights worldwide. […] As democracies, we must trust our citizens and invest in public infrastructure in the digital realm. This is the best and only way to protect and advance our shared values. Today’s summit is the perfect platform to bring democracies together and explore ways to collaborate.
Beijing’s reaction and attacks on the United States
Beijing’s reaction to Taiwan’s participation in the summit was predictably strident. Following the initial announcement of the US invitation to Taiwan, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) stated on November 24 that:
China resolutely opposes the United States inviting the Taiwan authorities to join this so-called “leaders democracy summit.” There is only one China in the world. The government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legal government to represent China, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. […] Aside from being a part of China, Taiwan has no status under international law. We sternly urge the US side to abide by the One-China Principle… [and] to cease offering any platform to “Taiwan independence” forces […] playing with fire alongside “Taiwan independence” forces will lead to getting burned.
The governments of the PRC and the Russian Federation were pointedly excluded from the summit, prompting a harsh joint statement from the PRC and Russian ambassadors to the United States that the gathering represented “an evident product of [America’s] Cold-War mentality,” which would “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines’” among nations. Xu Lin (徐麟), the vice-director of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Propaganda Department (who also serves as the director of the PRC State Council Office, although it is the former title that matters), stated in a press conference on December 4 that:
“The United States calls itself a democratic leader, and organizes and manipulates the so-called ‘US Summit for Democracy’ […] it actually uses democracy as a guise to suppress and contain countries with different social systems and different development models, and cover its own undemocratic moves. This will be a joke in the history of democracy.”
Making an oblique response to criticisms from the PRC, Taiwan’s minister Tang contrasted Taiwan’s model with “some nearby authoritarian regimes,” and further commented that “For all the governments and peoples around the world who feel maybe slighted that they have not been invited as a participant, my suggestion is to double down on realizing democracy so that, maybe by the next round, we will be sharing the same stage.”
Beijing’s coordinated propaganda campaign on the nature of “Democracy”
Further official PRC comments reinforced that, for the leadership of the CCP, the invitation list for the summit was a double provocation: with Taiwan’s participation representing a violation of the PRC’s claimed sovereignty over the island, and China’s own exclusion representing an implicit but clear US statement that the PRC did not qualify for attendance.
Beijing’s furious reaction was channeled into a multi-faceted propaganda campaign unveiled in the first week of December, beginning on December 2 with the “’Chinese and Foreign Scholars Talk Democracy’ High-Level Dialogue” (“中外學者談民主” 高端對話會), which was convened in Beijing and hosted by PRC vice foreign minister Le Yucheng (樂玉成). The event previewed themes to be further emphasized later in the week, with Le making a speech on how the model of “people’s democracy” in China “fits its own national conditions well,” and asserting that the government enjoyed “the universal support of the Chinese people,” while the United States and other foreign critics advocated democracy on their own model as a ploy “to contain the development of other countries.”
Foreign speakers at the event were trotted out to offer similar praise for the PRC system, as well as parallel criticisms of alleged Western democratic failure. For example, John Ross (a former advisor on economic policy to the mayor of London, who has since become a regular propaganda columnist for PRC state media) criticized European states on the grounds of their “claim that democracy is instead defined purely in terms of certain formal and official structures which they possess,” and asserted that “the issue of democracy is how much in reality rule by the people exists.” On these grounds, Ross argued that the PRC’s “concept of rule by the people” demonstrated that “China’s framework and delivery on human rights and democracy is far superior to the West’s.”
A second such event followed two days later with the “International Forum on Democracy: The Shared Human Values” (“民主：全人類共同價值” 國際論壇) conference in Beijing, organized by the CCP Propaganda Department (中國共產黨中央委員會宣傳部). The event featured a keynote address by Huang Kunming (黄坤明), director of the CCP Propaganda Department and a member of the CCP Politburo, along with another roster of both Chinese and foreign speakers who lined up to praise the superiority of China’s “socialist democracy.” A particular point was made to extol the governance record of the PRC in contrast to the alleged failures of other countries: as pointedly asserted by one speaker, “Of the top 100 countries with the highest death rate per 1 million people [during the pandemic], 85 are the very same democracies that Joe Biden invited to the ‘Summit of Democracies’.”
The capstone of this propaganda campaign came with the release of two government reports. On December 4, the PRC State Council Information Office (國務院新聞辦公室) (the more public face of the CCP Central Propaganda Department) issued an official white paper—published in English, for the benefit of an international audience—titled China: Democracy That Works. This document contains little that is new, instead reiterating traditional CCP talking points—such as the assertion that “consultative democracy” (協商民主) is a hallmark and superior aspect of the PRC’s CCP-controlled political system. As is now de rigeur for any official statement in China, the document also gives a nod to the personality cult surrounding Xi Jinping (習近平), as in this passage that hails the “deeper understanding” of democracy that has taken root since Xi’s ascension in 2012:
The people’s status as masters of the country is the essence of people’s democracy. Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, with a deeper understanding of China’s path to democracy and the political system, the Party has developed whole-process people’s democracy as a key concept and striven to translate it and relevant democratic values into effective institutions and concrete actions.
Whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state. It is a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a true democracy that works.
On the following day (December 5), the PRC Foreign Ministry capped off this propaganda campaign with the release of a report on the state of democracy in the United States, which criticized the “deficiencies and abuse of democracy” in America, produced by “money politics, identity politics, wrangling between political parties, political polarization, social division, racial tension and the wealth gap […] All this has weakened the functioning of democracy in the US.”
Taiwan’s invitation and prominent participation in the US-hosted “Summit for Democracy” clearly struck a nerve in Beijing. This prompted an angry, coordinated, and multi-pronged pushback by PRC diplomatic representatives and the CCP propaganda system. This propaganda campaign seeks to emphasize the “weakness of Western-style political party systems” (i.e., systems in which political parties contend through competitive elections), while further engaging in Orwellian distortions of language to assert the superior “democratic” nature of the PRC’s totalitarian system.
This brittle defensive reaction on the part of the CCP provides yet another reminder of the significance of Taiwan as a free society and flourishing democracy—one whose very existence gives the lie to CCP assertions that “Western-style” electoral democracy is incompatible with Chinese cultural traditions, and that the CCP’s own model of authoritarian “socialist democracy” accords more naturally with these same traditions and China’s national conditions. As long as the CCP under Xi Jinping pulls China in an increasingly totalitarian direction, the contrast between Taiwan’s legitimate liberal democratic system on one hand, and the false “people’s democracy” touted by the CCP propaganda system on the other, will be ever-more stark.
The main point: Taiwan’s participation in the US-hosted “Summit for Democracy”—and the exclusion of China—prompted a furious reaction from Beijing, which was focused on an intense propaganda campaign intended to assert the superiority of the PRC’s model of “socialist democracy” over that of the United States.
John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute and associate editor of the Global Taiwan Brief.