By Kalinga Seneviratne
With the geo-political battle between China and the United States gathering momentum in Asia, whoever can define democracy better and demonstrate that it works for the betterment of the people, could win the battle in coming years.
One may argue that there is no such battle for democracy because it is a battle between democracy and authoritarianism with China clearly in the latter box. But, while the Covid pandemic has been devastating the world, China has moved aggressively to redefine democracy as a development right accusing the West, and the US, of weaponizing human rights and democracy.
They won a small victory at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in July last year when a resolution on the role of development in promoting and protecting human rights for the wellbeing of the “entire population” was adopted by 31 votes to 14 with even India voting for it along with other Asian countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal. Voting against it were mainly European nations plus South Korea and Japan.
The resolution called upon the UNHRC to organize a regional seminar before the 2023 sessions to define the role of development in promoting human rights. It is in this process a new definition of democracy could be born and the Asian media need to pay attention to it because the western media would ignore it.
In a speech to the Canberra Press Club in August 2020, China’s deputy ambassador to Australia Wang Xining said, “the overarching mandate of the government, and the Communist Party of China, is to meet the ever-growing needs of our people for a better life and promote comprehensive human development and common prosperity, by eradicating poverty, upgrading productivity, optimizing the allocation and improving livelihood”. He described this as “building socialist democracy”.
Later responding to a question by an Australian journalist he said that it is the wrong attitude to say, “mine (western) is democracy and yours is not”. He argued that it is a narrow interpretation and an empty political slogan. “I think democracy is not the end, it is the means (of socio-economic development)” noted Wang.
In the opening speech to his own Democracy Summit in December 2021, US President Joe Biden acknowledged that people all over the world are dissatisfied with democratic governments because they feel these are failing to deliver their needs. “In my view this is the defining challenge of our time,” he said. At the same time, he warned that autocratic governments “justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today’s challenges”.
Referring to rare bipartisan legislation he has just signed, The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Biden said: “This legislation will make a generational Investment to deliver what people need most in the 21st century: clean water, safe roads, high-speed broadband Interne —all of which strengthens our democracy by creating good-paying union jobs”. He also added that soon he hopes to sign the “Build Back Better” plan, “which will be an extraordinary investment in our people and our workers”.
Interestingly, Biden’s definition of democracy seems on the same wavelength as that of China’s development rights-focused socialist democracy.
Addressing the same summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to distance India from the western origins of democracy by noting that India’s democratic tradition is over 2500 years old. Pointing out to the 10th-century “Uttaramerur” inscription that codified the principles of democratic participation, he said, “this very democratic spirit and ethos had made ancient India one of the most prosperous. Centuries of the colonial rule could not suppress the democratic spirit of the Indian people”.
In his surprisingly short speech, he offered India’s expertise in holding free and fair elections, and warned that nations need to “jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and crypto-currencies, so that they are used to empower democracy, not to undermine it”.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government recently enacted new Internet control laws that target social media companies, digital news services and curated video streaming sites. R. Jagannathan, editor of pro-BJP Swarajya magazine while acknowledging that internet-based social media has given a voice to the voiceless in society, argues that tech platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter “are now brazen enough to censor those they disagree with”. Thus, these platforms that “practice cancel culture with a vengeance” need to be regulated and “held accountable for what they do or do not”.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by western agencies and used as a weapon for human rights and democracy campaigns in Asia have come under the scrutiny of many Asian governments. They use young people, and these campaigns often spill over to the streets and create social chaos such as seen recently in the anti-monarchist demonstrations in Thailand and the democracy protests in Hong Kong. In both countries the government moved to enact authoritarian laws.
In early January, the Thai government led by former military leader Prayut-Chan-o-cha, flagged legislation to control NGO funding in the country. The NGOs Operations Act is expected to be passed by parliament soon that would require NGOs to submit their activity plans for government’s approval in advance to ensure that “public order” and “good morals” are not affected. The Thais treasure their monarchy as providing social stability to the country by protecting its Buddhist and national identity.
In Hong Kong, protests that started in June 2019 against a proposed extradition treaty spiralled into violent demonstrations over months with involvement of foreigners in many spheres of the movement that alarmed the Xi Jinping government in Beijing. China accused protest leaders of meeting with US politicians in Washington, and the Chinese media compared the uprising to the ‘Arab Spring’ protests a decade ago that brought social and political chaos to the Middle East.
Thus, China moved quickly to crack down on the protesters with legal means, enact “national security” legislation and hold elections last year which they dubbed as “patriots only” elections. Hong Kong authorities insisted that the security law imposed in 2020, was needed to ensure stability after the protracted protests that rocked the Asian financial hub in 2019.
In 2021, the Modi government called Twitter’s policies in India of censoring right-wing content as attempts to “dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy” and in his Democracy Summit speech he did not pitch India as a liberal democratic alternative to China. This would leave the question open whether Asian nations could see the common ground when it comes to development rights.
While the West tries to paint it as a “debt trap”, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is increasingly seen across the region as providing opportunities to expand trade and development. On the other hand, the western alternative in the form of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is seen as what the name—a military alliance that could trigger conflicts rather than development cooperation.
Earlier in January, during a visit to Colombo, when Sri Lanka asked China to help restructure its debts to the country, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a forum on the development of Indian Ocean Island countries to build consensus and synergy, and promote common development, in which Sri Lanka can play an important role. Interestingly, there is an alternative QUAD being developed between Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and China that would use the Chinese built harbours in the Indian ocean along with the development of industrial zones around it to build a new development architecture for the region.
In a response to the Democracy Summit, China’s foreign ministry in a statement released in the Global Times said the US is trying to “thwart democracy under the pretext of democracy”. It argued that the people need to judge the success of democracy in terms of a country’s development and social progress, and the delivery of a happy life for the people.
By pushing for so-called “democratic reforms” and inciting “colour revolutions”, the statement argues “democracy has become a weapon of mass destruction” to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.