The rise of China is not the death of western democracy

Beijing may want to be a global leader, but it is not operating in a zero-sum game

Chinese President Xi Jinping is shown on a screen during an event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China at the Memorial of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai, China June 4, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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If the G7 leaders had taken to heart China's President Xi Jinping’s recent exhortation to Communist Party officials to promote a “credible, loveable and respectable China”, they showed little sign of it at last weekend’s summit in Britain. The G7’s criticisms were strong enough for Beijing’s UK embassy to condemn what it called “baseless accusations” and of “slandering” and “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” The Nato summit then followed up by warning of China’s “coercive policies” and “use of disinformation” on Monday, leading Beijing to denounce the organisation’s “Cold War mentality”.

This is not a good direction of travel. Mr Xi will be well aware that negative perceptions of China increased drastically in a number of parts of the world last year. So when he said, “It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends with those who understand and are friendly to China," that ought to have been welcomed and taken seriously.

For while competition on trade and influence between China and the US and its allies is here to stay, the polarisation is getting worse partly because several false narratives are becoming set in stone. The Build Back Better World initiative that the G7 launched, for instance, has been unanimously framed as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Why would the BRI need “countering”? Only because it has been painted as a cunning plan to advance Chinese domination through stealthy “debt trap diplomacy”.

The polarisation is getting worse partly because several false narratives are becoming set in stone

Never mind that this myth has been thoroughly debunked, not least by an excellent report produced by the leading international affairs think tank Chatham House, as I wrote about last October. Never mind that many states in the Asia-Pacific welcome the support Beijing is providing to build much-needed infrastructure. No, the BRI's very real achievements remain unsung as it has been successfully smeared in the West, whereas in fact the G7 should be seeking to complement this great exercise in connectivity and growth, not rival or replace it.

Double standards are applied to anything connected to China. Thus branches of the British Council or Germany’s Goethe Institutes are benign promoters of their countries’ culture, language and values, whereas China’s Confucius Institutes – which do exactly the same thing – are denigrated as purveyors of propaganda and have been kicked off a string of university campuses in the US and Europe.

Sometimes these narratives are completely manufactured, deliberately, it seems, to ramp up the sense of confrontation. I have read time and again, for example, that China is trying to export its model of governance. Where is the evidence for this? Yes, Mr Xi wants to hold his system up as a success, and under his leadership China has been far more assertive in standing up for itself and its interests.

In the South China Sea, where there are many often overlapping claims, Chinese presence in disputed maritime features and the appearance of Chinese fleets in disputed waters has ruffled feathers in the neighbourhood, to say the least. The tariffs Beijing has placed on Australian wine and barley were meant to hurt because they are aimed at influencing policy-making in Canberra. That may be tough and it may not seem fair to Australians, but it is hardly out of the ordinary behaviour for a great power.

Could any US official claim with a straight face that Washington hasn’t acted similarly? Former US President Barack Obama even intervened in the Brexit referendum – surely none of his business – by threatening Britons they would be at the “back of queue” for a trade deal if they voted to leave the EU.

In contrast, one of the aspects of today’s China that countries in South-East Asia do appreciate is that while Beijing may attempt to influence them, it does not seek to interfere in their internal issues. It is certainly not going around trying to tell others to adopt a one-party mixed Marxist-Leninist-capitalist system. The notion then that China is trying to export its model of governance is baseless and ought to be called out.

These and other falsehoods matter because what the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright recently identified as “the Biden doctrine” consists precisely of “a competition of governance systems with China”. If in that context China is being accused of doing something it is verifiably not doing, that is a highly irresponsible attempt to raise tension further.

To take another example, in US President Joe Biden’s speeches about “democracies versus autocracies”, he doesn’t always mention Beijing. But Mr Wright is correct in suggesting that he has China principally in mind. If that is so, it is vital that this framing relies not on insinuation but on evidence – which was not the case when Mr Biden gave a speech to a US military base in the UK last week. He said: “We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow nations believe”, which again was clearly aimed at China (and to a lesser extent Russia).

It fitted with much of what he and his officials have been saying over the past few months, and perhaps didn’t stand out as a result. But who actually believes that the “age of democracy is over” – which nations or leaders? Mr Xi has said nothing of the sort. In fact the “death of democracy” is most frequently brought up by western writers who are worried it is happening in America.

Mr Biden has said he is determined to stop China surpassing the US as the leading, wealthiest and most powerful country in the world on his watch. That is a legitimate aspiration for a man in his position. What is not right is for him to erect and rely on straw men in pursuit of that goal. Doing so falsely fosters the idea that competition between nations is a zero-sum game, when “win-win co-operation” with a China that Mr Xi said should be “open and confident, but also modest and humble” is still possible.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National