Presidential summits tend to focus on PR rather than substance. The Biden administration’s “Summit for Democracy” looks no different.
Its objectives were worthy. As the State Department explained it, President Joe Biden planned 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 through collective action.” However, most of the topics probably have been covered by recent Washington think tank webinars, just without the global media attention.
Unfortunately, opened by the president and televised for the public, the gathering of 110 countries—more than half the United Nations membership—was almost guaranteed to avoid practical action. A series of smaller and unpublicized meetings covering narrower subjects in greater detail would have been more helpful.
In any case, the focus on democracy was problematic. Occasionally holding elections and counting votes accurately is good behavior. But a free society such actions do not make, as is evident from the list of participants. Although free societies require democracy, democracy is not enough to make societies free. And autocrats often use the trappings of democracy to disguise their misrule.
Consider the president’s 110 “democratic” participants. Three—Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq—are rated “not free” by Freedom House. Another 31 conferees, including Fiji, Georgia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Ukraine, are judged “partly free.” Reasonably free elections are important, but these nations’ problems go much deeper.
Still, even foreign dictators have demonstrated that they want to be part of any club that purports to be exclusive. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were particularly upset at being excluded. Their ambassadors to America, Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov, respectively, penned an article explaining the unfairness of leaving their countries outside looking in.
Qin and Antonov were outraged that the Biden administration chose to define which countries were democratic: “An evident product of its Cold-War mentality, this will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines.’” Of course, Russia and China never engage in any activity that divides countries!
There also is the definition of democracy. It depends on what is is, as President Bill Clinton once explained. And democracy doesn’t have much to do with voting for one’s leaders. Wrote the ambassadors: “Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries, but a universal right of all peoples. It can be realized in multiple ways, and no model can fit all countries.”
Within the China and Russia models, democracy doesn’t require counting votes accurately or even holding a poll. For them, voting appears to be the least relevant act in democracy. Wrote Qin and Antonov: “If the people are only awakened when casting their votes and sent back to hibernation when the voting is over, if they are served with sweet-sounding slogans in campaigns but have no say after the election, if they are wooed during canvassing but left out in the cold after that, this is not a genuine democracy.”
No doubt there is some truth to this analysis. However, if one has no say over who is elected, then he or she is certainly going to be “left out in the cold.” Democracies can be more or less effective. But they are not real democracies if officials are not chosen in competitive elections.
Nevertheless, Qin and Antonov contend that their nations are real democracies. Antonov has the easier time, writing: “Russia is a democratic federative law-governed state with a republican form of government. Democracy is the fundamental principle of its political system. The democratic institutions were further strengthened by the amendments to the Constitution adopted through a referendum in 2020.” Which is true. Unfortunately, none of that matters, since Russian electoral campaigns are rigged and vote counts are fraudulent.
Explains Freedom House, which rates Russia not free: “Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent.”
Xi Jinping has a tougher time selling his nation as a “democracy.” Popular elections played no role in his selection as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary or China’s president (the first position actually is more powerful). Party bodies, such as the Central Committee, sometimes weigh in, but they also are not chosen by the people.
So Qin simply asserted that the issue is unimportant and not desired by the Chinese people:
What China has is an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy. It reflects the people’s will, suits the country’s realities, and enjoys strong support from the people. In China, the people have the right to elections, and they can get deeply involved in national governance, exercising their power through the People’s Congresses at the national and other levels. China has eight non-Communist parties participating in governance, as well as a unique system and corresponding institutions of political consultation. On matters concerning people’s keen interests, there are broad-based and sufficient consultations and discussions before any decision is made.
The People’s Republic of China presents an impressive facade. Despite the regime’s dismissal of Western-style democracy, the CCP craves acknowledgment as “democratic.” The party insists that it embodies the will of the people, who have a right to elections but are happy and therefore don’t request free votes. Incredibly, those consulted always seem to agree with their rulers’ proposals.
However, Freedom House describes Chinese reality a little differently:
China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, has consolidated personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades.
China and Russia are charmingly defensive about democracy when it comes to outside pressure. They assert: “Interfering in other countries’ internal affairs—under the pretext of fighting corruption, promoting democratic values, or protecting human rights … go against the UN Charter and other basic norms of international law and are obviously anti-democratic.” There are good prudential arguments against promiscuous intervention in other nations’ affairs. However, while seeking to undermine an undemocratic state might be imprudent, it is hardly undemocratic.
Speaking of democratic, consider the response of Hong Kong’s Erick Tsang, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, to criticism by the Wall Street Journal of the territory’s recent electoral crackdown. Despite an onslaught of restrictions and prosecutions, Tsang insisted that basic freedoms would be protected, “but any manipulation to sabotage an election will not be tolerated,” such as holding a primary and criticizing the government. Tsang closed with a warning: “Please be advised that inciting another person not to vote, or to cast an invalid vote, by activity in public during an election period is an offense under section 27A of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, irrespective whether the incitement is made in Hong Kong or abroad. We reserve the right to take necessary action.” Remember the fate of Apple Daily, hint, hint?
China and Russia are right to cite governance as well as elections. Results matter. However, these governments protest too much when they dismiss the essential role of elections and ignore the larger issue of liberty. When Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin risk their jobs in a fair political fight, they can call their nations democratic. Until then, they will remain just two more tinpot dictators, deserving to be ousted from office.