“China did not reproduce Western models of democracy, but created its own,” the State Council said. “It all boils down to whether people can enjoy a good life.”

They argued that what defined democracy was not whether a person had a vote, but whether the government kept its promises and enforced the rule of law.

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“There is no fixed model of democracy,” the Council of State said. “Whether a country is democratic should be recognized by the international community, not arbitrarily decided by a few self-proclaimed judges,” referring to US-led multilateral groups such as the Quad, Five Eyes and G7 .

In a message intended to attract other autocratic governments seeking democratic clout, the State Council said that as a populous country long plagued by weak economic foundations, China must find a balance between democracy and development. One could be sacrificed for the other when circumstances demanded it.

“The priority always remains development, which is facilitated by democracy and in turn stimulates the development of democracy.”

The advisers acknowledged that in China’s version of democracy there were no opposition parties, but argued that “China’s political party system is not a one-party system of government.”

“The [Communist Party] is the ruling party and the other parties accept its leadership. They cooperate closely with the Communist Party and function as its advisers and assistants.

In China, villagers can vote in local elections for Communist Party candidates. These local representatives then vote for the leaders above them at the regional level, a pattern that repeats up to the National People’s Congress.

This model, Xi’s advisers said, shunned Western weaknesses in politicians acting in their own or their parties’ interests, raining down campaign promises during the campaign, breaking them once elected and fueling division in society.

“This is very encouraging for developing countries and greatly boosts their confidence in the development of their own democracy,” the State Council said. “China’s new approach to democracy represents a significant contribution to international politics and human progress.

But there was a problem. The Chinese Constitution describes it as a dictatorship. Xi’s advisers had to figure out how to marry democracy and dictatorship for an international audience.

“Democracy and dictatorship seem like a contradiction in terms, but together they secure the status of the people as rulers of the country,” they said. “A tiny minority is sanctioned in the interest of the great majority, and the ‘dictatorship’ serves democracy.”

Mao had a formula for this tiny minority: 95% of people are good, 5% are bad – including the militants and agitators who resisted one-party rule.

The white paper did not mention Mao’s other phrase: “Political power arises from the barrel of a gun” or the People’s Liberation Army’s sworn loyalty to the party, not the country.

“When they say, people’s democratic dictatorship, what they mean is that the party exercises dictatorship in the name of the ‘people’, as opposed to the ‘people’, which includes ‘evil elements’,” explains Linda Jaivin, an Australian sinologist. and author of The shortest history of China.

“In Chinese communist conceptions of ‘people’, those who are loyal to the party and its aims are represented by the party, which means that the party speaks on behalf of the people, not that it has to listen to the opinion of the majority.”

Sinologist and author Linda JaivinCredit:Anthony Johnson

Fellow Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé praises former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s ingenuity in renaming socialism with “Chinese characteristics”, a term that has now been slapped in China’s economic, trade and democratic theory.

“It really stems from this brilliant, very simplistic innovation,” he says. “As soon as they came up with this concept, that such and such can be renamed with ‘Chinese characteristics’, then it allows everything else to be renamed and renamed according to China’s national situation and traditions. .”

Jaivin spoke alongside Barmé at the Sydney Opera House’s Antidote Festival last Sunday. The couple met and married in China (and are now divorced), but after decades of studying its language, culture and politics, both are alarmed at the direction under Xi, China’s president. who purged his rivals, rapidly expanded state control and crushed Chinese civil society.

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“The danger is that when you do this through a cult of personality and the suppression of all dissenting opinions, history will eventually turn against you,” Jaivin says.

“He has a messianic sense of mission,” Barmé says. “He is truly called the alpha and omega of the Chinese people – the solution to all their problems.”

Barmé first met Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, in 1981 while working in the Deng Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen. In 1983, Xi the Younger would become secretary of Zhengding County in Hebei, his first step to becoming a key member of the next generation of Chinese leaders.

“I have always been aware that at some point this group, which became particularly adolescent activist at the start of the Cultural Revolution, will be in a position to inherit power. The majority of them then carved up the country and became the wealthy Chinese billionaires.

“Some of them decided to go into politics. They are now the Politburo standing committee.

Barmé says Chinese civil society, academics and progressive thinkers have watched with despair as their country has become more nationalistic, sensitive and insular under the rule of Xi and the Children of the Cultural Revolution.

“It was a welcome relief to have Donald Trump in power in the United States, because now you can all understand how educated and sensible Chinese people feel about their government,” he says.

Xi, who unlike Trump rules without the threat of a direct democratic election, now wields unprecedented power at home. Chinese media suggest the 69-year-old is likely to be named People’s Leader or National Party Congress Chairman on October 16.

But he faces problems abroad, where China’s growing aggression towards Taiwan, belligerent diplomatic rhetoric and the COVID-19 response have isolated him from advanced economies. China’s efforts to rebrand democracy are part of its global campaign to reach out to developing countries that feel isolated by the West.

He found sympathetic ears at home and abroad.

Chinese civil society, scholars and progressive thinkers have watched with despair as their country has become more nationalistic, sensitive and insular.

“Democracy cannot be reduced to what Americans call liberal democracy,” John Keane, a professor of politics at the University of Sydney, told China Daily earlier this month.

“The Chinese mode of government contains democratic qualities that should not be overlooked. There is a very strong sense in the political system that power ultimately rests in the hands of the people. Any attempt by the government to violate this principle will end badly.

Keane listed village elections, online question-and-answer sessions and an app for residents to monitor and report on their water quality as democratic innovations.

“Western so-called democracies have their own system, and China has its own democratic system,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization. “China is so big, the biggest communist country and the second largest economy in the world. Western countries are not doing very well. I can see if it’s not explained well, people feel threatened.

Despite Wang’s optimism after three years of COVID-19 control, China’s economy is struggling more than its leaders would like.

The Communist Party has up to 100 million members and most of them have partners, relatives or children associated with their party status. “As much as a quarter of China, if not more, is directly linked to the party and benefits from its rule,” Barmé explains.

They are keenly aware of the symbolism of the 20th Chinese Party Congress to build confidence in the party’s mission.

“When you look at how the Communist Party has handled history from the beginning. It’s a series of erasures. They erase the party’s own mistakes and reinforce its achievements,” says Jaivin. “They are very aware of the history of the Soviet Union and its collapse.”

Soviet leaders Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Kruschev and Joseph Stalin in 1934.

Soviet leaders Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikita Kruschev and Joseph Stalin in 1934. Credit:magazine of life

In 1956, at the 20th Party Congress of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced former dictator Joseph Stalin for his personality cult and reign of terror. Stalin had died three years earlier, but the speech sent shockwaves through Eastern Europe. By the 1980s, the ripple effects of the discourse had created the conditions for glasnost, the policy of transparency introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the communist regime in Moscow.

“For the first time, with glasnost, people had a very clear view of all the mistakes and all the horrors inflicted on the people of the Soviet Union by the party. They thought why the hell are we ruled by a communist party that has been so economically incompetent and politically cruel? »

The Chinese Communist Party, through its strict censorship, historical revisionism and changing democratic image, tries to ensure that the same thing can never happen in Beijing.

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“Everyone thinks it’s just economics and it’s rational actors that fit into the general neoliberal worldview,” Barmé says. But they don’t see how [the party’s theories and texts] actually work as a meaningful form of communication and governance, and how that underpins everything.

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