Chinese Communist officials have branded the constraints imposed on Hong Kong’s electoral system as “the new practice of democracy” in the former British colony — a vocabulary for the ideological competition between Washington and Beijing.
“The standard of whether an election is successful is not how high-profile or bustling it is but if the elected are capable to improve governance,” Liu Guangyuan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for Hong Kong, told a multinational audience Wednesday. “The development of Hong Kong’s democracy reminds us that it is time to wake up from the ‘Western-style democracy myth,’ put aside bias, and take an objective view over the new practice of democracy in Hong Kong.”
Chinese officials published Liu’s speech and a white paper touting Hong Kong’s “democratic progress” in English, apparently campaigning to claim democratic legitimacy for Beijing’s political program. That discourse suggests Chinese officials believe they have an effective rhetorical strategy not only for defending the crackdown in Hong Kong but also competing for political influence in fledgling democracies worldwide.
“They're getting more assertive, and their marketing is getting better — now they're starting to use a discourse that is designed to be acceptable in the West,” U.S. Army War College research professor Evan Ellis, a former member of the State Department policy planning staff, told the Washington Examiner. “By talking about ‘democracy’ and not talking about a system, they not only legitimize it their own terms but they position themselves better with other audiences.”
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Liu’s speech drew a derisive rebuttal from one of the European Union’s lead policymakers for China.
“We shouldn't forget that the citizens of Hong Kong have already returned a verdict on that propaganda crap by not participating in the election in any meaningful numbers,” Germany’s Reinhard Bütikofer, the head of the European Parliament’s China delegation, told the Washington Examiner.
Only about 30% of Hong Kong’s registered voters participated in the latest legislative election, held after the mainland regime used a national security law to ban pro-democracy candidates.
“The participation was less than half of what it was last time, and even those that went only went because they were being coerced by their employer or by Chinese institutions,” Bütikofer said. “Their propaganda is not all that powerful, and it's based on lies.”
Chinese officials have begun to appropriate the language of democracy beyond the confines of Hong Kong, along with their closest partners. Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, who represent their capitals in the United States, agreed that democracy “can be realized in multiple ways, and no model can fit all countries,” according to a joint op-ed.
“Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries, but a universal right of all peoples,” the ambassadors wrote in the National Interest. “Therefore, a basic criterion of democracy should be about the people, i.e. whether the people have the right to govern their country, whether their needs are met, and whether they have a sense of fulfillment and happiness.”
Liu used similar rhetoric while denying the national security law “excludes dissidents from the governance structure." But the policy of allowing only pro-Beijing candidates to run for office drew condemnation from Japan, the United Kingdom, and other democratic powers.
“Since handover, candidates with diverse political views have contested elections in Hong Kong. Yesterday’s election has reversed this trend,” said the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing bloc of the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. “The overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system introduced earlier this year reduced the number of directly elected seats and established a new vetting process to severely restrict the choice of candidates on the ballot paper. These changes eliminated any meaningful political opposition.”
President Joe Biden’s administration foregrounded the ideological gap between the U.S. and its allies and countries such as China and Russia by convening the virtual Summit for Democracy earlier this month. El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who was not invited, soon seized an opportunity to denounce the U.S. government.
“It is clear that the interests of the United States Government have NOTHING TO DO with democracy, in ANY COUNTRY,” Bukele tweeted.
That protest came after U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two Salvadoran officials for giving “financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang” in exchange for political support and a reduction in violence.
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Bukele’s rhetoric suggests China’s “new practice of democracy” could resonate with corrupt politicians in other countries.
“China used to say, ‘Well, we aren’t trying to impose a model, but if others want to learn from our example, that’s fine,’” Ellis said. “Now China’s starting to say, ‘Yeah, we think we have a model.’”