By Kalinga Seneviratne
As the geopolitical battle between China and the United States heats up in Asia, whoever can better define democracy and demonstrate that it works for the good of the people could win the battle in years to come.
Arguably, there is no such battle for democracy because it is a battle between democracy and authoritarianism with China clearly in the last box. But, as the Covid pandemic has devastated the world, China has taken aggressive steps to redefine democracy as a right to development accusing the West and the United States of militarizing human rights and democracy.
They scored a small victory at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in July last year when a resolution on the role of development in promoting and protecting human rights for the welfare of “the whole population” was passed by 31 votes to 14 with even India voting for it along with other Asian countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal. The votes against were mainly from European countries, as well as South Korea and Japan.
The resolution called on the HRC to organize a regional seminar before the 2023 sessions to define the role of development in promoting human rights. It is in this process that a new definition of democracy could be born and the Asian media must 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 overriding mandate of the government and the Communist Party of China is to meet the ever-increasing needs of our people to a better life. life and promote overall human development and common prosperity, eradicating poverty, improving productivity, optimizing distribution and improving livelihoods”. He described this as “the construction of a socialist democracy”.
Responding later to a question from an Australian reporter, he said it was a bad attitude to say, “mine (Western) is democracy and yours is not”. He argued that this is a narrow interpretation and an empty political slogan. “I think democracy is not the end, it’s the means (to socio-economic development),” Wang noted.
In the keynote address to his own Democracy Summit in December 2021, US President Joe Biden acknowledged that people around the world are unhappy with democratic governments because they feel they are not meeting their needs. “In my opinion, 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 effective way to meet today’s challenges.”
Referring to the rare bipartisan legislation he just signed, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Biden said, “This legislation will be a generational investment to deliver what people need most in the 21st century: clean water, safe roads, high-speed broadband internet — all of this strengthens our democracy by creating well-paying union jobs.” He also added that he hopes to soon 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 page as China’s socialist democracy focused on development rights.
Addressing the same summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to distance India from the Western origins of democracy by noting that India’s democratic tradition dates back over 2,500 years. Pointing to the 10th century ‘Uttaramerur’ inscription which codified the principles of democratic participation, he said: ‘This very democratic spirit and philosophy had made ancient India one of the most prosperous. Centuries of 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 must “jointly shape global standards for emerging technologies like social media and crypto.” -currencies, so that they are used to strengthen 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 organized video streaming sites. R. Jagannathan, editor of pro-BJP magazine Swarajya, 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 with whom they disagree. ”. Thus, those platforms that “practice cancel culture with a vengeance” must be regulated and “held accountable for what they do or don’t do.”
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) funded by Western agencies and used as weapons for human rights and democracy campaigns in Asia are under scrutiny by many Asian governments. They use young people, and these campaigns often spill over into the streets and create social chaos as seen recently in anti-monarchist protests in Thailand and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In both countries, the government decided to enact authoritarian laws.
In early January, the Thai government, led by former military leader Prayut-Chan-o-cha, announced legislation to control the funding of NGOs in the country. The NGO Operations Act is expected to be passed by Parliament shortly, which would require NGOs to submit their business plans for government approval in advance to ensure that “public order” and “good morals” are not affected. Thais cherish their monarchy because it provides the country’s social stability by protecting its Buddhist and national identity.
In Hong Kong, protests that began in June 2019 against a proposed extradition treaty have turned into violent protests over the months with the involvement of foreigners in many spheres of the movement alarming Xi’s government. Jinping in Beijing. China has accused the protest leaders of meeting with American politicians in Washington, and Chinese media has compared the uprising to “Arab Spring” protests a decade ago that wreaked social and political chaos in the Middle East. East.
Thus, China moved quickly to suppress protesters through legal means, enact “national security” legislation and hold elections last year that it called “patriots-only”. Hong Kong authorities have insisted the security law imposed in 2020 was necessary to provide stability after prolonged protests rocked the Asian financial hub in 2019.
In 2021, the Modi government called India’s Twitter policies of censoring right-wing content an attempt to “dictate terms to the greatest democracy in the world” and in its address to the Democracy Summit, it did not presented India as a liberal democratic alternative to China. This would leave open the question of whether Asian countries could see common ground when it comes to development rights.
As the West tries to portray it as a ‘debt trap’, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is increasingly seen in the region as offering opportunities for trade expansion and development. On the other hand, the Western alternative in the form of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is seen as its name: a military alliance that could trigger conflict rather than development cooperation.
Earlier in January, during a visit to Colombo, when Sri Lanka asked China to help it restructure its debts to the country, Chinese 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, an alternative QUAD is being developed between Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China that would use the Chinese-built ports in the Indian Ocean as well as the development of industrial zones around it to build a new development architecture for the region.
In response to the Democracy Summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in a statement published in the world times said the United States was trying to “thwart democracy under the guise of democracy.” He argued that the people should judge the success of democracy in terms of a country’s development and social progress, and providing a happy life for the people.
By pushing for so-called “democratic reforms” and inciting “color revolutions”, the statement claims that “democracy has become a weapon of mass destruction” to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.