Days before Washington this week announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, China released a white paper touting its own democracy and criticizing America’s.
Two elements may have been decisive for a boycott in the US, which had been uncertain for months. The first is the public disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai, with Beijing ignoring calls from the International Tennis Association to provide information about her whereabouts.
Then there was the case of Lithuania, whose exports to China were virtually halted by Beijing after the recognition of Taiwan, ignoring WTO’s free trade provisions.
For Washington, that meant that China is not serious about adhering to international standards, that it cannot be trusted on its promises and thus should not have normal Winter Games. This could also make the political atmosphere more toxic.
Right or wrong, we are going back to a full-scale Cold War. The first with the USSR actually took many years to shape. The pace of this one is much faster and the contours are different.
In this situation, it is extremely important not to play the situation. On the contrary, Beijing may feel compelled to retaliate strongly. The Winter Games are the face of China, and this insult is ruining the face and pride of China so that the response can be harsh.
This could complicate things further, while the recent white paper on democracy leaves many loopholes.
China’s White Paper on Democracy says: Democracy comes in many varieties; no country has the patent on it. It means, “America has no right to judge my democracy.”
That’s fine, but can the concept of freedom China demands externally deny it internally? If no one can outwardly deny China’s idea of democracy, can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) internally deny China’s various ideas of democracy?
That is, one cannot use one rhetoric externally and then reject the same rhetoric internally. If China wants freedom between countries, it must grant that freedom internally; otherwise it contradicts itself.
It would be more convenient to agree an idea of democracy with America externally and then apply it internally. Otherwise, there are two possibilities: 1) China contradicts the use of different concepts for inside and outside 2) if inside gives the same freedom that it demands outside China, then many Chinese have their own ideas about democracy, the country falls into chaos.
If democracy has to do with a place, China for example, and it can vary from place to place, then there would be the democracy of Guangzhou, Sichuan, Beijing and Shanghai. Then there is the democracy of Beijing’s western district, the eastern district, and so on.
The keyboard shortcuts of Chinese features
China used the concept of “Chinese characteristics” to highlight differences between China and other countries. During the Deng Xiaoping period, this idea expanded in the country. Each local government gradually moved away from Beijing’s orders by emphasizing the “local features” to which certain centralized measures could not be applied. But this created confusion and everything became chaotic.
China defines its democracy as popular and claims that it truly respects and reflects the interests and will of the people. In contrast, in Western democracies, the interests of the people are hijacked by the interventions of interest groups who want to put the state at the service of their own specific agendas.
In fact, this points to a huge weakness in liberal democracies. It has always been there in liberal democracies, but now, especially after the experience of Donald Trump’s extreme populism denying the outcome of the vote and with the overwhelming power of often monopolistic internet industries, it has much greater prominence and impact.
But unlike the USSR, China does not say that its model of democracy is superior or better than the liberal one. China says: ‘There are so many democracies, why do western countries, including America, deny mine?’ This argument is indeed well founded and can be shared.
But by denying the superiority of its own model and denying that the two models are radical alternatives, as the USSR did, it highlights the problem of logic we saw: how does Beijing deny the Chinese the freedom to choose the democracy that they want, when the same Beijing claims this freedom of America?
That is, the Chinese argument would gain acceptance in the West if the different places in China were to freely choose their model of democracy. But that is not the case.
Beijing has put itself in a logical short circuit, which is essential and existential. The fact that this short circuit has emerged in the white paper seems essential and fundamental, revealing deep undercurrents at work beneath the calm surface and backward thoughts of the document’s authors, in almost a Freudian slip.
The people who wrote and approved the white paper do not believe and do not want a totalitarian system for the whole world; they want, at least for now, a global system in which their own system of government can survive and be accepted. In the future, of course, everything could change, one way or another.
But in reality, by failing to resolve the Freudian slip, the Chinese ideological system puts itself in the worst position of all, between two chairs, neither fowl nor fowl. It is a position of considerable ideological instability.
Of course, only intellectuals can realize the contradiction, but they are the engine, the great priests of the system. When they struggle to sort out their thoughts, their system of “faith” and trust, everything becomes more fragile. The government then relies too much on violence, which cannot last too long, except at increasing costs.
The question is, if China declares an ideological war on liberal democracies, as the USSR did, it will have the problem of having to try and export its system. This had dire consequences for the USSR; it would be much harder for China, which is much less international than the Soviets.
Or it has to come to terms with the Western liberal system, which is also very difficult, but perhaps less than an ideological war with the West.
Then another issue. China’s criticism of American democracy is all justified and reasonable, but so what? What is the solution Beijing offers Washington? What is the alternative? No.
It says your system doesn’t work, ours does, but it doesn’t go beyond that to say you should take over ours. This reinforces the logical paradox; it doesn’t soften it.
On the other hand, America says that the Chinese system is not working and that China should take an approach like ours for its own good. It can be right; it may be wrong; it may or may not work from a practical point of view.
It opens up the immense front of how democracy is exported, and whether democracy is exportable anyway, but it is a proposition from a logically cohesive point of view.
This is all about logic, but there is a logical unspoken reality that one must keep in mind. The Chinese tradition has an erratic relationship with logic that has been distorted by the ultralogical doubt of Zhuangzi, a third-century BC philosopher who reliably demonstrated to the Chinese how logic is not reliable. So instead of logic, the Chinese look to practical results.
Viewed from Beijing, America’s state of affairs, from its infrastructure to its venomous politics, is unconvincing, and American logic threatens to look like a hoax. That said, since the Chinese aren’t crazy, the logic of the Chinese white paper doesn’t work either. Then, from Beijing, we’re in an objectively difficult situation, but at least we’re starting to tackle a real problem.
From Washington it seems just the opposite. A boycott means that American confidence in Chinese commitments and commitments is disappearing and so is the interest in baseless conversations about principles. Anything can happen in this situation.
This essay first appeared on the Settimana News website and has been republished with permission. To see the original, click here.