For Americans, the continued discord in American politics comes at an inopportune time. The grim reality is that the country is stirring in a quagmire of social and political disharmony that is testing its resolve and calling to question its values as an imperfect democracy. For observers in China, a country with a more authoritarian-leaning stance, the political and social disunity in the United States retains political value as evidence of the weakness of American democracy.
Critiquing US Democracy
While Chinese scholars and political elites have historically viewed democracy itself as a positive human achievement, they have long critiqued American democracy as inauthentic and functionally inadequate. Nowhere is their criticism more poignant than in that of the electoral process. As relations between the two countries ebb and flow, so, too does the intensity with which this long-held view is expressed. In the 1980s, for example, such Marxist-inspired criticisms were somewhat muted. Likely explanations could be that China was more cautious as the two countries re-established relations, or the increased market orientation of China’s economy and its experience of the very societal woes- wealth disparity, corruption, and prostitution -for which it had sharply criticized capitalist countries, such as the United States.
In recent years, and markedly with the election of Donald Trump, criticism of the American political system via commentary on presidential elections has regained popularity. The Chinese media, much of which is understood to be an official mouthpiece of the Communist party that is thus required to present the official position on issues, is on the front lines of the ideological onslaught. Brandishing headlines such as “Reflecting on the Flaws of American Politics,” US voting system’s merit starts to fade,” and “Modern US democracy far from ideal,” they jab mercilessly at what many would agree are among the uglier sides of American politics: the destructive role of money in politics, political polarization, and the short-term view of politicians and the electorate in periodic elections. With their prose, Chinese journalists skillfully disparage free elections as the very foundation of American democracy, “reducing the two to mere contradictions.”
View on the US Presidential Election
The view of American elections as a defective means of pursuing democracy is a recurrent one, and although Chinese media spares no effort in highlighting its flaws, their perspective is not without merit. In its current fractured state, the American political system seems equally eager to provide the evidence. To the glee of commentators in China, the 2016 election cycle was a gift in its effect of reducing the American electoral process to a fantastic joke. During the 2016 election, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sparred ferociously with a never-ending surge of damaging revelations, collectively, these controversies served as a spectacle that harshly exhibited some of the flaws of the American political system.
The Role of the CCP
From a more pragmatic point of view, in considering the political leadership in China, a country whose global ascendance has always been met with questions of long-term legitimacy of its one-party rule, the lessons from ongoing political disharmony in the U.S. couldn’t come at a more favourable time. With the Communist Party Congress (CPC) —an event where China’s president seeks to re-affirm the CCP’s power, his regime, and give credence to its handling of the country – just around the corner, these examples go a long way in demonstrating the strengths of China’s Communist Party when considering the staggering level of political dysfunction in the United States.
In setting the stage for the 19th Communist Party Congress that will commence on October 18th, China’s state-run television network, CCTV, has aired a 10-part documentary exalting China’s achievements under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Whether considering the rapid growth of China’s technology sector, its successful transition to a services-oriented economy, continued expansion of its middle class, internationalization of the Renminbi, or the line of assertiveness towards the U.S. and Japan, China has indeed experienced significant material gains under President Xi’s leadership.
Aside from showcasing President Xi’s achievements, a key means of conveying this comparison has been through capitalizing on the nationalistic, anti-globalization posture espoused by the current American president and his constituents, and presenting China as an international-minded power who is willing to take the lead in meeting the challenges of the 21st Century. For example, while Mr. Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris accord, China has reaffirmed its commitment to honouring the agreement and fighting global warming.
Where the global economy is concerned, China has established its Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, also known as the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR), as an alternative development strategy to benefit countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. To help fund the infrastructure initiatives, China led the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), with its first loan in the amount of $160m being approved for India.
Putting Commitments Into Action
Similarly, while Donald Trump ran for office on the slogan ‘Make America Great Again‘, many believe he has yet to introduce policies to lead to the greatness that he alluded to. China, on the other hand, has firmly upheld its commitments to economic development. During both the 2012 Communist Party Congress and the 2013 Communist Party Plenum, China’s Communist party put great emphasis on China’s technological needs and made innovation a key goal of the coming years. Since 2012, China has made great strides in delivering on its goal of industrial upgrading.
Likewise, while the U.S. president is pushing for a rebirth of coal mining and courting the idea of an economic war with China as a means of aiding the American economy, China’s leadership has put forth the China Manufacturing 2025 roadmap, a policy which aims to boost China’s innovative capacity and increase its domestic and international market-share in 10 targeted industries, including next-generation IT, robotics, alternative energy, advanced medical manufacturing, and aerospace and aviation. As the United States looks to rekindle the past, China’s leadership is urging entrepreneurs to take the economy to the next level of industrial development.
China’s thought leaders have been consistent in their sentiments that democracy’s ideological aims sound grand, but in practice contain messiness, inefficiency, and, as demonstrated by both the electoral process and the weakened economic situation in the U.S., is a self-defeating confusion that is far from ideal. Undoubtedly, in the eyes of many observers, these factors not only place China as a viable and open international partner and firm alternative to a shaken and reactive America, but they also challenge the narrative that China’s political system is inferior to one that is democratic, such as that of the United States.
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