China’s new ambassador in D.C. isn’t buying President Joe Biden’s warning to the United Nations General Assembly about rising authoritarianism.
On Wednesday, Qin Gang issued an implicit rebuke to Biden’s U.N. speech, telling a crowd of China wonks that the country’s seven decades of one-party rule is actually a misunderstood form of democracy.
Qin warned that “misjudgment” about the differences in the U.S. and Chinese political systems had harmed the bilateral relationship.
In his first in-person public address since arriving in the U.S. in July, Qin told representatives of the Carter Center and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations that China boasts a “whole-process democracy” hinged to “whether the people are satisfied.” That rhetoric underscores the Chinese government’s shift in recent years from blanket denials of international criticism of its political system to an Orwellian style semantic redefinition of democracy and human rights.
Qin’s comments suggest an implicit response to elements of Biden’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday about a struggle between authoritarianism and “the age of democracy” that included a ringing endorsement of pro-democracy activists from Belarus to Venezuela. Qin flagged Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy in December — which Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said will include China’s arch-rival Taiwan — as a looming flashpoint for U.S.-China disagreement. And he made clear that the Chinese Communist Party won’t budge amid U.S. criticism of China’s authoritarian system.
“Some people are busy fanning up the battle between democracy and authoritarianism, and putting together an alliance of democracies,” Qin said. “To define America’s relations with China as democracy versus authoritarianism and to stoke up ideological confrontation… has led to serious difficulties in China-U.S. relations.”
Qin’s speech was otably absent of the fiery rhetoric that the progenitor Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomat is known for. Instead, he undertook a long-winded discourse on the nature of democracy that referenced everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Confucius to Plato and Henry Kissinger. Qin threaded a blizzard of data points through his defense of Chinese “democracy,” including the assertion that China’s 14th Five Year Plan, which was formally approved in March, involved the distillation of more than “1,000 suggestions” from “more than 1 million online posts.”
The ambassador also lavished praise on President Xi Jinping as a virtuous avatar of Chinese “democracy” whose affection for China’s citizens ensures top-notch governance. Qin’s laundry list of the fruits of that governance included poverty reductions, economic growth, and historically high levels of foreign direct investment. That combination renders a political system where “China’s senior officials [are] elected with an overwhelming majority of votes or even unanimously,” Qin said.
Qin omitted some well-documented deficiencies in the Chinese system, including that Xi and other top leaders are selected through an opaque process that bars the participation of the vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people. And although Chinese citizens do have the opportunity to vote every five years for representatives of local People’s Congresses, the bottom rung of China’s legislature, the Chinese Communist Party, vets the candidates and severely restricts their political influence. Qin also made no mention of Beijing’s attack on Hong Kong’s already limited democratic freedoms through the introduction of a draconian National Security Law in July 2020.
Xi’s strangling of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy efforts dovetail with his adoption of a strongman persona backed by Maoist-style aggressive nationalism and strict social controls. “Xi Jinping Thought,” China’s new ideological framework, emphasizes a “national rejuvenation” linked to bolstering the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power with Xi as its new “helmsman.”
Qin served notice that the status quo under Xi was resistant to outside pressure. “Our two countries should not and cannot change each other,” Qin said.
But in the spirit of Biden’s phone call to Xi earlier this month in pursuit of a reset of frosty bilateral relations, Qin stressed the need for peaceful co-existence between Beijing and Washington. That suggests Xi might eventually accept Biden’s offer of a face-to-face summit. “Let’s demonstrate courage and political resolve to chart a new course in China-U.S. relations,” Qin said.