The reports issued by China on democracy, Winter Olympics, etc., may be short of a ‘declaration of war’, nonetheless, are pointers to the fact that the ideological chasm between the US and China is widening.


On 9-10 December 2021, US President Joe Biden hosted the first ever Summit for Democracy, which brought together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector of more than a hundred countries. The summit aimed at promoting democratic values, fighting corruption, and standing up for human rights. According to the website of the US Department of State,  the summit will “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies.” Undoubtedly, the Biden administration is wanting to put up a united front with its allies against authoritarian regimes, primarily China so as to better deal with threats from the emerging power, albeit many democratically elected governments have been left out, and those with a bad human rights record have been invited. In the present context, democracy, as an ideology becomes important for domestic mobilisation for the US on the one hand and making a clear distinction between “us” and “them” internationally on the other. Raking up the issue of human rights, the US announced the diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, and other Anglo-Saxon countries like the UK, Australia and Canada followed suit.

In response, China released a series of documents and warned that countries announcing boycott would “pay a price for their wrong moves.” On 4 December 2021, China’s State Council Information Office released 14,393-word long White Paper entitled “China: Democracy That Works” that vehemently defends China’s political institutions. The document refers to “democracy” 201 times, and argues that China, rather than “duplicating Western models of democracy”, has created a “new model of democracy” i.e. the whole-process people’s democracy (全过程民主) that delivers and works. The White Paper defines the “whole process democracy” as the one that “integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.” On 5 December 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website published a report titled The State of Democracy in the United States that rejected “One Person, One Vote” of the liberal democracies as the only democratic principle, and pronounced the US as a “dysfunctional democracy”. It labelled the US democracy as corrupt, racist and the one that flares up “colour revolutions” around the world and undermines regional and national stability. Besides, between 2 and 8 December 2021, China organised a series of conferences debating democracy. It was during the “Dialogue on Democracy” on 2 December that Deputy Foreign Minister of MOFA, Le Yucheng argued that “China is a well-deserved democracy” (中国是当之无愧的民主国家), and that democracy is not something like “Feilaifeng” (the peak flown from afar, an Indian monk Huili named this peak in Hangzhou) and requires no “preachers”( 教师爷).

These reports and conferences generated a whole lot of debate inside China. One particular article by Professor Wu Fei of Jinan University, entitled “Declaration of War! The United States invites more than 100 countries to encircle China, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a ‘written challenge of war’, 1 challenges 110”, has been taken off the internet soon after it appeared on 7 December 2021. The article in a scathing attack characterised the US as “a worthless person in imposing attire” (沐猴而冠), who is attempting to instigate “Taiwan independence” and argues that China “must let the US bear the corresponding price” for playing the Taiwan card. The Capitol riot, racism, tragic mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, widening wealth gap, purported “freedom of speech” have been attributed to the “messy and chaotic practices of democracy” in the US by the Report issued on 5 December. While reiterating these “chaotic practices”, Professor Wu further classifies the US as “trafficker of democracy” (民主贩卖) who has rendered 10 million people homeless in Afghanistan, and flared up “colored revolutions” (颜色革命) across the Middle East, Latin America, North Africa and East Europe etc., regions.

The reports issued by China may be short of “declaration of war”, nonetheless, are pointers to the fact that the ideological chasm between the US and China is widening and the enthusiasm of the US for China’s opening-up and reforms is long over, and that it has revisited issues related to human rights in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, as well as those related to dissidence, prison labour, Tiananmen, and Falungong or religious freedom per se that was downplayed by the US and its allies in the reform era (1979-2012) in exchange of the Chinese market. The US, under the Trump administration had made good of the ideological differences. A 2017 National Security Strategy declared that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region”. The same was put more bluntly by Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum speech entitled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” on 23 July 2020. China had reposed its faith on the Biden administration for resetting US-China ties, however, the “Summit for Democracy” has dashed all such hopes. Biden may not seek a regime change in China, but will certainly compete with and undermine China’s influence wherever possible.

The ideological contest also sprawls into the economic, technological and military fields. Even though China says that she adheres to the norms of the global economic system established by the liberal democracies, however, the US has come to believe that China not only doesn’t comply with these including the pledges she made before joining the World Trade Organization, but also undermines these by floating its own and strives to create its own standards. China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, the “Communities of Shared Future for the Mankind,” and related mechanisms are viewed as part and parcel of the Chinese governance model, which is “creating miracles in the achievement of rapid economic growth and long-term social stability” according to the above White Paper. In order to counter China’s global influence, the US has deemed China a “revisionist” and “coercive power”, which by way of relying on its “sharp power” “pierces, penetrates, or perforates the political and information environments in the targeted countries”. In order to maintain its technological asymmetries with China, the US has made it clear that it will selectively decouple with China in the hi-tech sector, develop 6G networks with allies like Japan and South Korea, and challenge China’s BRI with its “Build Back Better World”. In the military field, the US has institutionalised a series of alliances, ranging from the “The Five Eyes”, to “Quad” and “AUKUS” and has pledged to build a “free, open and rule based Indo-Pacific” with its allies and likeminded countries.

It appears that the US doesn’t subscribe to the “three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation” proposed by President Xi Jinping to Joe Biden during their virtual summit in November 2021. As regards mutual respect, Xi argued that “the two countries need to respect each other’s social systems and development paths, respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and respect each other’s right to development. They need to treat each other as equals…” and the very premise of the “Summit for Democracy” runs counter to “mutual respect” envisaged by China. As argued by eminent Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, the US will never consider China fit for an equal footing in Asia Pacific as well as globally. If it does, its strategic relationship with some of its allies, say Japan and South Korea will necessarily be “downgraded”. Peaceful coexistence is interpreted as “no conflict and no confrontation” by China, however, here again issues such as South China Sea, Taiwan, Indo-Pacific, the Quad and AUKUS and China’s conflict with US allies doesn’t rule out the possibility of conflict and confrontation between the two. The third principle is problematic, if the first two are not realised. Therefore, if the interdependence between the US and Chinese economy is a reality, so is the ideological security dilemma. Although the dilemma was latent until now, but a visible shift in the balance of power in recent years has resulted in change of behaviour in the US, which is nothing but all about the contest of influence in the larger framework of “strategic competition” between the existing and emerging hegemon.

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.