​US Should Not Have a Monopoly over Defining ‘Democracy’

Democracy is not just about casting votes as it is about how people’s interests are represented and furthered by the state, which is why the U.S. model is attracting growing cynicism and dissatisfaction.

What is democracy? Derived from the Greek language, the term combines two words: “demos” meaning “people” and “kratos” which means “rule by.” Therefore, democracy, as it was conceived in ancient times, means a system of government which is run by or for the interests of the people. The term has come under debate recently because the United States under the Biden administration has decided to hold a “democracy summit” whereby it claims itself to be the flag-bearer of democracy, and has only invited parties it approves or “deems” to be deserving of the title, which is defined through its own specific system of “liberal democracy.”

However, is it fair for America and its allies alone to define what a democracy is and what it isn’t so narrowly?

In the West, democracy concerns values, as opposed to methods or results, which the West holds to be the ultimate universal and unquestionable political truth. This makes the West intolerant of other systems or variations of democracy, because it believes its own system is the “only way” and those who do not adhere to it are subsequently condemned.

China’s perspective, however, is different. Although China has a different ideological system to the West, which is built upon socialism, it does not reject the idea of “democracy” as the West likes to claim, but merely understands it differently. Instead of being founded on dogmatic values which place ideas before social realities, China advocates what it describes as “people’s democracy.” That is, a system which seeks to act in the best interests of the people and empower them in line with socio-economic realities.

Western liberal democracy assumes that value sentiment alone is sufficient to represent people’s interests and subsequently ignores how economic conditions affect the distribution of power between people and government, and therefore undermines the concept of democracy itself.

For example, if a small group of wealthy people in a country – such as the United States or United Kingdom – exercises disproportionate resources, which are used through media and campaign donations to influence how poor people are able to vote, is that truly democracy? Is that truly people voting in their best interests?

This phenomenon has been described by Karl Marx as “bourgeoise democracy” – a society which appears to be outwardly democratic, but is nonetheless governed in the interests of the wealthy who are able to manipulate the masses. The West makes the assumption in its vision of democracy that everyone is truly equal, everyone is well informed, and through the philosophy of “rationalism,” that everyone will always vote in accordance with their best interests. But this is not true, the U.S. and U.K., for example, have been criticized for such things as the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, which have eroded public faith in democracy.

Aerial view of Yonglian village in Jiangsu province, east China.

China in turn simply proposes a “different” way. Democracy is more about the empowerment of people’s lives, developing China as a whole and of course ensuring the popular sovereignty of the country.

The Communist Party of China is a party which is represented at every level of Chinese society. With 95 million members, it is one of the largest organizations in the world, and in turn proposes an alternative definition of “people’s democracy.”

This is a process known as “democratic centralism,” which is stated in Article 3 of China’s Constitution: “The state organs of the People’s Republic of China apply the principle of democratic centralism. The National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at different levels are instituted through democratic election. They are responsible to the people and subject to their supervision. All administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the state are created by the people’s congresses to which they are responsible and under whose supervision they operate. The division of functions and powers between the central and local state organs is guided by the principle of giving full play to the initiative and enthusiasm of the local authorities under the unified leadership of the central authorities.”

American liberal democracy is not the only way, and the U.S. should not have a monopoly over what “democracy” means. Each country’s political system ought to be tailored to its national conditions and social realities, as opposed to being a universally applied dogma. Democracy is not just about casting votes as it is about how people’s interests are represented and furthered by the state, which is why the U.S. model is attracting growing cynicism and dissatisfaction.