One of the emerging tenets of the Biden presidency is that the United States and China are locked in ideological conflict over the fate of democracy.
In March, during his first press conference as president, he declared that “this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” In April, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he labeled this struggle “the central challenge of the age” — and that China’s Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”
More recently, in last week’s CNN town hall, he warned that Xi “truly believes that the 21st century will be determined by oligarchs, [that] democracies cannot function in the 21st century. The argument is, because things are moving so rapidly, so, so rapidly that you can’t pull together a nation that is divided to get a consensus on acting quickly.”
Inasmuch as there is a Biden doctrine, the notion that the US needs to protect democracy from China’s authoritarian model is at the center of it. “Biden’s administration [is] framing the contest as a confrontation of values, with America and its democratic allies standing against the model of authoritarian repression that China seeks to impose on the rest of the world,” Yaroslav Trofimov writes in the Wall Street Journal.
Biden’s thinking captures an important insight: that the struggle over democracy’s fate will be one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century. But his analysis is crucially flawed in one respect: China is not an especially important reason why democracy is currently under threat — and centering it is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.
In countries where democracy is at real risk of collapse or even outright defeated — places like India, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, and, yes, the United States — the real drivers of democratic collapse are domestic. Far-right parties are taking advantage of ethno-religious divides and public distrust in the political establishment to win electorally — and then twist the rules to entrench their own hold on power. Leaders of these factions, like former US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aid and abet each other’s anti-democratic politics.
More traditional authoritarian states, even powerful ones like China or Russia, have thus far played marginal roles in this struggle at best.
“Much of the recent global democratic backsliding has little to do with China,” Thomas Carothers and Frances Brown, two leading experts on democracy, write in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. “An overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline.”
This misdiagnosis has real policy stakes. Leaning into competition with China could lead the US to excuse anti-democratic behavior by important partners, like Modi or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, in a manner reminiscent of US relations with anti-communist dictators during the Cold War. Moreover, too much emphasis on competition with China could distract from the place where Biden has the most power to affect democracy’s fate — the home front, an area in which voting rights advocates increasingly see him as indefensibly complacent.
There are real problems associated with China’s rise. Its increasing military belligerence, predatory economic practices, and horrific human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang are all very serious concerns. But the fact that China is the source of many real issues doesn’t mean it’s the source of democratic erosion worldwide — and positioning it as such will do little to advance the democratic cause.
Democracies are rotting from within, not without
In his public rhetoric, Biden president often argues that the US needs to prove that democracy “works” — that it can “get something done,” as he said last week — in order to outcompete the Chinese model.
While he hasn’t spelled out the nature of this competition all that precisely, the concern seems to center on Chinese policy success: that its rapid economic growth and authoritarian ability to make swift policy changes will inspire political copycats unless democracies prove that they can also deliver real benefits for their citizens.
“I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” the president wrote in a March letter outlining his national security strategy. “There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.”
But at this point, the fear of Chinese political competition is mostly hypothetical. While the Chinese government and state media frequently tout the superiority of its political model to American-style democracy, there’s little evidence that these efforts are all that influential globally — and certainly not in the countries where democracy is most at risk.
A look back at the Soviet Union, the last major challenge to the hegemony of liberal democracy, is telling. ln ideological terms, there’s no comparison: Soviet communism was a far more powerful model than Chinese authoritarian state capitalism is today.
Marxist ideals inspired revolutionary Communist movements and governments around the globe, successfully toppling Western-backed governments in countries ranging from Cuba to Vietnam to China itself. By contrast, there are vanishingly few foreign governments or even political parties today openly vowing to emulate modern China. While the Soviets had the Iron Curtain in Europe, modern China’s most notable client state is North Korea — perhaps the most isolated and mistrusted government on the planet.
In the countries that observers worry most about — established democratic states experiencing “backsliding” towards authoritarianism — Chinese influence is minimal at best.
In backsliding democracies, authoritarian-inclined leaders win and hold power through the electoral system for domestic reasons. Corruption scandals in India and Hungary, violent crime in the Philippines, a racist backlash against America’s first Black president: These are some of the key factors in the rise of authoritarian populists, and they weren’t created or even significantly promoted by China.
Elected authoritarians still bill themselves as defenders of democracy while in power — even after they start undermining the electoral system with tactics like extreme gerrymandering and takeovers of state election agencies. Their political appeal isn’t grounded in an overt rejection of democracy in favor of a Chinese model, but rather a claim to be taking democracy back from corrupt elites in the name of the “true” people, typically defined in ethno-nationalist terms.
The ideology driving modern democratic decline is vastly different from the sort that China promotes at home and through official state media. It represents a home-grown challenge inside the democratic world, rather than an externally stoked, Cold War-style threat.
That’s not to say China does nothing to undermine democracy outside its borders. It has, for example, exported surveillance technology and provided training in “cybersecurity” for foreign officials that amount to teaching them tools for controlling public opinion — underscoring its role as a global pioneer in using technology to repress dissent.
Yet even in this area, China’s influence can easily be overstated. Backsliding countries typically do not ban websites outright or arrest online dissidents in the way China does. Instead, they rely on spreading misinformation and other more subtle uses of state power. When they do use more traditional authoritarian tools, they often don’t need China’s help in doing so — as shown by recent reporting on Israel’s NSO Group, a company with close links to the Israeli state that sold spy software to India and Hungary (whose governments allegedly used it to surveil journalists and opposition figures).
In his recent book The Rise of Digital Repression, Carnegie Endowment scholar Steven Feldstein attempts to systematically document the use of digital tools and tactics for undermining democracy around the world. He found that while such practices were indeed becoming more widespread, this is largely due to domestic factors in authoritarian and backsliding countries rather than Chinese influence.
“China really wasn’t pushing this technology any more so than other countries were pushing advanced technology or censorship technologies,” he told me in an interview earlier this year. “What I saw — when I spoke on the ground to intelligence officials, government officials, and others — was that there were many other factors at play that were much more determinative in terms of whether they would choose to purchase a surveillance system or use it than just the fact that China was trying to market it.”
The problem with blaming China for democracy’s crisis
Biden and his team recognize that many of the challenges to democracy have domestic roots. But in casting the rise of anti-democratic populism as part of a grander ideological struggle against an authoritarian Chinese model, they conflate two distinct phenomena — and risk making some significant policy errors.
Again, an analogy to the Cold War is helpful here. One of the most grievous errors of America’s containment policy was its repeated willingness to align itself with anti-communist dictators. The perceived need to stop the expansion of Soviet influence consistently trumped America’s commitment to democracy — with horrific consequences for the people of Iran, Argentina, Indonesia, and Bangladesh (to name just a handful of examples from a very long list).
The more China is treated like the new Soviet Union — the principal ideological threat to democracy whose influence must be curtailed — the more likely the US is to repeat that mistake.
Take India, for example. In the past six months, Biden has courted Modi’s government as a potential counterweight to China. “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the U.S. and India. We are the world’s two leading democracies,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a July 28 press conference in New Delhi.
Yet this is an Indian government that has assailed the rights of its Muslim citizens, strong-armed US social media companies into removing critical posts, and arrested a leading protest figure. Earlier this year, V-Dem — a research group behind the leading academic metric of democracy — announced that India under Modi was an “electoral autocracy,” rather than a true democracy. It’s easy to see how an emphasis on China could lead to these problems getting swept under the rug.
“There has long been a bipartisan consensus in Washington that India is a critical ally in its attempt to check Chinese influence in Asia,” the Indian intellectual Pankaj Mishra wrote in a June Bloomberg column. “In overlooking the Modi government’s excesses, Biden probably counts on support from a US foreign policy establishment invested more in realpolitik than human rights.”
If you take the notion that democracy’s crisis is emerging from within seriously, then it follows that very best thing that Biden could do for democracy’s global future has nothing to do with China or even foreign policy. It’s arresting creeping authoritarianism at home.
Biden has acknowledged this at times, writing in his March letter that his global strategy “begins with the revitalization of our most fundamental advantage: our democracy.” And yet that urgency hasn’t translated into action — legislation necessary to safeguard American democracy from the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic politics appears stalled out. Biden, for his part, has refused to publicly endorse more aggressive action to break the logjam — like abolishing the filibuster for voting rights bills.
The New York Times recently reported that “in private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression’” — an implausible claim that reflects an administration that, according to activists, has “largely accepted the Republican restrictions as baked in and is now dedicating more of its effort to juicing Democratic turnout.”
Shoring up American democracy after the recent attacks it has suffered should be the top priority of any US government concerned with democracy’s global fate. But for all of Biden’s lofty language about out-competing China and winning the future for democracy, there’s a striking lack of urgency when it comes to the perhaps the most important backsliding country — his own.
In this sense, China has very little influence over the future of democracy globally. The key battles are happening not in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, but in the legislatures of New Delhi and Washington. If there really is to be a grand struggle for democracy’s survival in the 21st century, it needs to start there.
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