Days before Washington announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics this week, China issued a white paper on democracy describing its own democracy and criticizing the American one.
Two elements possibly tipped the balance for a boycott in the USA, that remained uncertain for months. The first is the public disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai, ignoring calls from the International Tennis Association to provide information about her whereabouts. Then there was the case of Lithuania, whose exports to China were virtually stopped by Beijing after its recognition of Taiwan, thus ignoring WTO provisions.
To Washington, that meant China is not earnest in adhering to international norms, it can’t be trusted on its pledges, and thus it shouldn’t enjoy a normal Winter Games. This also could make the political atmosphere more toxic. Right or wrong, we are going back to a full-scale Cold War. The first one with the USSR actually took many years to shape up. The pace of this one is much faster, and its contours are different.
In this situation, it would be extremely important not to play up the situation. On the contrary, Beijing could feel obliged to retaliate severely. The Winter Games are China’s face, and this insult ruins China’s face, its pride, so the reaction could be harsh.
This could further complicate everything while its recent white paper on democracy leaves many loopholes.
China’s white paper on democracy says: Democracy is of many types; no country has the patent for it. It is to say, ‘America has no right to judge my democracy’. This is fine but can the concept of freedom that China demands externally deny it internally? If externally no one can deny China’s idea of democracy, can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deny internally the various Chinese ideas of democracy? That is, one cannot use one rhetoric externally and then reject the same rhetoric internally. If China wants freedom between countries, it must grant freedom internally; otherwise, it contradicts itself.
It could be more convenient to agree externally with America, on an idea of democracy, and then apply it internally. Otherwise, there are two possibilities: 1) China is in the contradiction of using different concepts for inside and outside 2) if it grants inside the same freedom that it asks for outside China, then as many Chinese have their own ideas of democracy, the country goes into chaos.
If democracy has to do with a locality, China for instance, and it can vary from place to place, then there would be the democracy of Guangzhou, Sichuan, Beijing, and Shanghai. After that, there is the democracy of Beijing’s western district, the eastern district… and so on.
Short circuiting the shortcuts of Chinese characteristics
China did use the concept of “Chinese characteristics” to mark differences between China and other countries. This idea during the Deng period expanded within the country. Each local government gradually moved away from Beijing’s orders by emphasizing the “local characteristics” for which certain central measures could not be applied. But in this way, there was growing confusion, and everything became chaotic.
China defines its democracy as popular and claims that it truly respects and reflects the interests and will of the people. In Western democracies, on the other hand, the interests of the people are hijacked by the interventions of interest groups that seek to put the state at the service of their own particular agendas.
In effect, this points to an enormous weakness in liberal democracies. It has always been there in liberal democracies, but now, particularly after the experience of Trump’s extreme populism denying the outcome of the vote and with the overwhelming power of often monopolistic Internet industries, it is having a much greater prominence and impact.
But unlike the USSR, China is not saying that its model of democracy is superior, better than the liberal one. China says, ‘there are so many democracies, why do Western countries, including America, deny mine?’ This argument is indeed grounded and could be shared.
But in denying the superiority of its own model and denying that the two models are radical alternatives, as the USSR did, it stresses the problem of logic we saw: how does Beijing deny the Chinese the freedom to choose the democracy they want, when the same Beijing claims this freedom from America? That is, the Chinese argument would have traction in the West if the various places in China chose their model of democracy freely. But that’s not the case.
Beijing has put itself in a logical short-circuit, which is essential and existential. The fact that this short-circuit has surfaced in the white paper seems essential and fundamental and reveals deep undercurrents at work under the calm surface and the back-thought of the document’s authors, almost a Freudian slip.
The people who wrote and approved the White Paper do not believe and do not want a totalitarian system for the whole world; they want, at least for now, a global system in which their own system of government can survive and have acceptance. In the future, of course, everything can change, in one sense or another.
But in reality, by not resolving the Freudian slip, the Chinese ideological system puts itself in the worst position of all, between two chairs, neither flesh nor fowl. It is a position of significant ideological instability. Of course, only intellectuals can realize the contradiction, but they are the engine, the great priests of the system. If they struggle to put their thoughts in order, their system of “faith” and trust, everything is more fragile. The government then relies too much on force, which cannot last too long, except at an increasing cost.
The question is, if China declares an ideological war on liberal democracies, as the USSR did, then it will have the problem of having to try to export its system. This had nasty effects on the USSR; it would be much more difficult for China, much less international than the Soviets.
Or it has to come to terms with the Western liberal system, which is also very difficult, but perhaps less so than an ideological war with the West.
Then, another issue. Criticisms presented by China of American democracy are all well-founded and reasonable, but then what? What is the solution Beijing offers Washington? What is the alternative? None. It says, your system doesn’t work, ours does, but then it doesn’t go beyond that to say, you must adopt ours. This reinforces the logical paradox; it doesn’t allay it.
On the other hand, America says, the Chinese system doesn’t work, and China should adopt an approach like ours for its own good. It may be correct; it may be wrong; it may or may not work from a practical point of view. It opens the immense front of how democracy is exported, and if democracy is exportable anyway, but it is a proposal from a logically coherent point of view.
This is all about logic, but there is a logical unspoken reality one must keep in mind. The Chinese tradition has an erratic relationship with logic that is skewed by the ultra-logical doubt of Zhuangzi, a third-century B.C. philosopher who demonstrated reliably for the Chinese how logic is not reliable. So rather than logic, the Chinese look to practical results.
Viewed from Beijing, America, for its state of affairs from its infrastructure to its vitriolic politics, is not convincing, and American logic risks looking like cheating. That said, since the Chinese are not crazy, the logic of the Chinese white paper doesn’t work either. Then, from Beijing we are in an objectively difficult situation, but at least we are starting to tackle a real problem.
From Washington, it looks like the opposite. A boycott means that American trust in Chinese pledges and commitments is disappearing and thus also interest in unsubstantiated talks about principles.
In this situation, anything could happen.
 See A.C. Graham Disputers of the Tao, 1989, Chuang-tzu, the Inner Chapters, 2001, Reason and Spontaneity republished in 2021