Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
President Biden's Summit for Democracy demonstrated the resiliency of America's convening power and the appeal of democracy as an ideal. That sparked a heavy flurry of propaganda from Beijing.
Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party is touting its "people's democratic dictatorship" model of governance as a superior alternative to liberal democracy.
What's happening: More than 100 countries met during a virtual summit last week at President Biden's invitation.
In his opening remarks at the summit, President Biden cast the struggle to renew democracy in the face of internal and external challenges as “the defining challenge of our time" and said "democracy needs champions."
China wasn't invited, but it was the elephant in the room.
China's rise as an economic and geopolitical power under the direction of an authoritarian one-party state has challenged the Western assumption that democracy is inherently better at promoting prosperity and human well-being.
Some analysts have pushed the Biden administration to create an "alliance of democracies" to counter Beijing — and this summit seemed to be a big step in that direction.
Beijing reacted with a major propaganda campaign that presented American democracy as defunct and hypocritical and claimed "socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics" was superior.
On Dec. 4, five days before the start of the summit, China's State Council published a white paper called "China: Democracy That Works," which used the term "whole-process people’s democracy" 24 times to describe the kind of democracy it says is implemented there — a vaguely defined term asserting that China's system incorporates the people's will throughout the policy-making process.
State media outlets plastered the airways with denunciations of American democracy as a violent and broken system run by the rich, with one article even comparing the U.S. system to Harry Potter villain Voldemort.
Background: CCP leaders have long used variations on the term "democracy" to describe China's political system.
Under Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, CCP officials touted China's "inner-party democracy," by which they meant a system of checks and balances carried out within the CCP (and not open to outside scrutiny).
"Democracy" was listed as one of the 12 "core socialist values" introduced in late 2012 as Xi assumed the presidency.
Xi first used the term "whole-process people's democracy" in 2019; the term resurfaced in October 2021 and was used extensively in the Chinese state media coverage surrounding the Biden-Xi virtual meeting in November.
The goal of such messaging is to "make the case before domestic audiences for the strength of China’s political system, as well as to throw off criticism internationally of China on human rights grounds," China Media Project's Stella Chen writes.
Between the lines: The CCP's long-standing attempts to rebrand its one-party state as a form of democracy, and simultaneously to redefine democracy in the party's image, demonstrates the ongoing appeal of the idea — and how party leaders can feel threatened by its power.
The big picture: The summit also demonstrated America's ability to gather many of the world's governments together in support of an American agenda, a very public sign of global sway.
The Chinese government has increasingly sought to convene international gatherings around its own political agendas, such as the Belt and Road Forum, held in 2017 and 2019, and the World Internet Conference, held annually since 2014.
Yes, but: Biden's goals of defending democracy and outcompeting China aren't perfectly aligned, Axios' Dave Lawler reports, as the summit's attendees demonstrated.
India, Vietnam and Thailand were invited, but all three governments are involved in severe human rights violations, or aren't even democracies at all.
American democracy, too, is facing severe challenges, with an uprising in Washington, D.C., earlier this year that challenged election results, growing barriers to voting access for minority groups, and rising socioeconomic inequality.
2. Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan detained in China for one year
Image: Bloomberg Television
One year ago, Bloomberg staff member Haze Fan was detained by security officials in Beijing, and she hasn't been seen since, Bloomberg reports. The big picture: Fan's detention came amid a crackdown on foreign news outlets and tightening restrictions on information. What they're saying: “Twelve months of detention is a long time for anybody to endure, even someone as smart and strong as Haze. We are all very worried about her well-being and we will continue to do everything we can to help her and her family,” John Micklethwait, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief said in a statement.
“Haze is much missed in our newsroom — both as a colleague and as a friend."
Context: The Chinese government is currently holding at least 127 journalists behind bars, making it the world's largest jailer of journalists, according to a new report from Reporters Without Borders.
3. Catch up quick 1. The U.S., Australia, Canada, and the U.K. announced diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Go deeper.
New Zealand also said it wouldn't be sending officials to the Games, while some Lithuanian politicians said they wouldn't attend.
The EU is divided over a possible boycott, Reuters reports.
2. China urged multinational companies to break ties with Lithuania in retaliation for its turn toward Taiwan, Reuters reports. 3. Chinese AI company SenseTime delayed its Hong Kong IPO after the U.S. placed it on an investment blacklist, the Wall Street Journal reports. 4. Troubled Chinese property developer Evergrande defaulted on a loan payment, Bloomberg reports. 5. An unofficial U.K.-based tribunal declared the Chinese government is guilty of genocide in Xinjiang, the BBC reports. 6. Marco Rubio demanded Airbnb de-list rentals on Chinese land owned by a sanctioned group. Go deeper. 7. The video feed showing a map of Taiwan was cut during the Summit for Democracy, Reuters reports.
4. Exclusive: Jewish groups urge Biden to take action on Uyghur genocide
People protest China's human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province on April 6, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A group of more than 200 Jewish organizations, rabbis and synagogues have sent a letter to President Biden and top U.S. officials urging them to do more to oppose the Chinese government's genocide of ethnic Uyghurs, according to a copy of the letter viewed by Axios. What they're saying: "The horror stories we are hearing of Uyghurs taken in the night, separated from their families, and put on trains to forced labor camps are all too familiar to the Jewish community," the letter's signatories state.
"We therefore urge you and your administration to take the concrete steps recommended by a coalition of leading human rights organizations (such as countering Chinese government propaganda and strengthening sanctions) and to increase the number of Uyghurs admitted to the U.S. as refugees."
Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., which led the effort, has a committee dedicated to raising awareness about the Uyghur genocide, and it regularly holds protests outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
"What we’re looking for are very strong sanctions," Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel said in an interview with Axios.
"We want the United States to lead the way in creating the kind of brute force condemnation and excision from the world community until it stops."
Go deeper: Holocaust Museum report warns China "may be committing genocide"
5. What I'm reading Research under fire: America's open secret (The Wire China)
A nuanced look at the goals, failures and achievements of the Justice Department's China Initiative.
“The academic aspect of the China Initiative has all but run its course,” Andrew Lelling, a former U.S. attorney and a key architect of the China Initiative, told The Wire. “Because look what’s happened here: Every major research institution is aware of the problem now, and what the stakes are, and that’s because the government has made them aware.”
Read also: China Initiative set out to catch spies. It didn’t find many (Bloomberg)
“It’s morphed into something that’s completely away from what the point of what this exercise was in the first place,” John Hemann, a former deputy U.S. attorney in San Francisco who prosecuted the first announced China Initiative case, told Bloomberg. “It’s a political problem and an economic problem, not a problem to be solved by criminal prosecutions.”
More scrutiny: How U.S. universities support China’s military-industrial complex (Foundation for Defense of Democracies)
"At present, U.S. universities are under no legal or regulatory obligation to sever ties with Chinese universities supporting China’s military, even when those Chinese universities appear on the Entity List," the report finds.
Tibetans too: Vast colonial boarding school system uncovered in Tibet (Tibet Action Institute)
"Chinese government policies are forcing three out of every four Tibetan students into a vast network of colonial boarding schools, separating children as young as four from their parents," the report found.
The information in this report suggests China's actions in Tibet may fulfill one of the conditions listed under the Rome Statute defining genocide: "Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
New resource: Tibetan researchers have launched a new website that decodes common Chinese propaganda phrases.
6. Quote of the day
IOC member Richard Pound (left) speaks to journalists in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, ahead of the Rio Games. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.
"I simply do not know. Personally, I do not know. ... You can berate me all you like [for] my not knowing, but I don't know for sure."
— International Olympic Committee official Richard Pound, in a Dec. 11 interview with German news outlet Deutschlandfunk, when asked if he knew about the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang.