Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in CADAL, a private and non-partisan foundation established in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires of the Argentine Republic. Juan Pablo Cardenal is a Research Associate at www.cadal.org. This piece was translated by Dorothea Krueger.
To read the original piece, click here.
The public spat between the United States and China at the recent bilateral summit held in Alaska clearly showed that future relations between the two world powers will not only be very difficult but could also escalate dangerously. This situation has been perceived as inevitable for years, given that China, emboldened by its economic power and self-confidence, rejects any international scrutiny on issues that other countries might consider to be of their concern, but that Beijing claims to be its “internal affairs”: from trade practices and cyber-espionage to human rights and national security, among others.
The fact that this disagreement unfolded at the first meeting between the two countries since the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden took office only shows that President Biden won’t be able to avoid the underlying issues with China raised by his predecessor. Although one can object to the manner in which he did so, the essence of what Trump put on the table—namely, that there are structural problems in China’s relationships with the rest of the world—is something that far predates Trump, and is shared by governments, institutions, and political, economic and social entities across the planet. And this perception— growing even further in an environment conducive to allegations that the global spread of COVID-19 was facilitated by Beijing’s cover-up—is not going to disappear easily.
The Anchorage summit displayed this discord, given that the U.S. had not criticized Beijing so explicitly, convincingly, and publicly for human rights violations since before the 2008 financial crisis. Although human rights have traditionally been a weak link of the Chinese regime, Washington decided to separate the matter from the U.S.-China trade relationship at the end of former President Bill Clinton’s second term, leaving it largely off of the U.S.-China diplomatic agenda. Through such concessions over the past four decades, the U.S. and the rest of the developed world have contributed decisively to the strengthening of modern-day China.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the Chinese delegation did not hesitate to present the credentials of their authoritarian model in Alaska. They went much further than asserting a false moral equivalence between the Chinese political system and Western-style liberal democracies. In a harsh tone, they questioned the human rights situation in the U.S. and the health of American democracy itself, while reproaching Washington for its use of military force, its international financial hegemony, and for positioning itself—along with the rest of the Western bloc—as leaders of the global geopolitical order. “Many people in the United States have little confidence in their democracy,” they observed; on the contrary, they claimed, the Communist Party has “broad support from the Chinese people.”
This, of course, constituted a complete denial of the legitimacy of Western democracies, and full-throated defense of the Chinese model that the Communist diplomats had no qualms in presenting as a “Chinese-style democracy,” an apparent linguistic perversion that China’s state propaganda tries to disseminate and normalize. The official Chinese narrative has abandoned the ideological discretion it had in the past and today insists, with increasing frequency, on the superiority of the Chinese model over Western-style democracies. This narrative is most prominent with regards to China’s management of the pandemic, the alleged eradication of poverty in China, and, in retrospect, China’s transition from Maoist pariah to economic powerhouse. This discourse is rooted in the comparison of purported Chinese stability to the disarray that has reigned across the U.S. and Europe over the course of the pandemic.
The preliminary findings of a study of disinformation and propaganda in the Spanish-language outlets of Chinese state media, currently being undertaken by Global Americans and CADAL, shed light on how China takes advantage of the development of its COVID-19 vaccine and its perceived economic success. These advances fuel the narrative of China as an emergent scientific and technological power and present China’s autocratic system as a suitable development model for the developing world. The analysis of content and terminology of a representative selection of articles reveals Beijing’s efforts to disseminate a recognizable and seductive narrative adapted to Latin American audiences.
For instance, mentions of Chinese vaccines are often accompanied by positive wording, associating them with words such as “efficacy,” “safety,” “contribution,” “responsibility,” “leadership,” or “public good.” In contrast, Western vaccines are linked to negative terms such as “death,” “disease,” “problem,” “adverse reaction,” “side effects,” “hoarding,” “nationalism,” or “delay,” leading to suspicions about their efficacy and safety. However, these associations serve yet another purpose: enabling Chinese state-media outlets to deploy an ideological discourse to mislead the developing world.
This is a discourse wrapped in a perfectly calculated and diplomatically charged rhetoric of cooperation. Terms like “friendship,” “aid,” “generosity,” “multilateralism,” “donation,” “responsibility,” and “commitment”; and government slogans like “health community,” “a shared future for humanity,” and “mutual respect” are also part of the official narrative. This way, the Chinese regime poses as a faithful ally for Latin America and as leader of the developing world in the face of Western hegemony. It presents the supposed superiority of its model, which Xi Jinping believes “opens a new path for the modernization of other developing countries,” to address current and future challenges.
One single example is enough to dismantle the official Chinese narrative. Last October, China announced that it would join the COVAX program, established to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. While presenting this step in the media as a milestone that proved China’s responsibility, solidarity, and commitment to the developing world, Chinese media omitted the fact that the government in Beijing resisted joining COVAX for months. When China reluctantly became a member, 165 countries had already signed up for it, including the bloc of European countries—a circumstance that, like so many others involving China, went largely unnoticed.
In a context of a general lack of knowledge about China in Latin America, the above should serve to make us wary of the “Chinese-style democracy” narrative so prominent in Chinese propaganda campaigns. It is not only that there is no such thing as a Chinese-style democracy; it is that it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese model is better simply because it may be more effective. Democratic systems are neither infallible nor perfect, because they are based on freedom, checks and balances, the rule of law, democratic participation, transparency, and human rights. China’s effectiveness, on the other hand, stems precisely from the absence of all these attributes.