China doesn’t understand democracy and the rule of law

Andreea Brinza | 16 October 2020

China’s wolf warrior diplomacy might have had an active year, but China’s foreign relations are on the wrong track. One often overlooked reason for this is China’s limited understanding of how democracy, rule of law or separation of powers function in foreign countries.

The European tour of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in August, which was meant to improve China’s image, highlighted the limits of understanding democracies. While visiting Norway, Wang Yi indicated that a Nobel Peace Prize for Hong Kong protesters would affect diplomatic relations, even though the Norwegian government has no control over who wins the Nobel Prize. It was a déjà vu. Then, while in Germany, he threatened the Czech Senate President, Milos Vystrcil, who was visiting Taiwan. Another déjà vu. Recently the Chinese Embassy in India asked the Indian mass-media, days before Taiwan’s National Day, to refrain from calling Taiwan a country and Tsai Ing-wen president. Instead of that, Indian netizens launched a campaign under the hashtag #TaiwanNationalDay which went viral. Déjà vu again.

China’s biggest mistake in addressing foreign issues is its lack of strategic empathy in thinking that every country or international organization works just as it does — a hierarchical structure where there is just one center of power and orders come from top to bottom. Because of this approach, China has consistently made mistakes in its relations with Western countries, big or small.

While Chinese actions that highlight this lack of understanding have been multiplying, this mindset is not new. Ten years ago, China decided to impose unofficial economic sanctions on Norway simply because the Nobel Peace Committee awarded its prize to a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. Even though the members of the committee are appointed by the Norwegian parliament, the committee is a private body, on whose decisions the Norwegian parliament, let alone the Norwegian government, doesn’t have any control.

China’s failure to understand how democracy and rule of law work in Western countries continued. A good example is that of Canada. Back in 2018, before the Huawei-Meng scandal began, China had a great opportunity to improve its relations with Canada, after Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian products and tried to strong-arm it into a new NAFTA agreement. It could have been a godsend for China-Canada relations. Instead, China blew all its chances with Canada by starting a vicious fight with it because of one person: Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO, who was arrested in Canada because of a US request. China even arrested two Canadian nationals to pressure Canada for Meng’s release. What China failed to understand was the separation of powers and rule of law. It is pointless to pressure and to punish the Canadian government so it will set Meng free, because the executive power of the Canadian government and the judiciary power of the courts are two different and independent institutions. No prime minister or even the Queen could interfere in judicial decisions in Canada, as in other Western democracies. But in China, the two Canadians who were arrested can be released with a blink of the eye from President Xi Jinping. In the end, instead of getting closer to China, Canada announced it terminated negotiations for a free trade agreement with China.

The case of Canada resembles that of the Czech Republic. Because the mayor of Prague is a supporter and promoter of Taiwan, the Chinese government got upset, affecting diplomatic ties with the Czech Republic, even though the national government has no control over the mayor. While this happens in China, there are no democratic strings that can empower a national institution to dictate to a local politician what to do. China’s misunderstandings in the Czech Republic didn’t stop there. When then-President of the Senate, Jaroslav Kubera, announced his intention to visit Taiwan, China decided to pressure President Miloš Zeman, to whom it addressed a letter threatening retaliation against Czech companies in China, like Skoda Auto or Home Credit Group. The Czech President has no power and no control over the Speaker of Parliament. Zeman is traditionally a close friend of China, but soon after the letter, he publicly declined the invitation (he later reconsidered his position) to participate in the 17+1 Summit between China and 17 Central and East European countries, which would have take place in Beijing, but it was postponed because of the pandemic. It was a high profile snub showing the costs of China’s failure to understand how democracies work and using friends to achieve political ends.

But China didn’t learn anything, because in August, while Wang Yi was in Germany, he threatened the Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil that because of his visit to Taiwan he will pay a “heavy price”. The German Foreign Minister promptly defended Milos Vystrcil.

And the examples can go on. During the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, a paper from Denmark published a cartoon of the Chinese flag, replacing its five stars with five coronavirus images. Although China, through its embassy, pressured the publication to apologize, it led to the involvement of the national government, as Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said “we have freedom of expression in Denmark — also to draw”.

Even the Estonian government became an innocent victim of China’s misunderstanding of democracy and separation of powers, when after the visit to Taiwan of an Estonian Member of the European Parliament, the Chinese Embassy decided to complain to the Estonian Foreign Ministry. European Members of Parliament don’t represent their native country, but the European Union’s interests. The Estonian MOFA and the European Parliament are not only two different institutions, but they represent different political entities.

If this wasn’t enough, even when they might get the way Western institutions work right, Chinese officials completely miss the political winds. When the wife of the Chinese Consul General in Chicago asked a Republican senator from Wisconsin to pass a resolution praising China for how it handled the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, she only succeed in determining him to pass a resolution criticizing the Chinese leadership. The outcomes of these endeavors are very similar to what happened in India with #TaiwanNationalDay. The more China is insisting on telling other entities what to do, the more backlash it receives. In a functioning democracy, you can’t just go to the President of the Senate with an already-written resolution and ask them to pass it, nor can you go to the mass-media and asked them to not call Taiwan a country.

On the same note, China started a fight with the Italian parliament, just because a few nationalist members of parliament, who weren’t very influential in the Italian parliament, organized a videoconference with Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong democracy activist. The Chinese Embassy in Rome criticized the members of parliament, prompting a committee of the Italian Chamber of Deputies to pass a resolution supporting the Hong Kong protesters. Because China failed to understand the limited influence of MPs from a party outside the mainstream, and instead of ignoring, directly criticized them, it united Italy’s political elite, including Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in fighting back against the intrusion.

All these examples show us that democracy, rule of law, separation of powers or freedom of speech are just words in the Chinese dictionary, ignored or misunderstood by Chinese leaders and officials. As the COVID-19 pandemic is sharpening divisions between China and the US and its allies, China’s misunderstanding of how Western countries function will deepen this divide.

Where there is a will, there is a way, but the Chinese government seems to indulge itself with the idea that it knows best and there is no need to understand the intricacies of other countries. Over time, this only leads to diplomatic failures, driving China further apart from the countries it is trying to court.

Photo Credits:  Chinese Door (Pixabay/naidokdin); Canadian and Chinese flags at a Huawei presentation in Canada in 2014 (Flickr/Ontario Canada)


Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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