Inside “Chinese Democracy”: The Official Career of a Contested Concept under Xi Jinping

  •  Heike Holbig    


When the People’s Republic of China was excluded from US president Biden’s guest list for the virtual Summit for Democracy in December 2021, it reacted with a detailed self-depiction of the Chinese political system as a “Democracy That Works” to rebut US claims to be the world’s leading democracy. While the international media saw this as a surprise narrative, China’s “democratic” self-image has a long trajectory going back to the days of Mao Zedong and now elaborated more systematically under Xi Jinping. Based on a close reading of Chinese party-state documents, white papers, state media coverage, etc., this article analyzes the official career of the concept of “democracy” in Chinese Communist Party jargon and dissects the messages targeted at domestic and international audiences. It finds that the official self-depiction of “Chinese democracy” does not contradict, but rather complements the legitimation of Communist Party rule at home, buffering nationalist sentiments there. Despite its lack of persuasiveness vis-à-vis Western audiences, its underlying criticism of US democracy, and its subtle claims regarding China’s global leadership, the official vision might gain traction among other emerging powers and developing countries.

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