“China is a democracy.” When you’re in China, you’ll come across this statement, or words to its effect, everywhere: painted on walls, printed on posters, spoken on television, or repeated in speeches. It baffled me when I started noticing it. Finally I found a fuller explanation of it in the state-published Concise History of the Chinese Communist Party:
“Democratic centralism is a system that integrates centralism on the basis of democracy with democracy under centralized guidance. The relationship between inner-party democracy and inner-party centralism is integrated into the overall concept, and it is crucial to understand this in adhering to and improving the system of democratic centralism.”
This is just one example of the mental gymnastics required to support the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative, which has been forced upon 1.4 billion people from childhood. Now that the country is rising economically and its glaring contradictions are being exposed to more and more new people, these exercises in illogic are being pushed onto the rest of the world.
Business and government go hand-in-hand in China, where many major companies are state-owned and all business is ultimately controlled by the state. When non-Chinese companies deal with Chinese companies, they usually can’t avoid eventually meeting someone from the Chinese Communist Party. And wherever the Party is, there is its insecure insistence that you go through the motions of its prescribed mental acrobatics. Here are the three main routines:
First, the Party reminds everyone that China has “5,000 years of history.” This misleading nationalist nonsense is intended to impress that China has a culture that is unique: older, and by implication, wiser than anyone else’s. To better understand the Chinese Communist Party, journalist Carrie Gracie pointed out, it would be easier if it “were to rename itself the Chinese Nationalist Party, but awkwardly that’s the bunch the communists swept from power 65 years ago, so the name is forever off limits.”
Second, it often repeats the line that China has “56 recognised nationalities/ethnic minorities.” This claim paints a false picture of China as a country of unity in diversity. By spreading this slogan, the Party aims to undermine the deep non-acceptance of its rule by formerly independent and culturally distinct nations such as Tibet and Xinjiang and to pre-emptively defend itself against the accusation of Han chauvinism.
Third, the Party enjoys telling anyone who will listen that it has “lifted millions out of poverty.” This crude justification of its rule ignores the obvious: that it was the Party’s policies that kept the Chinese economy crippled in first place (killing millions in the process), and that by “reforming and opening up” it has completely contradicted its original raison d’être. It also neglects to mention that the Party itself has benefited the most from this “lifting,” so that China is now one of the most unequal and corrupt countries on earth. Finally, it fails to give credit to the very people it is claiming to have helped: as many have pointed out, the Chinese people lifted themselves out of the poverty communism forced upon them.
The Party’s program of truth-twisting is catching on outside of China, too. I have been in a variety of formal and corporate settings where the above three exercises have been repeated by non-Chinese speakers. I have also noticed that it’s standard practice for companies and organizations doing business with China to warn their employees to “avoid talking about politics.” Sometimes warnings become a bit more specific: “Don’t mention the three Ts” (Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square massacre). Then there are the capitulations that are inevitable when your business, university, or country is desperate to bow at the altar of Chinese wealth. Taiwan will appear on maps as part of the People’s Republic, the Dalai Lama will be avoided, you will censor your website, you will “deeply reflect” on the “harm” caused by awarding human rights prizes to the communist regime’s enemies. The list goes on.
The CCP doesn’t confine the spreading of its message to business, either. Chinese state media companies—more accurately, CCP propaganda mouthpieces—actively post and broadcast on the same platforms that they spend billions to block in China. Xi Jinping has explicitly started that the country needs to focus on “telling a good Chinese story.” There are estimates that the state budget for propaganda aimed at non-Chinese is between seven and ten billion dollars. If the free world continues to uncritically accept the CCP’s propaganda in order to do business with China, how long will it be before it also begins repeating that “China is a democracy”?