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How U.S.–China Cooperation Can Strengthen Democracy

By Jake Werner

Is it possible to find common ground between the United States and China on the fraught question of democracy? The answer at first appears to be no. But the prospects for democracy around the world may depend on developing a wider concept of democracy—one more robust than the dominant definitions today, which could also create space for great power cooperation.

The Biden administration frames its foreign policy as an epochal struggle between democracy and authoritarianism and identifies the U.S. as leader of the democrats against China as leader of the autocrats. Defining the issue in this way means that any success for the Chinese government builds the prestige of autocracy while eroding the appeal of democracy.

It follows that the defense of democracy requires restricting Chinese growth and influence. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently identified China as the only country with both the ability and desire to dismantle the liberal international order. Preserving U.S. economic and military dominance would supposedly disprove China’s claim that autocracy is more effective than democracy while keeping profits and jobs in the U.S. to address popular economic discontent.

Yet, as is already evident in U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy, great power conflict is more likely to fuel militarism, nationalism, and racism than to strengthen democracy. The U.S. and China are in danger of repeating the tragedies of the Cold War when both sides championed democracy in their rhetoric while despoiling it in practice at home and abroad. And lavishing public resources on the already prosperous tech and military sectors while public goods and the care economy languish is unlikely to create broad new opportunities in the already highly unequal US economy. Moreover, if the U.S. hoards the profits and jobs of the industries of the future, how can other endangered democracies deliver for their people?

Increasingly, U.S.–China conflict thus risks destroying democracy in order to save it. But perhaps the appeal of democracy rests less on American geopolitical might than on the more prosaic question of whether elections are actually empowering normal citizens. A richer and stronger conceptualization of democracy—substantive democracy—indicates a different approach to reviving democracy.

In the U.S., democracy is usually defined in formal terms: free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an impersonal rule of law. Substantive democracy, by contrast, is not just a set of procedures and restrictions on the state but the broader social conditions that equip citizens to participate in self-rule. After all, those sunk in despair over joblessness or crushing debt, those who cannot treat a debilitating illness or escape a polluted neighborhood, those forced to sleep on the streets or pick garbage to survive—all are politically marginalized just as surely as those living under formal authoritarianism.

Elections are easily corrupted by the influence of money and governance is easily compromised by patronage networks and powerful special interests. People left demoralized and disorganized by their social circumstances cannot hold their elected officials accountable; only if the people have a strong foundation will they be able to stand up and assert democracy as a living practice.

This richer conceptualization also helps us understand the strength of authoritarianism in recent years. The rise of free market globalization starting in the 1980s eroded state power while nourishing social openness and cosmopolitan tolerance, which encouraged a worldwide expansion of formal democracy. But by breaking the power of labor, hollowing out public goods, and tearing up regulatory constraints on the free market, globalization simultaneously gave rise to oligarchic inequality around the world. The atrophy of organized labor in developed and developing countries alike was particularly damaging because of the central role unions, and workers’ parties have historically played in securing democracy.

These changes concentrated social gains and opportunities at the top rather than distributing them broadly, which corrupted the process of electing leaders. By creating artificial scarcity, it also aggravated existing identity divisions as people sought allies in their struggles and scapegoats for their misfortunes—providing fertile ground for racial, communal, and nationalist demagogues. The advance of formal democracy came at the expense of substantive democracy, leaving the foundations rotten for both.

Democracy Under Duress

In recent years, large protests demanding fair growth, robust public goods, and an end to elite impunity have shaken countries around the world, from Brazil to Kenya, Iraq to Indonesia. Yet, the protests have changed little and discontent has instead flowed toward zero-sum intercommunal conflicts.

What stands in the way of popular demands for a democratic revival? The first problem is persistent economic weakness worldwide following the 2008 financial crisis, now exacerbated by the pandemic, debt distress, and global inflation. Slow growth not only undermines the economic conditions for substantive democracy by restricting job creation and government revenue, it also leaves elites little room to compromise. They double down on existing inequalities when confronted with calls for change because slow growth leaves only zero-sum possibilities.

This means that the success of China’s ambitious global development efforts, far from threatening democracy, could make a crucial contribution to the renewal of democracy by creating jobs, expanding opportunity, and providing elites with both space and impetus for reform. The Belt and Road Initiative and large-scale lending from China’s two main policy banks have focused on building infrastructure and electricity plants in the Global South, filling a gap that Western development lending had neglected for decades.

Yet, as the case of China itself demonstrates, economic dynamism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for genuine democracy. China took advantage of globalization to sustain unprecedented rates of GDP and productivity growth. But like the rest of the world, its market-driven economy led to rising inequality, corruption, labor exploitation, popular insecurity, and environmental degradation. As in the rest of the world, this made for a potent mix of resentment and fear that over the last decade has fueled a turn toward intolerant nationalism.

Democratic Growth Requires More Than Just Economic Growth

The lesson: to support democracy, investment must not just drive growth but must also empower those who are excluded and exploited, reducing inequality and increasing the organizational capacity and political self-confidence of the people. The policy agenda to ensure such an outcome would focus on robust public goods, strong labor rights, distributing investment broadly by region, and preventing the costs of growth, such as environmental damage, from being pushed onto those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Today, by instrumentalizing democracy to its agenda of containing China, Washington is aggravating Chinese nationalism and encouraging cynicism about liberal values. The cause of global democracy would be better served by taking the Chinese government up on its proposal that each side participate in the development programs of the other. Washington would then be in a position to advocate an inclusive and empowering approach to development, which would both improve the outcomes of China’s programs and harness their potential for reviving democracy. Where confrontation encourages mutual sabotage, leaving barren ground for democracy, cooperation could launch a new era of freedom and openness with stronger foundations than the last.

Jake Werner is a historian of modern China and a former Global China Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Boston University Global Development Policy

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