US President-elect Joe Biden gestures to the crowd after he delivered remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020, after the US presidential election. Photo: AFP / Angela Weiss

United States President Joe Biden is presiding over a “Summit for Democracy” today (December 9), a remote video meeting meant to both highlight and critique democratic practices worldwide. It’s also an indirect slap at two uninvited countries: China and Russia.

The criterion for inviting governments – at 110 at last count – mainly relied on one criterion: holding elections. While elections are fundamental to democracy, other civil rights – free speech, a fair judiciary and unfettered media, for instance – are usually considered part of the package. In that context, some of the inclusions are at odds with democratic norms.

The US State Department prepared the invitation list, acknowledged that contradiction and defended the expansive guest list on two grounds: the need to build a diverse collection of countries coupled with a desire that even laggards promise to do better.

“We are embracing a big tent, with a clear-eyed recognition that no democracy is perfect,” the State Department said in a statement. “The United States reached out to a regionally diverse set of democracies whose progress and commitments will advance a more just and peaceful world.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested the meeting would include an American self-criticism session.

“We aren’t perfect. We, too, have work to do at home,” he said. All participants “will make concrete commitments toward…countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption and protecting human rights” within their borders, he added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledges US democracy isn’t perfect. Photo: AFP / Ben Stansall / Pool

Critiquing allows in some eyebrow-raising invitees with questionable democratic credentials. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, these include:

  • Angola, whose police shot and killed demonstrators during peaceful protests in February;
  •  The Democratic Republic of Congo, where the United Nations says troops fighting a rebellion in the east have carried out numerous human rights abuses;
  •  Iraq, where Iranian-backed and home-grown militias persecute Sunni Muslims and Christians;
  •  Malaysia, where since 2020 “attacks on media freedom, free speech, refugees, migrants and the LGBTQ community” have increased, according to Human Rights Watch;
  •  and Pakistan, which routinely harasses human rights offenders and restricts civil society groups and prosecutes opposition politicians.

Other anomalies bubbled up. Hungary was left out because of the government’s political interference in the justice symptom. Yet Hungary is indirectly represented through its membership in the European Union, which is invited (even though it has done nothing to punish Hungary and is not actually a nation-state).

The EU also criticizes Poland for assaulting judicial independence but was invited. Turkey, along with Hungry, is a NATO ally but is not welcomed because of crackdowns on dissident voices, journalists and human rights advocates.

Countries that are “backsliding,” as Carnegie put it, also get in. India, the world’s largest electoral democracy, is one example.

The Indian government has withdrawn constitutional autonomy for Muslim-majority Kashmir, restricted Internet access and detained numerous Kashmiri political activists. But the Biden administration is trying to woo India into its anti-China front, so leaving it out might have complicated that campaign.

Tunisia, the lone democratic success of the 2010-2011 Arab Spring, was uninvited because of a sudden return to autocracy; it’s not yet clear whether it’s a backslide or permanent dive into the past.

China was scornful but seemed aggrieved by being left out. Over the weekend, it tried to preempt Biden’s program with an event of its own called the “International Forum on Democracy: The Shared Human Values.”

The guest list included sympathetic scholars, commentators and ex-politicians from Japan and Croatia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on a large screen during a cultural performance as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China on June 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

China ‘s Communist leadership has redefined democracy into a catch-all ideology that can include everything from dictatorship to rule by parliaments.

“Democracy is not a patent for a few countries,” preached Huang Kunming, a member of China’s Communist Party’s Politburo, who spoke at the conference. “It’s not appropriate for one country to judge other countries’ democratic practices.”

In October, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a strictly practical definition: a democracy is whatever works. “Democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration; it is to be used to solve the problems that the people want to solve,” he said.

China expressed another irritation with Biden’s extravaganza: it includes Taiwan. Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that, sooner or later, must be brought under its rule. Its invite was taken as a sign that Biden considers Taiwan as something apart from China.

Beijing would like a self-criticism on that. “Playing with ‘Taiwan Independence’ will eventually lead to fire,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned last week.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.