By Furui Ren

When speaking of democracy, we almost always understand it from the definition imposed by the Western world. Abstract notions such as the separation of powers, free elections and the rule of law are so extensively used in the media that we take them for granted without further reflection.

Nevertheless, people brought up  in the West rarely realize that there exists another layer of democracy, namely democracy in world order. Just as individual citizens have the right to choose their own governments, sovereign states should also  have the right to choose their own path of development, the path which best suits their cultures and traditions. And except in extreme situations such as mass genocide, the latter right should not be deprived of by an exterior force.

Western countries, especially the US, tend to regard their own political system as superior to that of autocratic states. As a result, “the promotion of democracy” has become a legitimate excuse for them to infringe on the sovereignty of countries they regard as politically or culturally retarded. Investment aid based on certain required conditions is frequently applied by the West to “promote democracy and human rights” in developing countries. Furthermore, neo-conservatives in the US and NATO sometimes regard military intervention as an acceptable means of achieving the noble goal of “promoting democracy”, which in reality often leads to serious humanitarian crises, internal political disorder and economic breakdown of the targeted country, as was in the case of Iraq.

In recent years, the rise of China has led neo-conservatives to believe that a new “Cold War” world order is coming back. Not only has China’s fast economic growth awed them, they also fear the possibility of China promoting or at least sustaining like-minded autocratic regimes elsewhere.  Indeed, over the past decade, often teamed up with Russia, China has insisted on “stability” instead  of “democracy” when addressing political issues with regards to neighbouring autocracies like Burma. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is another example that illustrates China’s position; denounced by some Western observers as a “club of autocrats”, the SCO promotes “stability” and “diversity” among its (mostly Central Asian) member states. “Diversity” refers to the right of each sovereign state to choose its own path of development as well as the respect for such a right from the regional community.

In the end, “non-interventionism” actually describes China’s position much better than “promoting autocracy”. China merely chooses not to base other foreign policies, such as investment aid, on political grounds the way Western countries do. Some argue that “non-interventionism” is no more than an excuse to protect autocratic regimes from being condemned and attacked  from the outside. However, we must remember that democratic states also uphold the ideology of “noninterventionism”, for instance India and Brazil. For many Asian countries including China, stability and national unity are essential. For these countries, sovereignty, stability and unity are not only considered as preconditions for economic development, but also as prescriptions for past grievances. In the case of China, the “one century of humiliation” suffered at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists has led today’s government to cherish national sovereignty above all else, and has led a considerable portion of the Chinese population to  regard any foreign intervention as “neo-imperialism”.

I am not denying that “non-interventionism” has its own drawbacks and might in some cases hinder progressive development within a state, even at times to the point of  legitimising certain atrocities committed by state actors such as when China and Russia jointly vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime.

Nevertheless, China’s principle of “non-interventionism” is no worse than the Western discourse on the “promotion of democracy”. Indeed, in many cases, non-interventionism has advantages over the positive  promotion of democracy. The first advantage of non-interventionism is that such a principle is based on the very idea of “self-determination” of sovereign states and therefore shows equal respect for all members of the United Nations. It is  disputable whether democracy for nationals in a certain state is superior to democracy for states on the international arena. Supposing that internal political democracy is the ultimate goal for all states to achieve, even those with the strongest autocratic traditions such as China, non-interventionism allows these states to explore their own path  based on their distinctive cultures and traditions towards democracy.

In such a case, the democratisation process might take longer, yet as the whole process never detaches from the country’ traditions, democracy will certainly be more endurable once it does arrive. Indeed, even the SCO notion of “diversity” does not explicitly deny the possibility of democratisation. If such a democratisation process is peaceful and endogenous, then it conforms to the SCO ideology, at least from a theoretical point of view.

Secondly, non-interventionism allows China to fully engage in trade and investment relationships  with Third World countries in Africa. Whereas the US and the EU often base their investment aid programs  on certain political requirements, namely democracy and human rights, China invests in Africa indiscriminately of the nature of the regimes. Of course, this has aroused criticism from the West condemning China’s indifference towards democracy and human rights; nevertheless, some academics from Africa consider that the Chinese non-interventionism model is in reality helping Africa much more than the Western conditionality model. The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, for instance, suggests that Western aid to Africa does more harm than good and it is Chinese investment that helps the Continent develop.

The aim of this article is not to argue against the  notion of democracy. On the contrary, the author believes in democracy so much that she believes that even the democratisation process should be “democratic”. The “Arab Spring” has re-affirmed that even without foreign intervention, people can muster up enough willingness and courage to overthrow autocratic regimes (as demonstrated by the cases of Tunisia and Egypt). Rather, this article aims at dialogue and mutual-learn ing: while autocracies like China can learn democracy and rule of law from the West, there are also things for the West, especially the US to learn a little bit from China: namely the idea of non-interventionism. It is  not necessary that Western countries take up this ideology, although it offers a new perspective with regards to international affairs and  make policy-makers realize that Western norms are not necessarily superior in all the circumstances.

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of The Paris Globalist.