US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the Third Summit for Democracy in Seoul on March 18, 2024. LEHTIKUVA / AFP

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"Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried." Winston Churchill said after the British people voted him out of his position as Prime Minister within months of winning the Second World War. Britain, in its colonial years, and later the United States have used democracy, or the lack of it, as an alibi to enforce their interests around the globe. Countries have been attacked and millions killed "to bring democracy to the people," and undemocratic and corrupt allies have been called democracies that need to be protected.

Anytime a democratic election has produced a result the USA has not favoured, regime change operations, coups d'état, or even direct military invasion have been conducted. More often, elections have also been manipulated by influencing the opinions of people through social media, funding, or lobbying. The Israel lobby is a good example of influencing US democracy for the benefit of a foreign country. The organization funds any candidate from both parties who would commit to funding and protecting Israel. Sometimes there is no need for influencing people, as ignorant masses themselves can vote a celebrity, such as when Ukrainians elected an actor who had played the president on a TV series, or a con man such as Donald Trump to lead them. The two-party system in the US has frustrated the nation for the last two decades, but no solution is in view. Running for elections needs huge resources, which de-facto makes candidates slaves of whoever has the money to fund them. They have to sell their souls before gaining any power. Anyone with dignity will have no chance of winning. Digital technology, which could be a great booster for democracy, can at the same time be one of its biggest threats. A recent example was the elections in the Philippines, where the son of the brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to power by funding social media campaigns convincing the younger generation that his father was indeed a great man who served the country; thus rewriting history for his own interests.

No wonder that the 3rd Democracy Summit, co-hosted by the governments of South Korea, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, and the United States, held this week on March 18-20 in Seoul, chose "AI/Digital Technology and Democracy" as its focus. The summit, running until March 20, convened about 30 ministers and deputy ministers among approximately 400 participants, including government representatives, diplomatic teams, civil society, industry, and academia. With "Democracy for Future Generations" as its overarching theme, the event explored the impacts of artificial intelligence and digital technology on democratic systems.

Held at the same time in China, the International Forum on Democracy: Shared Human Values challenges the conventional Western narrative by showcasing China's unique approach to democracy. Dubbed "whole-process people's democracy," this model emphasises continuous, participatory political engagement that diverges from the Western multiparty electoral system, yet strives to embody the democratic ethos by prioritising public opinion and societal needs.

At the heart of this system is the Communist Party of China (CPC), which, according to President Xi Jinping, "unswervingly upholds democracy as a shared human value." In this system, political participation is articulated through mechanisms designed to absorb and reflect public feedback on policy proposals, thereby "pooling the collective wisdom of its populace."

The whole-process democracy model, as practiced in China, represents a holistic approach to governance that emphasises continuous and comprehensive participation in the democratic process beyond periodic elections. Central to this model is the integration of various mechanisms for public consultation and involvement in decision-making, from local community discussions to national policy formulation. It seeks to pool collective wisdom by engaging citizens in deliberations, feedback mechanisms, and oversight throughout the entire policy cycle—conceptualisation, implementation, and evaluation. 

The efficacy of this model is perhaps most vividly illustrated in China's remarkable achievement in eradicating extreme poverty, a feat that underscores the CPC's organisational prowess and its strategy of targeted poverty alleviation. Through a meticulous process that involves customised plans for millions of impoverished families and the deployment of officials to manage these initiatives at the grassroots level, China has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to mobilise resources and achieve substantive socioeconomic goals.

Critics and admirers alike have weighed in on the merits and implications of China's political system. Distinguished professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago posits that China's right to choose its own political path should be respected, highlighting the widespread satisfaction among Chinese citizens with their government's performance and democratic situation. This sentiment is echoed in global surveys, where a significant majority of Chinese respondents affirm the effectiveness of their governance model.

Yet, the conversation around democracy extends beyond the binary oppositions of "democracy" versus "autocracy" as portrayed in Western discourse. Jean Monnet chair professor Wang Yiwei of Renmin University of China argues that the Western "myth of democracy" unfairly monopolizes the discourse, neglecting the rich diversity of democratic traditions across different cultures. In contrast, China's approach to modernization and democracy, deeply rooted in its cultural heritage, offers a fresh perspective on governance that emphasizes inclusivity, public welfare, and global cooperation. While every poor family in China has its own file, updated and followed on a monthly basis to expedite the family’s rise from poverty, thousands of homeless people occupy the central landscapes of US and UK cities. These masses hardly ever participate in the democratic system by voting or affecting public policies by any feedback system. They are simply considered a problem for society, not participants and members of its processes.

Amidst the global debate on the nature and future of democracy, China's initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative, highlight its commitment to fostering international collaboration and offering alternative models of development and governance. These efforts challenge the hegemonic tendencies of Western models and advocate for a multipolar world where diverse political systems coexist and contribute to global progress. This evolving dialogue on democracy, punctuated by China's assertive entry into the discourse, invites a reevaluation of what constitutes democratic governance in the 21st century. It suggests that the essence of democracy — the empowerment of the people and the responsive adaptation to their needs — can manifest in varied forms, tailored to the unique historical, cultural, and socio-economic contexts of nations around the globe.