The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Xi and Putin pretend they run democracies

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast in Moscow on Tuesday. (Pavel Byrkin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)
4 min

One of the oddest moments in this week’s love fest between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in Moscow was when Putin congratulated Xi on his “reelection” as China’s president and Xi told Putin he was certain the Russian leader would win his own reelection in 2024 (even though Putin hasn’t yet announced he’s running). Why do these dictators even bother to pretend to be winners in democratic competitions? Who do they think they are fooling?

Autocrats using fake elections to claim popular support while consolidating power isn’t new. Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi used these tactics in Iraq and Libya, respectively. But Xi and Putin aren’t just hiding behind a fig leaf of legitimacy; they are attempting to redefine the world’s understanding of what “democracy” means. This is dangerous, and real democracies must push back.

To some, Putin and Xi’s democracy playacting might seem harmless. After all, everyone knows they have snuffed out democratic characteristics in their own systems by crushing political dissent, denying freedom of the press, criminalizing civic advocacy and granting themselves unlimited terms as rulers. Xi’s “reelection” as president was approved by the Chinese Communist Party Congress 2,952-0, numbers that would make Hussein envious.

But this week’s Putin-Xi summit showed that these two leaders are not simply trying to reframe democracy for domestic purposes. They are claiming ownership of the concept of democracy as a key plank of their proposed new world order — one where the actual struggle for democratic progress is demonized and negated. In 2021, China’s State Council Information Office even released a white paper entitled “China: Democracy That Works” and offered it as a model to the developing world.

China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, on Wednesday criticized the Biden administration’s framing of a global competition between democracies and autocracies, saying that “China and Russia are committed to promoting a multipolar world and greater democracy in international relations.”

“We are working in solidarity on the formation of a more just and democratic multipolar world order,” Putin said this week on the Kremlin’s website.

It’s absurd to tout “greater democracy” in the world while defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to topple its democratically elected government. And if Putin and Xi really believed in “democracy in international relations,” they would honor the overwhelming vote by the United Nations calling on Russia to withdraw.

But there is an audience for the Putin-Xi narrative, disingenuous as it is. Beijing’s claim to practice what it calls “whole-process democracy” is appealing to other dictators and despots who don’t want to acknowledge they are holding on to power simply through brute force.

More broadly, Putin and Xi are trying to hollow out the very notions of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the international system.

“Once you get a taste of being autocratic in your own country, you want to be autocratic in the world,” Moisés Naím, author of the book “The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century,” told me. “What happens in autocracies doesn’t stay in autocracies. It travels.”

Western democracies would be naive to think Beijing’s narrative isn’t spreading. A report last week by the U.S. Institute of Peace detailed the Chinese government’s extensive global campaign to influence media in the developing world through massive amounts of propaganda, corruption of local media, covert influence operations and co-opting of local officials.

“Beijing seeks to enlist a broad coalition of like-minded partners throughout the Global South to echo its claims that the Chinese political system is superior and that the United States is an unwelcome neo-imperialist,” the report stated.

Putin’s and Xi’s attacks on the Western concept of democracy are aided by the erosion of support for democracy promotion here at home. Some U.S. experts argue that the United States ought to ignore the ideological component of great-power competition because it shrinks the space for cooperation with dictatorships.

But the sheer amount of time, effort and resources that Putin and Xi devote to ideological projection shows its importance to them and therefore demands a response. The Biden administration next week is hosting the second iteration of its Summit for Democracy, which aims to bolster international support for these values. But one conference per year is just not enough.

Putin and Xi want to have it both ways; they want to run their systems as dictators while claiming the mantle of democracy in the 21st century. The fact they are pretending shows that they know their actual model is neither popular nor just. Leaders in open societies must ensure that democracy isn’t defined by those who oppose it.