V-Dem’s democracy report is just a tool for China-bashing

Leung Chun-ying, former chief executive and currently vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, in a recent interview with Ta Kung Pao, urged all Chinese people to refute all China-bashing reports so as to ensure their false information or misinformation cannot mislead the world and perpetuate an unfairly negative image of China. Here is one such example.

The little-known Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute in Sweden recently published its seventh annual Democracy Report 2023 (the report). It ranks 179 countries and regions on its Liberal Democracy Index. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are ranked the top three, while the United Kingdom and United States are ranked 20th and 23rd, respectively. China is ranked 172nd, with its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region ranked 139th. 

Quite obviously, the report is just one of the West’s many China-bashing tools in smearing China. The report describes China as the largest “closed autocracy” in the world and says that its people enjoy no freedoms or rights, and that they are subjected to oppression. To anybody with a cursory understanding of world events, this is truly a travesty of political research and will reflect badly on the institute, rather than on China or its HKSAR.

The report’s timing is ironic because it came as China convened its annual two sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, with live international media coverage. They were attended by over 5,000 elected delegates, the biggest such parliamentary gathering in the world. Both government representatives and delegates were seen freely interacting with the media during the event. 

In the NPC, the annual work reports of the executive arm of the government, the NPC Standing Committee, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate were read out before the full congress for subsequent deliberation and voting on its acceptance. Several years ago, the acceptance vote for the Procuratorate was conducted at a lower level, reflecting the members’ discontent with its anti-corruption effort. This put a lot of pressure on the organization to improve, and it did improve to the members’ satisfaction. Such a procedure is a lot more transparent and accountable than many of the so-called Western parliaments.

Clearly the political systems in China and its HKSAR are in no way inferior to Western-style democracy in building a safe, fair and prosperous society

Now, let’s examine the credibility of the V-Dem Institute’s report. It duly acknowledges its sponsors’ support over the years. So, who funded their work? A check on its website shows that they include George Soros’ highly politicized Open Society Foundation, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), known to be an executive arm of the CIA, and another similar organization, the Canadian International Development Agency. These are the same organizations that backed the various color revolutions in different countries in recent years. In fact, the institute is similar to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which was set up with Australian and American government assistance and the support of various foreign groups for the express purpose of smearing China.

V-Dem claims it possesses the most extensive global database on democracy, with over 31 million data points for 202 countries and regions dating from 1789 to 2022. If so, it should know that Hong Kong had no democracy at all under British rule, with all governors appointed by the king or queen and all lawmakers appointed by the governor. By contrast, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s chief executive is elected by a broadly representative election committee of 1,500 members and all of its legislators are elected either directly or indirectly. 

The V-Dem report claimed their assessment and ranking were derived from 4,000 scholars and country experts. However, none of these individuals were identified. But it is fair to assume their selection is strongly influenced by the politics of V-Dem’s sponsors. If they were from Western countries, it would surprise few that they harbor anti-China bias. No wonder none of these scholars and country experts are identified because doing so would give away their hidden agenda.

For the sake of objectivity, it is also reasonable to ask how many of them are Chinese, bearing in mind that Chinese comprise a fifth of the world’s population. And if there are Chinese, are they limited to Chinese dissidents and critics of China only? Have Chinese political scholars from top Chinese universities been included? 

An extensive search of its core research team reveals just one Chinese scholar, an associate professor from the Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, which ranks 639th in Best Global Universities’ world university rankings. Why do they not include internationally respected Chinese political scholars at top Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University and Peking University? How about those famous independent political commentators respected for their knowledge of the Chinese government and political affairs, such as Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who has advised the United Nations and several US administrations? Or the better-known China expert, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who once held the highest diplomatic posts in the United Nations and Singapore government? These people are familiar with the actual situation in China, and they have spoken highly of China’s political and economic developments. Indeed, we should seek these genuine experts’ views of the V-Dem report’s findings. 

From personal experience, based on my understanding of the workings of some of the international ranking indices, the weighing factor significantly affects the survey results. The primary V-Dem dataset is said to include over 60 indices and 500 indicators in calculating its ranking points. Do all these indices and indicators carry equal weight? Obviously they do not and should not because the credibility and relevance of each index and indicator varies. Who then has determined how much weight each index and indicator carries? The weight of each index and indicator can be manipulated to produce the desired results.

The V-Dem report claims that the overriding factors for ranking include freedom, rule of law and clean election. On that basis, it is quite difficult to comprehend that the US gets a high ranking of 23rd vis-a-vis China’s 172nd and its HKSAR’s 139th.

It is no secret that US democracy is dominated by “big money” to a large extent. That is why no politicians dare to amend the existing gun laws for fear of upsetting the US National Rifle Association, which is the most significant political fund contributor. As a result, gun violence continues to be a huge problem in the US, which registered 647 mass shootings and more than 44,000 deaths from gunshots in 2022. 

American democracy became a laughingstock when Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, in an attempt to prevent the US Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty of certifying election results. American democracy has allowed the US to launch 226 wars abroad in the 246 years since its independence in 1776.

The US is the only country in the world that has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and refuses to ratify other major human rights conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. With such a poor human rights record, how can V-Dem justify its ranking at 23rd out of the 179 jurisdictions surveyed? The only plausible explanation is that the institute dare not upset its American donors!

In comparison, China is a peace-loving country as shown by its recorded history. It devotes a major part of its resources to poverty alleviation instead of military spending. Thus it was able to lift some 800 million people out of extreme poverty in the last 40 years. It is an unprecedented feat in human history highly praised by the UN. This is equivalent to over two times the population of the US, and accounts for close to 70 percent of the global reduction in extreme poverty. China invests in education to such an extent that it produces over 10 million university graduates each year.

The Edelman Trust Barometer survey result of 28 countries, released at the Davos Forum recently, reveals that many of the Western countries surveyed are severely polarized, including the US, Sweden and Spain. Respondents in those countries reported a lack of civility and mutual respect in society. But this is not the case in China. Most Chinese respondents (65 percent) expected to be better off in five years; 71 percentof the respondents said they trusted the government.

During China’s annual two sessions held recently, the government officially pledged to eliminate the “two worries” (inadequate food and clothing) and provide “three guarantees” (access to healthcare, education and housing) for its huge 1.4 billion population. This is a pledge few Western governments dare to make. In the UK, a recent survey showed that a worrying number of households are going without food and sitting in cold homes because of the rising costs of living, with one in seven people skipping meals. Yet the UK achieved a much higher ranking of 20th vis-a-vis China’s 172nd in the V-Dem report, giving the lie to the supposed superiority of Western democracy.

As for Hong Kong, there was no such thing as democracy in the British era. After reunification, Hong Kong enthusiastically promoted Western-style democracy, but it resulted in relentless political chaos, featuring deep polarization in society and a total breakdown of the legislature, and a violent insurrection in 2019, which saw rioters clashing with the police and attacking public infrastructure and private businesses. Innocent civilians were physically attacked only because they dared to express political views different from the rioters’.

Now Hong Kong is back to prosperity and stability and its revised political institutions are functioning well, clearly better than the old systems. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index is the world’s leading authority for independent assessment on the rule of law, and in its WJP Index 2022, released on Oct 26, 2022, ranked Hong Kong 22nd out of the 140 countries and jurisdictions surveyed, higher than the US (26th), and ahead of many European Union countries. Similarly World Bank’s 2021 Worldwide Governance Indicators ranked Hong Kong, in the “Control of Corruption” category, 15th out of the 209 countries and jurisdictions assessed, and the second highest in Asia. The Fraser Institute, in its “Economic Freedom of the World: 2022 Annual Report”, issued on Sept 8, 2022, again ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy. Hong Kong is also one of the safest cities in Asia to live and work, its crime rate is one-tenth of that of the UK. According to Numbeo’s crime index ranking 142 countries and regions for mid-2022, Hong Kong is the sixth-safest place in the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index 2021 ranked Hong Kong eighth.

Did V-Dem include the above-mentioned factors, which are all highly relevant in assessing the effectiveness of democratic systems, in its assessments and calculations? If the answer is “yes”, it is bewildering that Hong Kong was given such a low score, and the only explanation is that politics has been in play. 

Indeed, it is naive or self-deceiving for V-Dem to suggest that the “one person, one vote” model or Western-style democracy is the only effective democratic model in the world. They should learn from the wisdom of Deng Xiaoping, who once said, “It doesn’t matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice, it is a good cat”. They should research the meritocracy of China, which enables the country to produce leaders of higher quality than many of those elected through universal suffrage in Western countries. Clearly the political systems in China and its HKSAR are in no way inferior to Western-style democracy in building a safe, fair and prosperous society.

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. He is an international anti-corruption consultant and former deputy commissioner of the ICAC.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.