Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

How to fight for democracy – at home

  • In a unipolar world, the hegemon and its allies must denigrate ‘non-interference’ as a diplomatic doctrine so as to be free to impose its interests and values on others as universally applicable. In a multipolar system, countries will have to learn to refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs to avoid conflicts and keep the peace

Everyone and their dog seems to fret about democracy being under threat these days. Even Sting interrupted his concert in Warsaw to warn against the danger and rallied his fans by shouting democracy is worth fighting for.

By all means, your country is worth fighting for. Your home and family are worth fighting for. And if your home country also happens to be a democracy, well yes, your system of government is worth fighting for. That means working hard to address problems at home, of which there are legions, rather than looking for monsters aboard to slay. Take care of your own democracy and repair its defects, and Democracy with the capital D will take care of itself around the world.

The real global threat to Democracy is posed by the failing politicians, populist ideologues and corrupt charlatans in your own country, not foreign autocrats living somewhere else. They don’t plot to undermine your government and society; it’s almost always the other way round.

Why Beijing thinks Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is not like Gingrich in 1997

Somehow, though, I don’t think that was what Sting and many Western political leaders meant by fighting for democracy. I think they mean fighting other people who are not like them. It means fighting Russia and China, and any number of authoritarian states, unless they happen to be friendly with your democratic government and its allies; in which case, maybe you shouldn’t fight or criticise them. Sting was clear about that when he, like many others, denounced the Russian attack on Ukraine as “an absurdity based upon a lie”. Actually, I think Putin has been brutally – and criminally – truthful and honest about what he wants.

Like Sting, as United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei, she said her controversial visit was to defend freedom and democracy everywhere, not just Taiwan’s. In a bygone era, someone in her position might have said it was to defend Christendom against the heathens.


Somehow, I don’t think fighting for your beliefs means you have to fight me just because I don’t share them. Call me a simpleton, but as a Chinese I have always taken this as what Beijing means by “non-interference”. It may be hypocritical when China does sometimes try to influence another country’s government policy or course of action. It may also be self-serving to try to pre-empt other countries or critics from pointing out its wrongdoings or errors. But as a diplomatic stance on global affairs, it finds resonance in many countries outside the West.


The Chinese one-party state model has not gained much traction in other countries. But Beijing is OK with that. It actually spends more time promoting its economic development model and reliance on heavy state-directed investments in technology, and physical and digital infrastructure. Its ideology is mostly about technology rather than its political system, at least insofar as its foreign relations are concerned.

Pelosi heads for South Korea after whirlwind Taiwan trip

To be sure, it devotes enormous resources to legitimise one-party rule among its citizens, but can you blame it? And of course, the country’s rulers get mad when Western countries try to delegitimise its rule among its own people and around the world. Now that’s real interference.

Non-Western countries may not want to emulate China’s political system, but many do share its belief that the claim of universal values is just a convenient justification to promote Western values and interests, and to legitimise Western interference – often at the barrel of a gun – in the domestic affairs of others, and sometimes, to effect regime change or foment revolutions. Who spent so much time promoting the Arab spring, only to ignore the unending winter – by making nice with the same Arab countries?

A multipolar world

The English language became the world’s lingua franca mostly because of the British navy, followed by the American army. As Stalin supposedly quipped, a language is a dialect with an army and navy. A small religious cult grew to become a world religion when there was an empire to support and spread it. Every value or belief has a time and a place, but when their believers are powerful enough to impose them on others, they become universal. You can claim universality when you outgun everyone else. Having hundreds of military bases in all four corners of the world will get you all the universality – “freedom and democracy” – you need.

But the unipolar moment of America has been short-lived. It’s hard not to roll your eyes when Pelosi told reporters her latest trip to Taiwan helped defend democracy and freedom. She also once said if America couldn’t defend human rights in China, it couldn’t defend them anywhere. I admire her for being able to say such nonsense with a straight face. But then, that’s a Western democratic politician’s speciality, and at 82, she’s been doing it for decades.

G7 slams China for ‘destabilising region’ over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan

For many people around the world, fighting democracy is a code or a public relations trick to preserve America’s declining hegemony. After all, it doesn’t sound good to admit you are fighting to preserve your God-given right to dominate the global order and the world economy. It sounds much better to say you are doing it for freedom everywhere. Americans may mistake such sentiments as “anti-American”, like anti-Semitism. Well, that could be if you are deep into al-Qaeda or Islamic State territories. But for most people, they just don’t want to be dictated and lectured to while, as it’s sometimes the case, being bombed to smithereens. If being liberated means having your children blown to pieces by a drone, give me tyranny any day. Most countries would gladly leave America alone if America would leave them alone.


More people like me question America’s powers, purpose and even morality precisely because its global influence and dominance are dwindling, even when they are still considerable. When a system begins to crack, you start to see how it really works, or doesn’t work.

China set to begin effective Taiwan blockade hours after Pelosi visit ends

Of course, you can argue, and it has frequently been argued, that American hegemony, however questionable, is preferable to Chinese or Russian hegemony. But it’s not clear China actually seeks global hegemony; and it’s pretty clear that Russia is incapable of even regional dominance, as its disastrous war in Ukraine has shown.


Do not be fooled; the world struggle today is not between democracy and authoritarianism. Rather, it is going through a “regime change” from unipolarity or hegemony to multipolarity and, hopefully, a balance of power between the big states.

The question that needs to be asked, but it’s not being asked often enough, is whether America can adapt to being the first among equals rather than hanging on to an increasingly elusive dominance that makes it a danger to itself and the world.