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The World Has Become Flatter for Authoritarian Regimes

They are benefiting from a world that has grown more hostile for democracy and human rights. But it doesn’t need to be the case. Democracies need to double down on their own competitive advantage.

By Christopher Walker

December 2023

As China has emerged as a global power, it has deepened its relationships with countries around the world. Many of the societies with which Beijing and its proxies are engaging, however, have only a superficial understanding of the way the world’s largest dictatorship operates. Some hold perceptions that have been carefully and deliberately shaped by a formidable Chinese global propaganda machine. The deep knowledge gap about the Chinese party-state in much of the world represents a crucial asymmetry that works to the strategic advantage of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It may seem counterintuitive that such a large and omnipresent country remains so poorly understood in so many places. But, in fact, this knowledge gap represents only one aspect of larger imbalances that have taken shape with regard to leading authoritarian powers. In conditions of asymmetry, as when Beijing’s extensive resources and integrated networks of influence reinforce one another, any single country is often outmatched in a bilateral relationship with a large, predatory power—at least to the extent such individual countries are not adequately prepared.

The emerging Georgia-China “strategic partnership” is a case in point. Georgia, a country of just under four-million people, is seeking to engage with China in a sweeping set of political, economic, people-to-people, media, and cultural-related deals. But the Georgian system, like so many others, is not equipped to reckon with the full implications of such comprehensive engagement with the Chinese party-state. In Georgia, there is inadequate impartial expertise on China in academia, media, and policy circles. This knowledge deficit hampers the ability of Georgian society writ large to assess the overall costs and benefits of a deepening relationship with Beijing.

But the Georgian example is by no means an isolated one. Rather, it is one of many in which a smaller country must contend with the vast range of tools and channels of influence the Chinese party-state brings to bear. Such persistent knowledge and capacity gaps can create sharp vulnerabilities, including those relating to self-censorship, strategic corruption, and the unchecked forms of surveillance that invariably accompany engagement with the CCP and its surrogates.

But beyond the raw size advantage enjoyed by China or, for that matter, Russia, decisionmakers in Beijing and Moscow benefit from other asymmetries that have evolved in areas central to democratic development. This is the case especially in information and technology, but also finance and commerce. These asymmetries, which thrive in conditions of surveillance and secrecy, broadly advantage autocracies over democracies.

What explains these circumstances? In the present era of globalization, major authoritarian powers have nestled themselves in the slipstream of global informational, technological, and financial flows. They have found that opportunities associated with massive secret wealth, opaque algorithms, and the pervasive surveillance that is now baked into nearly every aspect of daily life align well with their antidemocratic preferences.

Viewed another way, the world has become flatter for authoritarian powers. These regimes are able to monitor their own people in increasingly minute detail but are also able to choke off the opportunity for people to monitor their governments in return. Surveillance and secrecy—dominant features of important parts of today’s international operating environment—themselves create an enabling environment for authoritarian powers’ preferred modus operandi. After all, these repressive regimes thrive on monitoring people’s movements and reading habits. They prefer operating in darkness, either through the practice of opaque politics and policymaking, or by doing business in secret, or by murkily using the form of law—rather than rule of law—to mete out their own manipulated version of “justice” to independent journalists, civil society figures, or oppositionists. Suppression and twisting of information are the autocrats’ stock and trade and are integral to their political survival.

For China’s rulers, for instance, secrecy and surveillance are features, not bugs, of the system. Domestically, the Chinese authorities have cultivated a vast infrastructure of social management that increasingly relies on advanced technologies to surveil, nudge, and engineer social behavior. The PRC leadership’s massive investments into its domestic security apparatus speak to the paramount importance that the CCP places on political control.

Decision makers in China have also constructed a powerful digital-censorship architecture that is redefining the boundaries of information management and manipulation—in essence, bringing to scale Beijing-style norms of secrecy and surveillance. The authorities in Beijing have effectively obscured the deaths of some two-million people who are believed to have perished as the ill-prepared country made an abrupt turnabout from its prior strict “zero covid” policies. As part of the Chinese authorities’ Orwellian information manipulation, they are rewriting the way the pandemic is remembered in China by “withholding data on its impact and censoring people who contradict the government line that its handling of the virus was a triumph.”

As China and Russia have gone global with their ambitions, their standards and preferences should be of concern everywhere. In a fiercely contested international context, but one in which secrecy and surveillance increasingly serve as default norms, the authoritarian fraternity that Anne Applebaum calls “Autocracy, Inc.” can exploit asymmetrical advantage at global scale. This overarching set of circumstances certainly has contributed to shifting the global political center of gravity to the autocrats’ advantage.

We have already entered into a dramatically different, discernibly more hostile situation for democracy and human rights, even from the perspective of ten or fifteen years ago. In historical terms, this is a blink of an eye. It speaks to the speed with which big, democracy-unfriendly changes can—and already have—taken hold.

Information Deficits and Manipulation at Scale

The most jarring of the global transformations has taken place in the information sphere. Asymmetries in the media are arguably the most lopsided, affording authoritarian powers crucial information advantages. Beijing and Moscow, in particular, have developed massive outward-facing media capabilities that are able to curate content to suit the preferences of political leadership. Story lines projected by these state-run pseudo-journalistic enterprises increasingly are aligned with one another, exploiting opportunities to concentrate messaging and narratives in settings around the world.

In Latin America, for instance, Russian and Chinese state media often are working in concert with Cuban and Venezuelan information outlets that seek to “constrain the influence of the international human rights system by shielding one another from scrutiny” and “promote concepts that encourage tolerance of authoritarian practices,” as Iria Puyosa writes in a recent report from the International Forum for Democratic Studies.

For its part, China pursues a two-pronged approach—part propaganda, part censorship—to achieve its objectives: one is a multibillion-dollar effort to extend the reach of its state-run media content; the other seeks to limit alternative voices in other parts of the world that might challenge the CCP’s standing.

In 2016, Xi Jinping left little doubt about his vision and ambition for Chinese state information projection: “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles, and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.”

As part of the Chinese authorities’ internationalization of their state media, they now leverage foreign media and social-media platforms to disseminate their messages. The CCP’s primary aim is to shape the international information environment to align with its strategic interests and ideological preferences. For instance, it recently came to light that state-owned China Radio International was airing its content, without attribution, on commercial radio stations in countries across Europe. Effectively using nontransparent partnerships, the China Radio International effort included countries such as the Czech Republic and Serbia, thus applying hidden mechanisms of influence both within and outside the EU.  This episode is redolent of another in which at least 33 radio stations in fourteen countries were identified as part of a global radio web “structured in a way that obscured its majority shareholder”—namely, China Radio International.

Persistent information imbalances about China and Russia in Latin America, as well as in Africa, afford freedom of action to Beijing and Moscow. Propaganda and ties between Chinese state media and local outlets have grown around the world and can have more impact, especially in countries that lack independent expertise on China. The effects of this global authoritarian media onslaught are not just theoretical: In the context of Russia’s criminal war in Ukraine, far too many audiences outside the transatlantic democracies have bought into the Kremlin’s distortions, which Chinese state media have readily amplified around the world. Writing in Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, Edward Lucas observes that free societies are “losing the battle of ideas with authoritarian regimes, not because [democratic] ideas are weak, but because the battlefield is skewed against them.”

The impact of Russia and China’s influence efforts, however, cannot be assessed in isolation from the internal challenges that democratic societies face. The authorities in both Russia and China are highly adept at using divisive tactics, and know how to apply them to increase cleavages and break down democratic consensus.

Technology’s Authoritarian Turn

Nowhere has the speed of change been more bracing than in the sphere of technology, which is helping make repression more affordable and efficient. The digital revolution has helped to flatten the global operating environment for authoritarian powers, affording them opportunities to exert influence at scale. In key respects, autocracies have already aligned modern technology with their values. In essence, the powerful technological surveillance model that has come to predominate globally lends itself to the application of sharp power.

New technological tools make it easier for authoritarian regimes to surveil their populations—for example, through facial recognition—and to help antidemocratic forces in other countries do the same. This was the case in Uganda, where authorities used a secret bidding process for Huawei to work with Ugandan security officials “to design a full-sized Safe Cities system to suit the government’s needs.”

TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech firm ByteDance, is another case in point. The platform has enjoyed astronomical growth. Officially, TikTok now has more than a billion active global users. As of October 2023, the United States had more than 143 million active TikTok users. But as the scholar Aynne Kokas observes, as “those users post and watch short videos, behind the scenes TikTok is meticulously collecting data on them, tracking their preferences and online activities.” Kokas further notes that China is making the rules in a way that will allow the authorities in Beijing to use tech platforms to gather global data “for purposes of ‘national security,’” a term which the Chinese authorities keep vague and opaque in data-protection laws.

As part of the hypocrisy of these regimes, China’s diplomats and government officials exploit foreign social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (now X) that are blocked off to its own citizens. The CCP increasingly is finding ways to leverage online “influencers,” who are seen by the authorities as particularly valuable for building the CCP’s legitimacy at home and supporting propaganda efforts abroad.” A recently released report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that “foreign influencers are involved in a wave of experimentation and innovation in domestic (and external) propaganda production,” as well as the ways in which “the CCP is effectively co-opting a widespread network of international students at Chinese universities, cultivating them as a talent pool of young, multilingual, social-media-friendly influencers.” The Iranian regime also uses the surveillance power of open social media to pursue and intimidate its critics. Meanwhile, Iranian officials and friends of the Islamic Republic use social media for PR campaigns and to spread propaganda. This is, of course, another asymmetry that autocrats readily take advantage of.

More fundamentally, the autocrats’ approach to governance rests on surveillance and control in place of openness and deliberation, a set of circumstances they maintain by suppressing independent journalism, censoring the digital information space, and closely guarding information that open-government norms would place in the public domain. As digital technologies transform the communications environment, these regimes work hard—and are proving adept—at manipulating the information aperture in ways that obstruct the transparency and accountability vital to democratic systems.

A massive injection of surveillance capacity over the past generation has been integral to the digital form of transnational repression pursued by autocrats. Digital subversion has become a common phenomenon worldwide. Ronald J. Deibert describes the pernicious pattern: “High government officials act secretly for personal gain behind the shield of sovereign immunity. They may violate laws in foreign jurisdictions, but they enjoy impunity. To avoid public accountability, they use private intelligence and security contractors, including private investigators and ‘dark PR’ firms, to carry out covert activities once done solely by national governments.” As with challenges in the information and technology spheres, this phenomenon is transnational and involves democratic as well as authoritarian societies.

Secrecy Goes Global in Finance and Commerce

Just as secrecy and opacity have become integral features of so much of today’s technology design, so too have they come to animate crucial aspects of modern commerce and the financial system. The intertwining of figures and institutions in both open and closed systems make for a complicated, often murky set of conditions that in the end tend to work against democratic behaviors and standards of democratic accountability.

The secrecy that animates a global financial system vulnerable to kleptocracy and its networks also tends to favor autocrats and authoritarian behaviors. Charles Davidson and Ben Judah call the result a vast “unseen world”—worth trillions of dollars—that lies beneath the surface of the global financial system. As depicted by Davidson and Judah, this secret financial ecosystem is “made up of millions of hidden accounts, secret trusts, disguised entities, artificial trades, opaque ownerships, and more,” and would seem alien to what the average citizen of a Western democracy experiences as the financial system. It is, in their view, among one of today’s gravest and least acknowledged threats to democracy. Here, too, the nontransparent, transnational nature of the offshore financial system has afforded an asymmetrical advantage to autocrats and authoritarian regimes.

Reflecting on Russia’s kleptocracy, journalist Oliver Bullough has observed that in the aftermath of the Cold War, as Russia benefited from global money flows, it took to invading neighboring states, assassinating critics abroad, and engaging in systematic political warfare, rather than liberalizing. And over time, it was the ability to move money quietly and seamlessly around the world—to dodge taxes, scrutiny, and accountability—that allowed oligarchs to amass vast fortunes and project influence abroad. At home, authoritarian regimes operate on the basis of secrecy. The spirit of secrecy that Davidson and Judah highlight is consistent with the preferences of Beijing and Moscow, which rely on secrecy to achieve their objectives beyond their borders.

For instance, when Chinese government entities make agreements with foreign governments or businesses, they often demand that the details be kept secret. Russia’s corrupt networks and proxies around the world typically seek to operate in the dark. And such secrecy at scale, when unchallenged by governmental and nongovernmental organizations, affords the autocrats another critical and often lopsided advantage.

This is a systemic issue: The result of this pattern of engagement based on concealment is a gradual erosion of global norms of transparency and open government—and the rise of new norms of secrecy and opacity. We are seeing this trend play out in real time across the globe.

Collaboration between authoritarian powers makes the challenge even greater. As National Endowment for Democracy president Damon Wilson, observed earlier this year in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “with Russia and China at the vanguard, authoritarian powers have grown increasingly more assertive and ambitious . . . and in an era of global interconnectivity, [these autocrats] recognize that keeping their own citizens in check is no longer enough to cement their power, and so they’re partnering with other like-minded autocracies to share ideas, resources, and technologies.”

In essence, the arrangement of large parts of the modern critical infrastructure for democracy tilts in the direction of the autocrats. Objectively, democracies should have natural advantages relating to informational, technological, and financial flows—but all too often they appear systemically disadvantaged in these very domains.

Reckoning with the Authoritarian Advantage

Vladimir Putin is fast approaching a quarter-century in power. In that time, he has built up a klepto-dictatorship that exerts various forms of malign influence around the world. For all the decrepitude of his rule, Putin’s regime enjoys an asymmetrical advantage because of its sheer length. Week after week, year after year, the Russian state uses the country’s resources for information manipulation, high-level corruption, and propagandizing, at home and abroad. To address the challenge posed by Putin’s Russia, as well as that of China under Xi Jinping, who himself has no intention of rotating power, democracies will need a more consistent, durable approach.

As I wrote in these pages in 2018, “sharp power takes advantage of the asymmetry between free and unfree systems. Open, democratic systems are rich targets for authoritarian regimes whose commercial activities and political initiatives are now regular features of life in democracies. It is within this context that sharp power . . . is able to flourish.” Today, major authoritarian powers are operating without much restraint but with purpose and agency. As Hal Brands and Michael Beckley observe, there is ample evidence to suggest that the CCP “is pursuing a determined, multilayered grand strategy” whose objectives include first and foremost maintaining the CCP’s “iron grip on power,” but also, ultimately, focus “on achieving global power and, eventually, global primacy.”

A critical part of the story during the past two decades has been the assertion and leveraging of authoritarian state power in domains that include media, technology, and commerce. Over the past generation, leaderships in China and Russia, in particular, have prioritized building first-class, often global, capabilities in these and other crucial domains. This is not to suggest that such efforts by the authoritarians are seamless or perfect. They are not. But the asymmetries they are enjoying require greater attention, given the kind of world we would live in if the authoritarians succeeded in fully realizing their grim vision of global governance.

Although the world may have become flatter for the authoritarians, it need not necessarily be so. Authoritarian state power, while formidable, is not invincible. It has its own vulnerabilities. The full range of democratic societal power, when applied intentionally and systematically, is more resilient and potent than the grim alternative on offer from autocrats.

At this point, however, democracies have neither the excuse of ignorance nor the luxury of time. To the extent that the global operating environment is more secretive and surveillance-oriented, autocrats will swim with the current and possess a competitive advantage. This situation will demand fresh thinking from open societies. Any response must be disciplined, vigilant, and intentional.

Groups working to address problems of authoritarian influence are too often separated into professional, geographic, and linguistic silos. It is imperative to bring them together and allow them to trade and discuss methods, tactics, and lessons from their experiences, and to encourage the growth of networks and alliances that will enhance their future efforts.

Fundamentally, democracies need to privilege privacy and expose secrecy in more purposeful and innovative ways. Democratic governments and nongovernmental organizations alike must do a more comprehensive job of explaining the problems that result from Beijing’s and Moscow’s secretive practices. A clearer understanding of the downsides of engagement with the authoritarians will help countries avoid making choices that compromise democratic integrity, thereby reducing the competitive advantage of autocrats.

To address the fundamental knowledge asymmetries, it will be critical to deepen cross-regional information sharing and coordinate more awareness-raising efforts to understand the contemporary Chinese and Russian systems. Given the persistently weak understanding of China and Russia in so many parts of the world, especially in Latin America and Africa, more purposeful approaches for communicating expert knowledge about these countries to elite and mass audiences is essential.

More fundamentally, democratic systems will need to take far more seriously competition in the global media space. Independent journalism, while crucial, is insufficient to meet the pseudo-journalistic propaganda complex that has been brought to global scale by today’s leading authoritarian powers.

The galloping pace of technological change demands new norms of democratic accountability around surveillance tech, especially as generative AI becomes mainstream. Because AI governance challenges touch on many different aspects of social and political life, civil organizations will need to forge new types of partnerships and collaborations, coupled with new approaches to training and knowledge sharing. At the same time, these changes will require new methods of information sharing to educate and alert constituencies within open societies about the pathologies associated with authoritarian secrecy regimes.

The threats that have emerged should not be seen as either solely domestic or external. The extent to which democracies and autocracies are intertwined with each other in the information sphere and other crucial domains requires both refreshing and strengthening critical democratic institutions internally and safeguarding them from the compromising or corrosive influence of external authoritarian powers. In fact, both efforts risk failure if they are not designed to mutually reinforce each other.

Civil society has a crucial role to play. “A civil society sector that is knowledgeable about and alert to the risks of engagement with global authoritarian powers can contribute to greater transparency and informed policymaking, and ultimately serve as a vital line of defense that reinforces the institutional integrity of democracies.” This will require a far more intensive and systematic effort to detect, educate, and empower local responses. Given the autocrats’ determination, democracies must commit for the long haul.

For democracies to safeguard their systems and retake the initiative, they will need to return to first principles, including those of free expression, openness, and accountability that can serve to recalibrate the asymmetries that are advantaging the autocracies. If the fight is going to be brought to the autocrats, and if the asymmetries of advantage are to be reduced, democracies will need a decidedly different scope and quality of preparation. To the extent that democracies remain underprepared, they will be consigned to reacting rather than taking the initiative or being positioned to set an agenda that privileges the principles of democratic accountability and human rights.

Christopher Walker is Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. He is co-editor with William J. Dobson and Tarek Masoud of the book, Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power.

 

Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

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