How China exports authoritarianism

The second category of antidemocratic actions are those that take place in developing countries. Unlike in the developed world, where China’s political and economic coercion and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy have engendered a growing backlash, Beijing has received a warmer welcome in many developing countries, where elites hope to learn from a political system that has enabled China’s transformation into the world’s second-largest economy. In a growing number of fragile democracies, Beijing has captured small coteries of corrupt elites and helped them centralize power by insulating them from the demands of civil society and deploying Chinese technology to repress their citizens and help them maintain power indefinitely. This is how the CCP is exporting authoritarianism around the globe: not through seminars on Marxist ideology, as some analysts have claimed, but through a broad range of antidemocratic activities.

China does so less out of a desire to spread its ideology than to expand its influence and economic advantage. Its favored partners are not fervent adherents of Marxism-Leninism but rather officials, business leaders, media tycoons, and others who view the adoption of a nondemocratic governance model that concentrates power in the hands of the few—and shuts out the many—as a route to long-term influence. This preference for antidemocratic collaborators, coupled with China’s opaque and corrupt investment practices, further corrodes democratic institutions, as murky deals struck by Chinese banks and state-owned enterprises encourage a more corrupt and unaccountable class of political elites all too eager to undermine their country’s long-term prosperity in return for personal gain.

China offers more than simple inspiration for a nondemocratic governance model: it provides the tools, training, and resources that permit leaders to ignore democratic countries’ demands for good governance and respect for individual rights as a condition of aid and investment. The CCP regularly conducts large-scale training programs for foreign officials on how to guide public opinion, control civil society, and implement Chinese-style cybersecurity policies in their home countries. A growing number of countries have drawn inspiration from China to pursue laws controlling social media or to build Internet firewalls modeled on China’s own “Great Firewall.” China also provides increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology and internal security training to established authoritarian and fragile democratic governments, enabling them to better suppress dissent and control their own citizens. In countries such as Uganda and Zambia, CCP-linked organizations have shared technology and training with autocratic and autocratic-leaning governments, allowing them to monitor their citizens, muzzle media and civil society, and impose repressive Internet rules.