How Democracies Can Fight Authoritarian Sharp Power

New Laws Aren't Enough

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, September 2017. REUTERS

All around the world, authoritarian governments are interfering with the institutions of democratic societies in ways that would have been unthinkable even during the Cold War. Universities, news organizations, think tanks, film studios, museums, publishing houses, and every aspect of the political process are being targeted by outside influence. This kind of sharp power is so effective because institutions in democratic settings are open to the outside world and thus vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Policymakers within democracies need to grapple with the challenge of repelling outside influence while upholding essential democratic values.


Australia offers a good case study. On June 28, the Australian parliament voted to adopt two new bills to contend with the threat of foreign political interference, which the bills defined as efforts that are covert, corrupting, or coercive. Although recent attention to meddling by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) motivated the legislation, the new laws do not single out any specific country. The first, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018, updates the categories of behavior that constitute espionage and increases the state’s legal capacity to prosecute covert and deceptive conduct on behalf of a “foreign principal,” that is, a foreign government, political organization, or public enterprise, as well as individuals and entities connected to them. 

Its companion, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018, requires people who carry out certain specified activities on behalf of a foreign principal to register their relationship and disclose the nature of their activities. A proposed third piece of legislation, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, would prohibit political candidates from receiving campaign donations from abroad and create a public registry of non-party political actors, such as political campaigners, third-party campaigners, and associated entities. Parliament has not yet acted on the bill due to concerns that labor unions and nonprofits may face onerous registration and reporting requirements, but it has generated significant public debate and prompted some state governments to increase political donation disclosure requirements.


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